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Comedian Paula Poundstone Makes The Audience The Show

Comedian Paula Poundstone doesn’t just entertain audiences with her stand-up comedy, she includes them. Her routines are often off the cuff and spend a good deal of time interacting with the crowd. She can regularly be heard on NPR’s Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, tonight she will be at Wingate University, and she joined us this morning.

Kevin: When I’ve talked to other comedians before, a lot of them have said how important the writing aspect is to their show. But you have a very improvisational approach to your comedy. Have you always focused on improvisation in your comedy or was that something that happened along the way?

Paula Poundstone: It kind of happened along the way. When I first started out doing open mic night I would go onstage, I would have my…an open mic night was anybody who wanted to go on stage could go on for five minutes. And there were lots and lots of us who wanted to, so everyone was really touchy about the five minutes. So if you went over, people were really annoyed. So I had my five minutes typed out and memorized. While I was bussing tables my lips were moving because I was memorizing my five minutes. I would go on, and within a few seconds I would forget what I was supposed to say. Either because I got distracted by something on the way up and then I commented on it in which case now I have no idea how many minutes I’m doing. Or, because I just spaced and forgot what I was supposed to say. Then I’m sort of stuck. And somewhere along the way – I mean the first few times this happened – it was just a disaster. But somewhere along the way I found out that is where the good part was. I mean I have material and I like to think it is somewhat funny, but I just like talking to the crowd. I do the time honored “where are you from, what do you do for a living.” In this way little biographies emerge and I kind of use that and it seems to work pretty good.

Kevin: So when you are interacting with the audience, do you start scanning the audience right away looking for audience members when you walk on stage?

Paula Poundstone: It’s very random. My manager always tells people I know who to choose. That’s not true at all. It’s totally random. And the truth is you can talk to anybody for a few minutes and there’s stuff there.

Kevin: How do you go about practicing improvisation like this?

Paula Poundstone: I think the practicing is in the doing. It’s a muscle, I think. If I don’t do it for a long time I’m not very good at it. But it’s really no more complex than a conversation at a party. People are always like “oooh, was it written down?” Most of what we say is not written down and we do just fine.

Kevin: Listeners hear you a lot on Wait Wait Don’t tell me. How did you get involved with the show?

Paula Poundstone: In the most boring of ways. They called me up. I had never heard of it, which I’m sure they hate it when I say that, but I hadn’t. They sent me an audio cassette tape that I could listen to. It was lying on the island in the kitchen. You know that big thing that kitchens have? When I bought that house I said to the real estate agent “Can I take this thing out of the middle?” And she was like “Oh no. You’re going to love your island.” And we did. We vacationed on it many times. But it used to just collect junk. So there, on the island, was this audio tape from Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me and my nanny at the time saw it and he was like “Oh, I love that show!” So if not for the island, I wouldn’t be there.

Kevin: Carl Kassel is retiring. Are you going to miss him?

Paula Poundstone: I am going to miss him. You know, Carl is just beloved to the audience. It’s funny just to watch him walk out. When we are coming out on state the panelists go out first and we are announced by this taped announcement. One goes out and there is applause. Another goes out and there is applause. Another goes out and there is applause. Then they introduce Carl Kassel and the place just goes up. I think that it is this guy who read the news for so long that he feels very familiar to everybody. You know, because on Wait Wait he’s the scorekeeper and the announcer and he does a great job. My favorite thing is when he does his impressions. But it is not the majority of the show. Apparently it is the favorite part of the show, but it is not the majority of the show.

Kevin: You have kids right? Most kids don’t find their parents all that funny. Do yours?

Paula Poundstone: Mostly not. Mostly not. Occasionally I do rap in the kitchen, and that they rather enjoy. They mostly laugh at me, I suppose, more than anything else. I take swing dance classes, and occasionally they’ve come and watched. They get a very big kick out of that. But it’s not a flattering laughter.

Paula Poundstone. She will be performing tonight at The Batte Center at Wingate University.