Smile Politely

Things I learned about Paula Poundstone

Paula Poundstone has been performing stand-up for more that 40 years, touring nearly constantly, and will bring her irreverent, sarcastic, improvisational (she likes to play off of audience members) style to the Virginia Theatre on October 28th.

While I was generally aware of Poundstone as a comedian, I’m most familiar with her appearances as a panelist on the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. For a few years it was frequently on the radio in the car if we were traveling somewhere on a Saturday morning, and I credit the show as my gateway to podcasts. Like many comedians as of late, Poundstone hosts her own podcast, with fellow Wait Wait panelist Adam Felber, and a few other friends. Listening to an episode of Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone turned out to be a bit of foreshadowing of what our phone interview would be like: funny, and a bit chaotic, but also genuine. She’s also had guests ranging from Arne Duncan to a plumber that taught her about running hot water down her drains once a month, and not flushing Kleenex.

Poundstone graciously spoke with me while traveling between shows in Brainerd and Duluth, Minnesota. The nature of our 45 minute conversation makes it nearly impossible to publish this as a straight up Q&A, so it makes sense to hit some of the highlights of her answers, that turned into stories, that became tangents, that always somehow came back around to the original topic. 

So, here are some things I learned about Paula Poundstone.

She has a lot of cats, one of which technically belongs to Mickey Dolenz. 

In preparation for our interview, I of course went to Google to begin to build my background knowledge. When you Google Paula Poundstone, one of the questions that pops up in the People Also Ask section, is “How many cats does Paula Poundstone have?” So, naturally I took the opportunity to ask her myself.

It’s a fluid number, because cats don’t live forever. Currently I have 10, but I believe at my peak I had 16…it’s good for you mentally. Technically, I only own nine, and I’ll tell you why. Mickey Dolenz, who is the last living member of The Monkees…I follow him on Twitter. We met once years ago, and for no particular reason I reached out to him a few times on Twitter asking him “getting to know you” questions. I said, “Do you have any pets?” and he said “No I can’t, because I’m on the road so much.” I said “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you my cat Wednesday, but I’ll take care of her here.” So technically, my cat Wednesday belongs to Mickey Dolenz. He loves having her, and she seems so much more grounded now that she’s owned by a decent man.

She knew in kindergarten that comedy was what she wanted to do.

The first sentence of the last paragraph of the summary letter written by Mrs. Bump, my kindergarten teacher, in May 1964, she said “I’ve enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments about our activities.” So there you have it. I so enjoyed receiving any kind of stamp of approval from adults. I always loved the sound of people laughing.

Despite all of her success, as a comedian, author, podcaster, author, her ultimate fantasy goal has not been realized.

As a kid, I used to tell my siblings that I was going to have two pools. One would be for people to swim in, and one would be for my seal and my otter. Not only do I not have two pools, I don’t have any pools. Or grass. I have the set of The Big Valley behind my house. There should be a shootout behind my house, that’s how dusty it is.

She has Lucille Ball’s parking space sign in her closet.

Poundstone grew up in a small town, Sudbury, Massachusetts, and didn’t have much exposure to the world of standup comedy unless it was on The Tonight Show. Her comedy heroes came from television. 

I wanted to be Carol Burnett, or Gilda Radner, or Madeline Kahn, or Mary Tyler Moore, or Lucille Ball, and so I really blew it. I’m none of those. However, I do have Lucille Ball’s parking sign from Universal in my closet. That’s about the closest I came to being anything like Lucille Ball. If I want to park in my closet, there’s nothing stopping me.

She’s on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me because of her former nanny.

I didn’t even know what it was. They sent me an audio cassette type which sat where many things sat in my house at the time, on the island in the kitchen. If you’re a great cook [an island] might be of value to you, but I’m not. I was standing in the kitchen talking to the guy that was a nanny for us at one point, and he saw the tape and said “Oh God I love that show, you gotta do that show!” So I did it on the advice of a guy that was our nanny for a little while. It’s really what’s guided my career.

She basically gave up watching new shows after M*A*S*H, until Breaking Bad came along.

I asked if there was a particular podcast guest that stood out, and it seems that it was Betsy Brandt, the actress who played Marie Shrader on Breaking Bad. It took us a minute to get to that answer.

I was so attached to the program M*A*S*H. One night I was watching and crying and crying and thought “I can’t go to work, I can’t leave the house, I’m so upset about M*A*S*H.” I think it was when Henry died. Then all of a sudden it was like a lightning flash, and I thought “Geez this is a lot of emotional energy for something that’s not real. I cannot fall down this rabbit hole again.”

She eventually picked up Breaking Bad on DVD, and started watching it.

Of course once you start watching it, your life is over. For about four years I watched it every night. I watch it on a little portable DVD player that I keep near my sleeping area. I watched the whole thing all the way through, and now that I’ve already seen it I leave a disc on when I go to sleep, and every time I wake up I push play again. So I’ve seen it both awake and asleep.

Poundstone brought Brandt onto the podcast for a segment called Outside the Actor’s Studio, where she has actors teach her how to audition…something she professes to be terrible at.

She couldn’t have been kinder. You know how you have a fantasy about a singer, or basketball player, or actor…this fantasy about who you want them to be…she was everything you would want her to be. Such a wonderful personality. Without her in the role of Marie, Breaking Bad would’ve missed the mark.

Dick Van Dyke watched her pull plastic dishes out of the trash, wash them, and reuse them while at one of her ping pong parties.

It seems relevant to wrap this up with a story about one of East Central Illinois’ most famous exports, Dick Van Dyke. Poundstone has a longstanding tradition of hosting ping pong parties in her backyard, with tournaments, trophies, and an antique scoreboard so guests know the score of the current match no matter where they are at the party. Poundstone continually adds to the guest list, and sends handwritten invitations. Once you’re on the list, you stay on the list.

For some reason I had Dick Van Dyke’s address. I’ve met him on a couple of different occasions. He knows who I am, but one couldn’t go as far to say that we are friends, really.

For 15 years, she sent Van Dyke an invitation, and he never came to a party.

It turns out we have someone in common, who was a dance teacher of mine. She loves our ping pong parties. She mentioned something to him about going to a ping pong party…and talked him into coming.

I have bins of party supplies that go back into storage when the party’s over. In these bins I have plastic plates. Unbeknownst to my guests, at the end of the party, I go through the trash. I fish out anything that can be composted, anything that can be recycled, and anything that can be reused. I wash these plastic disposable plates and reuse them. Here we are at this party with Dick Van Dyke. He’s sitting on the porch, watching the game and talking to people, and there’s a trash can right where he’s sitting. My friend Annie comes to me and says we’re out of plates. I said, “Annie we gotta get the plates out of the trash can.” We walk over and start taking plates out of the trash can, right where Dick Van Dyke is sitting. We take them to the kitchen and wash them. I go to Dick Van Dyke and say “Dick can I get you anything to eat?” He says, “No, no I’m fine, thanks!” So we didn’t kill him or poison him, but that’s because he wouldn’t eat anything.

Tickets are still available for the show at the Virginia Theatre on October 28th at 7:30 p.m..

Top photo from Paula Poundstone’s Facebook page.

Managing Editor

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