The Hippo


May 25, 2020








Paula Poundstone. Courtesy photo.

Paula Poundstone

When: Saturday, Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Flying Monkey, 39 S. Main St., Plymouth 
Tickets: $29-$39 at

Off the cuff
In conversation with Paula Poundstone

By Michael Witthaus

Few comedians do crowd work like Paula Poundstone. No show is ever the same because she’s in conversation with the audience three or four minutes into her set; her act is mainly improvisational. A quick wit has made Poundstone a favorite panelist on the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. 

Poundstone performs Saturday, Jan. 3, in Plymouth; she spoke to The Hippo while stuck in Southern California traffic.
Is there a planned moment in your act where you decide it’s time to toss the script?
That’s a good question.  I don’t know the answer. I don’t have a particular moment. … Honestly, I tend to be attracted to people that are not responding. It sort of eats away at the side of your head when you see someone just sitting there. … I don’t know that there’s a particular pattern to it. I’ve been doing this job for 35 years, so somewhere in my head I have 35 years worth of material. My favorite part of the night is talking to the audience. As I do so, little biographies tend to emerge, and I use that to set my sails. 
Do you ever hit an awkward moment, like someone with a sad story?
That’s happened here and there. There was a woman in Alexandria, Virginia [and] I kept pushing her for more information; it turns out her husband had just died. Of course, I felt horrible when I unearthed this. But there was something about the way she was answering the questions — she was kind of game, you know? She was having a good time laughing. Do I always call it right? Probably not, but for that woman, that night, there was something. 
I imagine that comes with the ticket. You go to a Gallagher show expecting to get hit with watermelon.
Yeah, I also feel there’s a particular kind of audience that comes to my show. When I was younger and worked in clubs … other comics would kill to work with me. Not because I’m such a strong comic, but because they love my audience. 
You talked about admiring Phyllis Diller’s tenacity once when she struggled in front of your audience. 
My god, she was a goddamn machine. … I would have run with my tail between my legs. But she kept going, and eventually that was the funny part. Everybody bought everything she was saying because she was relentless. It was great, really a performance you had to experience. When I think about it, the great thing that nature has given us is laughter. Why not find something funny … why not give it up to the person trying to entertain you and make you laugh? It’s such a rich, great, terrific healing thing. The older I get, I try to find more and more things funny. 
You really should talk to Kim Jong Un.
Yeah, me and Dennis Rodman could go over there. … Here’s a guy who refuses to laugh at things, and how’s that worked out for him? I don’t think so good; he’s isolated, and he’s got a bad haircut. 
Let’s talk about parenting. Is it more challenging in the electronic age?
Oh, I think it’s 100 times more challenging. It’s a hard job one way or the other, but the electronic element is so dangerous, and it’s shaping our society in a way we’re going to regret. The truth is, China and South Korea view electronics addiction as the No. 1 public health threat. Here in the U.S. we’re not smart enough to have figured that out yet. 
You did a great riff on texting and the debasement of conversation.
Honestly, none of us punctuate well enough to be good communicators anyway. I heard there is some app so sarcasm can be registered. I’m thinking, why don’t we just talk? It’s like that old Catskill comic saying, ‘These are the jokes folks.’ If you have to explain it, then it’s not so good.
I hear you’re taking swing dance lessons. What compelled you to do that?
I wanted to do something uplifting and fun. I started out taking group lessons, but I was so bad at it I was slowing the group down. I’ve only gone to a social dance twice, and I was so miserably bad at it that I had a terrible time. Now I’ve started taking it privately, which doesn’t have any social aspect. … I’ve started taking tap dancing, which lends itself more to my solo social life. I kind of started doing it for fun, and because it’s so different from what anyone would expect of me. 
Maybe you could make tap dancing part of your act. 
It’s so hard; it takes years of really dedicated practice. I’m pretty certain I’ll never be very good at it. But it is fun [and] it turns out that dance — interpreting music and doing more than one thing at the same time — is so good for the brain. I didn’t necessarily think about that ahead of time, but now that I know it’s a great way to stave off dementia — I don’t think I’m on the doorstep … but I wouldn’t mind not going through it.  I want my brain and body to give out at the exact same time. 
On that note, happy birthday (she turns 55 Dec. 28).
Well, you can imagine how happy I am about that! But at least this time I won’t have to worry about dementia, because I’m tap dancing the shim sham.
As seen in the January 1, 2015 issue of the Hippo.  

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