The jokes come easily to Paula Poundstone.
It’s a good thing, too, because the Alabama-born comedian has been telling them for over 30 years. Starting with open mics in Boston and later in San Francisco, Poundstone has cultivated a biting voice that can cover everything from the latest political gaffes to her life as the owner of a horde of feline companions.
Along the way, Poundstone forged relationships with late luminaries of the industry, like Joan Rivers and Robin Williams. Nowadays, she spends her time on the road doing shows where she frequently incorporates crowd work and spontaneous material into her set.
Speaking by phone from her home in Los Angeles, Poundstone discussed the recent election, her upcoming New Year’s Eve show at the Nourse Theater, and how our President-elect might fare on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!
You’re going to be in San Francisco to help us say goodbye to 2016. Are you ready for this year to end?
Good riddance to 2016! Although I have a bad feeling that 2016 is the devil we know and that the devil we don’t know may be worse.
What are your impressions of everything that’s happened since the election thus far?
Depression. The first place I worked after the election was in Alexandria, Virginia, which is a ’burb of D.C. It was like an Irish wake. We had howling fits of explosive laughter, but it was against a backdrop of just barely being able to move from depression. I mean, audience member after audience member came up to me afterwards and tell me that they had tickets, but they didn’t think they were going to come because they just didn’t think we could leave the house. It was a coincidence that I happened to be booked there on those nights, but as soon as our future tanked, I knew that was the right place to be for those nights. We had a great time, and then we had to step back into the abyss.
You’re someone who is frequently on Twitter, which can be a vital tool in the comedy trade these days. Do enjoy social media, or it more an obligation of the profession?
My theory is that social networking is harmful. We are products of our evolution, and really we still need to be shaking hands, hugging, looking one another in the eye, and hearing one another’s voices as much as possible. I think social media has left people feeling really isolated. They’ve done studies that show Facebook is depressing the hell out of people, partly because everybody keeps putting up glorious pictures of their happy families and it just bums everybody else out. I just loathe the self-promotion part of my job. The truth is, you can be the funniest comic in the world, but if there’s not an audience in front of you while you do it, it’s not doing anybody much good. So it’s a huge part of my job, but I reluctantly do it.
I’ve personally always found comedy to be especially important in dark times. Do you find humor comes more naturally to you when the world is at its most serious?
Sometimes. Speaking of evolution, nature has given us this odd remedy of humor. It’s a healing technique. I don’t mean to make it sound sterile and utilitarian. Garrison Keillor is a historian, and I believe anything that comes out of his mouth, and he says that Jews in the concentration camps had jokes. When you see that godawful black-and-white footage, it’s virtually impossible to imagine that to be true, and yet I can’t imagine surviving anything without jokes.
Assuming Trump makes it all four years, do you see your job being harder or easier, given what will likely be going on in the larger world?
My dream would be for government to run not just smoothly, but effectively, and for us to lift one another up and for world peace — basically all of the things that are in Christmas carols. That’ll be my dream, and it has nothing to do with comedy one way or the other. I always say to people that I don’t need things to suck. I don’t really need the country and the world to be spiraling into a horrible state of mental illness and poverty to do my job. My aspirations for politics are not in any way linked to my job. Having said that, yeah you can’t help make jokes about this guy.
Now I don’t see him getting an invite, but how do you think Trump would fair if he were asked to be a contestant on Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!?
Oh I think he would do great. I really think he’s a funny guy. He’s a better entertainer than I ever would’ve thought. I mean I never in my life watched that Apprentice show, but apparently that puts me in minority. I think a lot of people did. I think he has a diabolical sense of when to say what, and to appeal to more people than I would’ve thought, and I think he would do great on Wait Wait. I don’t think he would win the questions, but that would be beside the point, and actually on our show it is beside the point anyways. No one really cares. By the way, I hold the record for losses, which is why I covet the fact that no one really cares if you win or not. As soon as it becomes important, I’m going to be thrown off the show.
As a cat owner myself, the first thing I did after the election was to coerce my cat into cheering me up a little. Have your cats provided you with any solace since the election?
I’m sure the first thing I did after the election was to sift litter boxes, because that’s a rain or shine proposition around here. It’s just a constant, and it doesn’t matter what your mood is. It’s like having kids. You have to feed them no matter what. Fourteen cats is a lot of goddamn cats. It’s like watching a constant cat video, and probably almost as much of a waste of time as people who watch a lot of cat videos. They’re always doing something. Apparently there’s a power vacuum right now. They are not certain who the leader is, so every night there’s ferocious fighting. You can hear it all night long, and in the morning, there’s territorial peeing all over the house. It’s very much like the primary but not as ugly.
I guess that’s a way to project future elections, to just watch how cats conduct themselves.
Honestly, yeah. Check the White House carefully, because I can guarantee you Trump’s going to pee all over it.
Paula Poundstone, at the Nourse Theater, Saturday, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. $57.50, axs.com/events/310261/paula-poundstone-tickets