Comedian Paula Poundstone might operate under the belief that nobody listens to her, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Perhaps best known for her frequent appearances on the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me, she also was the first woman to perform stand-up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, has penned two books, voiced a character in the film Inside Out, and hosts her own podcast, Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone. When not at home with her two dogs and 13 cats, Poundstone maintains a busy touring schedule. Ahead of her upcoming stop at the Southwest Florida Event Center in Bonita Springs on November 22, NI caught up with her to discuss comedy and the secret to winning a public radio game show.
NI: You were born in Alabama but grew up in Massachusetts in a family of Southerners. What was an oddity you noticed early on in that kind of north-meets-south upbringing?
Poundstone: Our family’s favorite meal was string beans—it was a main course. My mother would cook them in a big pot all day with a huge chunk of fat back, which was, by the way, the foundational ingredient for any food my mother ever made. I miss it! I don’t eat meat anymore, but when I did, I have to tell ya, that was a tasty thing. By the time they were served as a main course, the beans no longer had substance. They were sort of a smoosh, but delicious. The first time I went to somebody else’s house [and they served green beans,] I’d get the most horrendous thing on my plate. A thing that required great effort to slice. One half of it shoots off of your plate. And it didn’t taste very good.
Who were your biggest comedic influences when you were evolving your craft?
I think I wanted to be Lily Tomlin since the day I first saw her on Laugh-In when I was in the fifth grade. But I missed that by a country mile. In terms of how I work, I was much more influenced by comics that weren’t very good. Starting out as an open mic-er, you spend a lot of time watching other people go onstage while you wait your turn. Like myself, they were not very good at all. [I remember] one comic who would go on, and if he didn’t get the response he wanted, he would blame the audience. … I used to watch that happen over and over again, and it’s how I established very clearly in my head that the job of entertaining the audience is up to me and not the other way around.
What’s the most difficult room you’ve ever worked?
I did the Correspondent’s Dinner, and it’s a very hard room. I don’t know what it’s like now—well, now they don’t do it—but it was a hard room for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is it’s a very poorly put together event. … It’s very hard to make people laugh while they’re eating. It just is. And, as an audience member, when I’m sitting at one of those tables, I like to talk to the people beside me. I’m used to having conversations with people while I eat. But if there’s a person on stage, now I have to stop and listen to them. So, what happens to the food that’s in front of me? And now, if you talk to the people beside you, you’re being rude.
The Correspondents’ Dinner when I did it many, many years ago, it was not a filmed event. There weren’t so many—there were some—but there weren’t so many media celebrities back then. Now there are tons. In those days, the people who were the opinion-shapers, most people didn’t know what they looked like. … They were a very difficult crowd to work to. It was that group of guys and Rosalind Russell from His Girl Friday—they were just these been-there, down-that people. There was nothing I could say that was possibly going to entertain them.
How do you think the comedy world has changed in terms of how it treats women comics?
I have no idea. I was just talking to my daughter about how you overcome the fact that you’re not in charge of who hires you. To my credit, I never put much store in [being a female comic] one way or another if there ever was a reason why somebody didn’t hire me and looking back, I think it probably was part of the problem. It wasn’t the whole problem, but it probably was part of the problem. But given that that wasn’t going to change, I had one job in front of me, and that was to make myself undeniable.
In the clubs, there was a hierarchy—India never saw such a hierarchy. There were the open mic-ers, then there were the emcees, a middle act, and a headliner. People were in these slots, and from the moment they moved up a slot, their fervent desire was to move to the next slot. And for a lot of them, they never seemed to see their own responsibility in whatever slot they were in. They never seemed to see the job before them. I was forever giving that lecture to guys. I would say, “There’s a thousand comics, you’re not in charge of that.”
Some people would actually argue with the people who booked, and they would try to convince them that they were better. A, I’m not good at that, and b, it’s beside the point—because you’d have to have that same argument a thousand times. I just said to myself, I’m going to be the very best that I can be at what I do, and I’m still working at that. I wanted it to be that if they didn’t hire me, they looked like the idiot.
Care to share any behind-the-scenes Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me secrets?
Well, there is a doping problem. People say to me all the time, “You guys sound like you’re having so much fun.” That’s ’cause we are. The aired show is shorter than the live show, and there’s stuff we say that we already know they won’t air, and that part’s fun. I think the audience likes it when they know we’ve said stuff that’s just for them. That NPR would not, with a gun to its head, air. And there’s a fair amount of that, I might add.
Do you study up on the news before you’re on an episode?
Yes, and it apparently doesn’t come through at all! Yes, I’m trying to win—I’m just not very good at it. The truth is, I pay attention to the news because I think I’m supposed to. Looking back over my life, has me paying attention to the news really helped the world in any way? Probably not. But I do have this idea that it’s what I’m supposed to be doing as a citizen, so I do. But the part where I’m studying up for Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me has much more to do with the news of the weird. I am really trying to win. If you just take three answers—Trump, Afghanistan, and lemurs down his pants—you might win.
Often times, Florida is involved in that weird news. Do you think it’s as weird as everyone says it is?
Yeah. And I think there are factors that make that so, not the least of which is there are alligators there. That would just make people live on edge all the time. One of my bluff stories one time was about a kid who was trapped by an alligator in his house. But I’ve seen local Florida news footage before of people up on their kitchen counters and there’s an alligator in their kitchen. I am an animal lover. I will crush a fly, a roach, or a silverfish, but anything else I would take outside. I would reunite it with its family if I could. I really try not to kill things. But I reverse that rule for alligators.
*This interview has been edited and condensed