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Not a Household Name

Paula Poundstone


Paula Poundstone
  • Paula Poundstone

My instructions were to call comedienne Paula Poundstone at her SoCal home at 8 a.m. She answered with a bright and cheery "How are ya?" I had to admit I was not totally awake, in part due to a restless cat. "I hear ya," said Paula. "We have a lot of cats and they do like to race around in the morning." In fact she has over a dozen cats (and no cat door since they're all "inside cats"). It's helpfully pointed out in the "Paula Poundstone Talking Points" memo supplied by her publicist that "Kids and pets keep Paula very busy when she is not on the road."

At the mention of official talking points (a rarity for me), we got to talking about who typically uses them: mostly unprepared radio deejays. "A lot of time radio people are just painful," she said, forgiving them by admitting, "It's not like I'm a household name." Of course that depends on the household. Since her longstanding stint with the comic news quiz show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me, she's probably better known, at least in NPR households.

Then again, maybe not. "I was an NPR listener for years -- that's how I get my news, I listen to Morning Edition -- and I had never heard Wait Wait..." she said, "not until they called to ask if I'd do the show. I had no idea what it was -- they had to send me a tape. So it's possible to be an NPR listener and not know the show."

Now she has to do homework to prepare. "I gather newspapers through the week -- and generally read them on the airplane. People don't always believe me when I tell them, but I'm actually trying to win the game, so I want to know what's going on."

Another factoid from the talking points brags, "Paula was in the running for a Twitter 'Shorty Award' in humor." When I read that, I immediately became one of her many followers. (She's approaching 32K, and follows 18.5K.)

"The Shorty is truly goofy," she said, "and yes I was in a heated battle to be among the finalists, but the only thing that was appealing about the entire process was, I was told that the winners went to this award show in New York and the acceptance speeches had to be only 144 characters each. I thought that was quite brilliant."

She pretty good at using the haiku-like tweet form. "I mostly just write jokes," she said. "And the jokes are largely autobiographical. It's good because it pushes me to think of jokes more frequently than I had in years of telling them. Even so, when it comes to 'What's happening?' or 'What are you doing?' it's usually like, 'I'm sifting the litter boxes, or 'I'm getting my kids,' or 'I'm driving.' What social networking does is take a huge highlighter pen and focus on the fact that your life is incredibly boring."

Evidence? A recent Poundstone tweet saying, "My life has been so dull today, I haven't so much as had a friend change their profile picture." In another she worries, "Five minutes till second show, and I can't think of a thing to say. Hope they don't notice."

The last one is hard to believe. Her routine, if you can call it that, seems to consist mostly of extemporaneous extrapolation on minor details of day-to-day life. She doesn't have a script, but works from notes -- sort of.

"I kind of carry around this folder full of material; every now and then I have an idea and I jot it down. The papers only seem to serve some purpose. Sometimes I fantasize about making a list and working from it. My act is kind of on a Rolodex in my head somewhere. You know I've been doing my job for 31 years, but I don't have 31 years worth of material stored up in my head. So I make a lot up as I go along. On a good night a quarter of my act will be improvised. I kind of wait until the moment seems right to say this or that. There's one joke I think I've done every single night for 31 years [something to do with IHOP]. Outside of that, honestly, most of the time inside my head I'm panicky, thinking, 'Oh my god, what can I say to these people?'"

Believe me, she'll think of something when she returns to the stage of HSU's Van Duzer Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 26, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35, $20 for HSU students. Call the HSU box office at 826-3928 or go to for reservations. Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me can be heard on KHSU-FM on Saturdays at 10 a.m. To follow Paula go to


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