Wait, wait … that’s funny
The spontaneous—and sensitive—humor of Paula Poundstone
Gay jokes were in style back when Paula Poundstone was coming up as a young comic in the early 1980s, but she resisted making them herself as a matter of principle. She had a dedicated following in the LGBTQ community, for one, but she also didn’t want to sacrifice anyone’s dignity for some easy laughs.
“I didn’t want anyone in the crowd to feel like what they were somehow made them the butt of these jokes,” she said.
Poundstone has avoided picking the low-hanging fruit throughout her decades-long career as a comedian, voice actor, political satirist and columnist. Lately, she’s probably best known as a frequent panelist on NPR’s weekly comedy/news quiz show, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the author of The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness (2017), a first-person account of her attempts to unlock the secrets happy people must be hiding.
She will perform at Laxson Auditorium on Friday (Sept. 21), and her set will touch on a range of subjects, from raising kids to paying enough attention to the 24/7 news cycle to “cast a halfway decent vote.” As a longtime political satirist who provided regular commentary during the 1992 presidential election on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, she’ll also dive into the increasingly intense dumpster fire of American politics.
“My act is largely autobiographical, and I don’t put myself out there as an expert on any topic, because I’m not,” she said. “I’m just a voter trying to figure it out, so what I share with people is my perspective.”
But her favorite part of any set is interacting with the crowd, which often gets her on a new—and hopefully funny—train of thought.
“I have 39 years of material flying around, waiting for me to grab it,” she said. “I always figure the inside of my brain looks like one of those things with the flying money, where you get to keep whatever you catch.”
The resulting jokes are highly improvisational, as Poundstone spontaneously jumps off whatever people in the audience say. But, again, she avoids skewering the people who to come see her perform.
“It’s not ‘gotcha’ sort of stuff,” she said. “It’s not a mean-spirited exchange in any way.”
In fact, she cringed at Michelle Wolf’s earth-scorching routine at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April, even though she’s been there, done that. (In 1992, Poundstone became the first woman to host the event.) She wholeheartedly agreed with basically everything Wolf said, but still had mixed feelings about the personal attacks on members of President Trump’s administration.
“If it was a night of speaking truth to power, she did that, and she did that very well,” she said. “Nothing she said wasn’t true. But I still kind of blanched when she made the jokes about [Press Secretary] Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It’s strange, the human experience. Every day, Sanders lies to the American people, demonizes groups of people and creates distrust in the press—these huge and catastrophic things that will have ripple effects for at least another generation. …
“But even with these really strong feelings I have about the horror show Sanders is willingly participating in,” she continued, “it still feels weird and awkward to hear [Wolf] say something about her eye makeup.”
If the goal is to make an audience laugh, you can make fun of yourself, but it’s probably not a good idea to make people in the room the butt of your jokes, she said.
“I want everyone to go home having had a good time,” Poundstone said. “That’s really my goal.”