Paula Poundstone 

Friday, Oct. 26, 8 p.m., $33–$48

Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh

Paula Poundstone is an author (The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness), a podcaster (Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone), an actor, and, most of all, a stand-up. Rather than parlaying live comedy into a movie career, Poundstone has honed her chops and persona—self-deprecation, belied by the high volume at which it’s broadcast—on stage for decades, making it her true medium. Still, many know her best from NPR’s radio news quiz, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, where she has been a frequent MVP panelist for seventeen of the program’s twenty years.

Before she comes to Raleigh this week, Poundstone humored our Wait Wait fandom and disabused us of the notion that there’s any such thing as unscripted conversation, in comedy or in life. And if you’re wondering: Yes, on the phone, she sounds just like she does on the radio, but with the occasional profanity and a cat yowling in the background.

INDY: What keeps Wait Wait fresh for you after all these years?

PAULA POUNDSTONE: By its very nature, it’s fresh. We know the questions will be about the week’s news, and ostensibly one could prepare jokes, guessing what they’re going to talk about, but I’ve never done that once. Really it’s just monkeys in a barrel.

I assumed it was a mix of scripted jokes and riffs on them.

No, not for the panelists. For Peter, who makes that look much easier than it is, yes. We are told the Bluff the Listener story the night before, and we write that. And the last joke, the prediction, where they say, “If any of these things happen,” we’re told a few minutes before we go out. The rest of it is conversation.

When I’m on stage by myself, I do a lot of talking to the audience—where are you from, what do you do for a living? Three-quarters of the time, somebody will say something, and I think of something funny. And a quarter of the time, someone will remind me of a piece of material I’ve had rattling around in my head. But that’s just like every conversation you’ve had in your life! Part of it is a framework—hi, how are you, fine—and it’s very well scripted. Part of it might be telling a story about your kid you’ve already told to five different neighbors. This idea of having an unscripted conversation is really not all that mind-blowing. [Laughs]

It seems like a really fine art to balance the Bluff the Listener stories between funny and plausible. Sometimes someone will put in a joke that’s so just-so, you know it’s fake.

I’d rather be funny than anything else, but mine are never funny. I struggle with writing the Bluff story: one, it’s homework, and I balk at homework. I’ve written only a couple in my seventeen years where I felt like I nailed it, and the rest of the time I’m just in there pitching. I don’t think anyone’s ever chosen mine thinking it was the true one. I think, now and then, when they have no idea, they’ll pick mine as a mercy pick.

But I think you’re the funniest off the cuff, and surely that has to do with both being on the show and being a stand-up for so long.

Well, thank you. It is a muscle, and the show does a very smart thing that’s rare in show business. The suits on any show cannot help themselves but tell the creators what to do. On Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, one of my cherished experiences was back when we were not yet in front of a live audience. We were in a recording studio somewhere, and somebody jumped on my headset, saying, “Say whatever you want, jump in anytime.” That’s unheard of in this business. Obviously, there’s some manners groundwork, but this idea that you bring on people you think are funny and allow them to be that—it doesn’t seem like it should be earth-shattering, but it’s done very rarely.

Was there any guest that was particularly memorable for you?

Tom Hanks was a Not My Job guest one time, and we had belly-laughs with him, and then he came on as a host. He could do whatever he wants, I guess, but he wanted to! Before, I bumped into Mike Danforth in the hallway and went, “What was he like?” Because they’d been working on the script all week and had met him. Mike goes, “You know what? Came in in the morning, got his coffee, sat down, and did the work.” Oh god, I love that. I just could not get over that this was Woody—one might also say Forrest Gump—but it was Woody across from me! It was all I could do not to throw myself on the floor like a Beatles fan and cry.

Do you have Carl Kasell’s voice on your home answering machine?

I do not have Carl’s voice on my answering machine! Carl didn’t have his voice on his answering machine. Until my answering machine broke—and I did replace it, by the way—I had the voice of my daughter when she was maybe four, and that was good enough for me. I must have won something to get that.

Thanks for humoring my Wait Wait fandom. You have a podcast, Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone.

It’s me and my buddy Adam Felber. Adam is one of the perks of doing Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!. He’s one of my favorite panelists to work with and became a good friend of our family. I’d started working on a podcast for NPR called Live from the Poundstone Institute, and we worked together on that short-lived podcast. We liked working in that capacity so much, we decided to develop for ourselves another vehicle.

We tape in a gnarly North Hollywood neighborhood, not far from anyone who works on the show—except for me! I drive like an hour and a half. Basically, what we wanted was to have a little conveyer belt of topics to play with, so we call it a comedy advice podcast. How to move out of your parents’ house; [how to] get an honest car mechanic, which, by the way, I’ve never done. [The format] is sort of like bread to butter for me. I don’t really like bread that much, but I love butter. Socially, it just looks better to have it on the bread. We go to this hole-in-the-wall studio; I make balloon animals, which is very rarely done on audio. It’s one of the few things almost all human beings have in common right now: We breathe oxygen, we don’t eat our young, and we listen to podcasts.

To me, performing with a live audience is the absolute best, because it’s good for people to come out of their houses, it’s good for people to put down their flat screens and take things out of their ears, it’s good to sit around other people, and of course, it’s great for people to laugh. I consider myself a proud member of the endorphin production industry. If I could wiggle my nose like [in] Bewitched and be at the theater, it would be much easier than traveling the way I do, but it’s a small price to pay for such a glorious experience.

I can’t even wiggle my nose like that, much less make any magic happen.

Well, you could always use the Jeannie way, with the arms and the ponytail. It’s funny that both of those shows were on around the same time, with these supernatural abilities to make things good. I feel bad for kids now. I love Pixar and Harry Potter, but even Harry Potter is very dystopian. I mean, Jesus, we had Hogan’s Heroes! We even made the Nazis entertaining. I don’t know why we’ve decided to saddle our children with this idea that the world’s not going to go on.

It’s like that was some vestige of the America-wins-everything dream, but now the children don’t have jobs or believe in the future.

But on the other hand, the generation raised with the kind of TV I was raised with are the ones who created this world for the next generation. Maybe there was a downside to the happy entertainment.

Maybe they all just woke up rubbing their eyes one morning like, holy shit, we made a funny show about Nazis.

I can’t imagine how that was pitched. If you did it now, there’s maybe—maybe—enough of a distance. But pitching that show to network in the sixties?

It’s like if you pitched a comedy about the Iraq War now.

Exactly! Wouldn’t that be fun? But at least they had managed to wrap up World War II.

Does one come to a Paula Poundstone show to laugh at the state of the world or to escape it?

A little bit of both. It’s not all Trump all the time. My act is largely autobiographical. I started out talking about busing tables and taking public transportation in Boston. Whatever’s going on in my life gets folded in like dry ingredients to the eggs. And I watch the news a lot. So it’s like I’m walking through the room with a cup that’s really full, and until I spill some of that off, I can’t proceed. Politics [are] a big part of what I think about. I used to try to not mention that I was a Democrat, but at this point, it just comes out even if I don’t say it.

Reasonable people could once disagree, but nothing’s reasonable anymore, and those divisions can’t help but stand out.

I think part of it is just the stakes are so much higher. We have been told by a preponderance of scientists from around the world that if we don’t change what we’re doing by 2030, we’re toast. I don’t care if you wear a red tie every day, but my god, I do care about the policy stuff. I never liked Thanksgiving anyway, so I can understand why tensions run high.