TELLURIDE – Paula Poundstone is no mystery to NPR listeners. She’s made over 130 appearances on the wildly popular news quiz show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me, which generates over five million listeners each week from its headquarters at the Chase Auditorium in Chicago. Poundstone often joins Wait Wait on its many tours across the nation; from the Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine, to the Hawaii Theatre in Honolulu, she is always the perfect complement to the show’s irreverent humor.
Twenty-five years ago, Poundstone, a high school dropout, climbed on a Greyhound bus and began performing at open mics and comedy clubs across the country. She’s become one of the most influential comediennes in the country, joining Whoopie Goldberg and Joan Rivers in the 2013 feature-length Showtime documentary, Why We Laugh Too: Women of Comedy. In 1990, she was the first woman to win the Award for Cable Excellence for Best Standup Comedy Special and the first woman to perform standup at the prestigious White House Correspondents dinner.
Poundstone brings her humor to Telluride in her debut performance at the Sheridan Opera House on Sunday, Aug. 4, at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $35 for general admission and $45 for balcony seating. She is publicizing her new CD, I Heart Jokes: Paula Tells Them in Boston, recorded on April 1, 2013, at the Wilbur Theatre in downtown Boston.
You were living in Boston at the start of your career in standup. Was it hard to get into it?
A: Well, I knew I wanted to be a comic of some sort. One night I happened to be in a bar where there was a flyer for an open mic night on the wall, so I checked it out. This was during the start of standup boom of the 70s and 80s, so guys that were doing this for two weeks were already esteemed professionals. I was terrified my first time up there!
But after your first show, you were hooked?
A: You could say that. I was getting ready for work one day, and I was thinking so much about what I was going to say, reviewing the materials and practicing my lines, that I put my underwear on the outside of my pants. I was like, ‘Oh boy, am I occupied!’ When I used to bus tables, customers could see my lips moving as I practiced my lines for the next show. The irony is that I would go onstage and immediately forget everything.
And they only gave me five minutes per set, so if I went over, the other comics would kill [me]. And legally. In fact, I'd look to my left and I'd see them wielding spears and daggers after my five minutes was up and I was still performing.
Where did you first develop your sense of improvisation? How do you keep coming up with fresh material?
A: I think I started developing my voice because I forgot everything onstage. When you forget everything, and you're up there alone, and this has happened to you enough, you eventually come up with some material on the spot. But I've been doing this for 35 years, so I have a lot of material. People asking me what I do for a living always gives me a good space to come up with fresh material.
What led to you becoming a regular on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me?
A: They called me up. Simple as that. They also sent me a sample tape that I didn’t listen to until my male nanny found it on my coffee-table. ‘I love this show!’ he said, and then proceeded to encourage me to join the show. Yes, I started doing Wait Wait on the direction of my old male nanny.
The show wasn't very popular at the time. For one thing, it wasn’t recorded in front of a live audience, so we recorded the show from different stations. Peter, Carl, the panelists and I were located in radio studios around the country. I think Roy Blount Jr. joined us from a radio station setup in his barn. But in the years after, Wait Wait has been blessed with a little engine that could. Now the show has got such a huge audience, so I’m really happy I’ve been involved with it as long as I have.
Wait Wait tours the nation many times a year. Any favorite locations?
A: We've been to a lot of cool places. I remember the Hawaii show we did. They asked if I could arrive on Monday for a taping later in the week. ‘Monday?’, I asked. I think they just wanted to hang out in Hawaii for a couple days, which is understandable, but I have kids and 12 cats and two dogs [The number is 16 at last check]. I did what I always do when I’m on Wait Wait: I arrived a few hours before taping, and left right after. The best I could do in the days leading up to that taping was put a plastic palm tree over by the cat boxes to simulate a Hawaiian vacation. It was a nice time, though. I joined everyone for a refreshing soda after the taping.
Looking forward to touring in Colorado?
A: Yes, absolutely. I’ve actually never been to Telluride, so I’m really looking forward to that. I get to Colorado a lot; I’ve got a friend who lives in the town of Hygiene. I don't even want to know what their high school mascot is.
Years ago, Barbra Streisand was protesting the fight against gay marriage; she wouldn’t play in Colorado out of protest. I thought I’d help out, so I bought a bundle of billboard space all around Colorado Springs. I guess I didn’t know how small Colorado Springs was, because everywhere you turned, there was a Paula Poundstone billboard. I think everyone in Colorado Springs was saying, ‘Hey, if Barbara Streisand AND Paula Poundstone refuse to play in Colorado, good! I guess we’ll just have to go see Barbara perform somewhere else.’