Comedian, author, lecturer, podcaster and perennial guest on National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait — Don’t Tell Me” Paula Poundstone has been engaged in comedy for 40 years. She was discovered by Robin Williams in 1984,and made her debut on “Saturday Night Live” that same year. Her HBO specials have won Cable Ace Awards, and she’s been a spokesperson for the American Library Association since 2007. She’s active on Twitter, @paulapoundstone, and she’s recently released a rap song, “Not My Butterfinger,” which is available on iTunes and Spotify. She performs at the Carolina Theatre Saturday night.
A lot of other comedians make movies and TV shows, while your career includes books, the lecture circuit and a long-running association with National Public Radio. Do you see yourself as an intellectual in the world of stand-up?
I’m willing to play it off that way, sure. Do you think so?
I’d love to do movies. I’ve done a little bit but not a lot of it — not because I’ve made some higher-plane choice. I have a pretty grueling road career and I can’t just sit around waiting to get that audition call, and so I don’t. The handful of things I’ve done that fall into that category is speaking, because I’ve been invited to do it.
But when I watch Bridesmaids — which is arguably the funniest movie ever made — there is a part of me that when I watch it, I laugh anyway but I’m steeped in jealousy when I watch. It looks like so much fun to be in an ensemble kind of thing. Instead I work at things that I don’t need someone else’s acceptance. Nothing can stop you from writing a book. You don’t have to wait until someone says, “Okay,” to write a book.
I don’t fall into the “intellectual” category. I try to read literature and try to inform myself. I read the Mueller Report. I try to keep up. But the truth is that with my sense of humor, I’ve never laughed harder than when I see someone with toilet paper stuck to his foot.
Some comics improvise, and some comics script everything. Most do a little of both. Where do you fall?
I have 40 years of material rattling around in my brain somewhere in my head, and I do two hours onstage. I figure the inside of my brain looks something like one of those arcade games when you step into a glass booth and they blow a bunch of money around you, and what you catch you keep. I think my brain looks like that.
My favorite part of the night is talking to the audience. I do the time-honored, “Where are you from, what do you do for a living?” I use that to set my sails. Whatever they say that reminds me of a piece of material, I might reach into my arcade game and pull it out. Just as likely, or more likely, I say something unique to that night, because that’s my favorite part. I like making stuff up. I just plain don’t do the same show twice.
You’ve been doing stand-up for 40 years, through a golden age in the 1980s through to now. Why is stand-up still so popular?
Because laughter is the best thing for you. It just is. It’s great to laugh. I don’t know why nature gave it to us, but I think we’re the only living thing that has it. I think sometimes, maybe dogs and maybe raccoons and, of course, monkeys and chimps. But I don’t think cats laugh.
You talk about current events in your act, and also on NPR and your podcast. Is there anything funny about the news these days?
It’s killing me! I swear to God I’m gonna get a class-action suit against Trump just for the digestive problems I have. It is literally making me sick.
I was not a good student, but I was there sometimes. I didn’t reach out and grab all that was offered me in the world of education. Which was entirely on me. But I do remember the three branches of government. Some teacher would draw them on the chalkboard, and you were so reassured. I think unconsciously all these years I have felt protected by the three branches of government, and all of a sudden now we’re not sure that it works. No one ever tested this the way this guy has. He’s like a rat — he finds every fucking hole. I’m on edge thinking that the three branches of government might not work, so what do we do now? It never occurred to anyone what would happen if the Congress was corrupted by the Executive Branch. And if the allegiance of the head of the Department of Justice was corrupted? No one thought of that. Our forefathers weren’t thinking, Do we need to put anything in there in case the president corrupts the DOJ and Judicial Branch? They thought it was overkill. Turns out it’s not; that can happen.