By Debbie Gardner
Comedian Paula Poundstone couldn’t quite recall when she’d last appeared in Western Massachusetts, but that hazy memory didn’t stop the former Sudbury native – who cut her comedy teeth in Boston nightclubs in the late 1970s – from gushing a bit about her home state.
“I love Massachusetts” Poundstone said candidly when Prime reached her on her cell in late January to talk about her upcoming show in the area. “I can’t remember the last time … but I’ve done the Mahaiwe and the Berkshire Theater and Northampton a number of times.”
Poundstone will be bringing her brand of what’s been called “observational comedy” back to Western Mass. at the John M. Greene Hall, located on the campus of Smith College on March 14 at 8 p.m. for one show only. Tickets are $28.50 to $48.50, available at eventbrite.com. The event is hosted by New England Public Radio, where local fans can enjoy Poundstone’s razor-sharp wit regularly as a recurring guest on the Saturday morning quiz show, “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me.”
Talking four decades of funny
“I thought you were going to ask me, ‘Am I tired?’” Poundstone quipped when Prime asked her how she continued to find her funny 41 years into the comedy business. After a moment, her answer was equally candid
“I must be the luckiest person in the world,” Poundstone said of her long career as a female performer in the comedy world. “Human beings as a species have been given more than we deserve; we are the only beings that have a sense of humor…. [though] I think sometimes so do racoons and maybe, dogs.”
And she’s parlayed that universal sense of humor – and stories from her life – into something that has struck a chord with her live, T.V. and now radio and podcast audiences for decades.
“My act is largely autobiographical,” Poundstone said, adding that at the time we chatted she was being consumed with the impeachment hearings, and that was filtering into her shows in January. “I don’t tell anyone else what to think or who to vote for, I say what I think and who I’m going to vote for because that's what I’m about [right now].”
Beyond her current political obsession, Poundstone said she’s always found ample comedy material in her personal experiences, including “busing tables and public transportation, raising kids, and a houseful of cats” during her four decades onstage.
“Over the years I’ve figured out what I thought was so unique about my tragedies and struggles – I thought it was this big thing, I’m so alone – and everybody laughs [and thinks] ‘oh, that’s just part of life.’ Sometimes when you have a trouble [and] you feel you’re all alone, you tell it onstage and then it’s like ‘oh, that’s right, I’m part of a community,’ that I’m part of the human race and part of the joy. I don’t know the science, but laughing makes it better.
“I think it is a wellspring of coping and mental health for the family of humans when I tell a joke,” she continued. “It’s healing for the people in the audience, but I think what keeps me coming back to [comedy] is that it is healing for me, too.”
Humor is truly cathartic, she observed, and so much better when you get to share it with others.
“There is nothing more fun than laughing with a bunch of friends. There is something about sitting with a friend – or you just might be by yourself in a crowd – it’s the energy. I can look at something on my stupid flat things,” she said of watching comedy or a funny movie on her tablet or laptop, “But you don’t have the same reaction. It has to do with being with others.
“When someone types ‘lol’ on your phone it’s a lie,” Poundstone continued. “You don’t laugh out loud alone. You laugh out loud with other people.
“Raccoons may laugh, I don’t know,” she added.
Her Smith College Show
Poundstone said attendees at her show in Greene Hall on March 14 would be taking part in a performance as unique as they are.
“In my show, my favorite part of the night is talking with the audience,” Poundstone said. “I do the time-honored ‘What do you do for a living’ bios of audience members. Sometimes there will be something that reminds me of a piece of material from my 41 years [onstage] and other times it reminds me of a story, or other times I have absolutely no connection [to the person]. Whatever transpires, it’s a unique joke for the night.”
Beyond the audience bios, Poundstone said she’ll be talking about “Trying to pay attention to the news enough to cast an intelligent vote – and talk about it as a voter who has a job and kids and pets and who doesn’t have enough time to devote to listening to everything.” She’ll be sprinkling in some of her standard material – “I still talk about raising a houseful of kids…and somehow it fills up two hours” as well as telling people “they can find me on all the goofy social entities – Instagram and Twitter and blah blah.”
For those who can’t make it to her Smith College performance – or those who loved her short-lived “Live from the Poundstone Institute” podcasts that ran on NPR – the comedian has a treat. She now has a weekly podcast, “Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone” online at https://starburns.audio/podcasts/nobody-listens-to-paula-poundstone
Catch Paula Poundstone Live!
March 14 • 8 p.m.
John M. Greene Hall
60 Elm St., Northampton, MA
This new podcast pairs Poundstone with a co-panelist from “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me,” Adam Felber, who was also her sidekick on the original, expensive-to-produce NPR podcast. That first podcast was the brainchild of Doug Berman, who Poundstone said is also the executive producer of “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me.”
“We taped in front of a live audience on Sunset Strip,” Poundstone said of the NPR gig. “We did 10 episodes and it was very expensive to make. NPR paid, we had NPR engineers, NPR rented the space… People still ask me if we’re going to make more. It was fun, but too expensive to make.”
When that show ended, Poundstone said she and Felber “put our heads together to make a show that was dirt cheap [and] came up with ‘Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone.’
“We’ve been hacking away at it for a year and a half now,” Poundstone shared. “One might say I’ve been on the road for 41 years… what’s the upside of another presentation of Paula Poundstone [but] it’s been really fun that I can do things that I would be too shy to do in front of an audience [like] a call-in skit or a hand puppet.”
The new podcast tapes “in a tiny studio with four or five engineers, a guest and a one musician – I have a different ‘house band’ every week.
“There’s something about it that’s like the clubhouse you built with friends after school,” Poundstone shared. “It feels like I’m under my parents kitchen table with the tablecloth down and a bunch of pillows. I feel like I do something different there than I do anywhere else.”
The format is a bit like a talk show– in each episode Poundstone interviews someone “who has some sort of utilitarian information” to share with listeners.
“One of my favorites was an upbeat mortician, I might add,” she said. “I’ve had 100 people [already] – I remember this plumber very well and a trademark lawyer and a lot of professors. They just come to explain stuff that I feel you need to know and I ask questions.”
Poundstone said this way listeners get a dual benefit from the weekly show. “If you listen and didn’t find anything funny, at least you might walk away with a valid piece of information or two,” she said.
A changing comedy landscape
For Poundstone, who admits she still works alone and really doesn’t “go to comedy clubs” and doesn’t “watch it on T.V.,” the breadth of places where budding comedians can get their start today – as opposed to her experience riding Greyhound buses from gig to gig in the late 70s and early 80s – is a bit mind-boggling.
“There are so many comics now and more and more venues – Netflix, YouTube – people who have never been seen by a talent coordinator or casting person or a booking agent – they have a million followers online,” Poundstone said. “People don’t have to go through any gatekeepers to show what they think is funny [now], that’s kind of the good news and the bad news”
The veteran comic, who initially made her mark with HBO comedy specials in the 1980s before moving to authoring several bestselling books and developing her current touring standup, said “When I started out Johnny Carson was still on and he was the kingmaker, until I went on and then he wasn’t.
“There are so many outlets [now], and some of what’s out there is amazing, terrific performances,” she said. “But I don’t know who has the time to keep up.”