From her much-loved stand-up routines to her hilarity on NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” comedian Paula Poundstone has been cracking people up since getting her start back in the early ’80s. Poundstone, 55, is known for her spontaneity with audience members and keeping shows fresh by rarely repeating herself. She’s returning to Ogunquit for a show on Saturday night. She spoke with me from her longtime home in Santa Monica, California.
You always post photos of your dressing room chairs before shows. What’s the story behind that?
A lot of times like a charity or something will ask me if they can have some tickets to auction off or something to my show and, generally speaking, I’m happy to do that. It’s no big deal. And then they say, “Well, you know, could we get like a backstage pass?” And I always say to them, you don’t want a backstage pass.
Because it’s not very exciting?
Sitting around backstage is not exciting in any way. And by the way, backstage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Some places have very nice dressing rooms. Other places have just sort of cement boxes. And I’m not complaining. So, one day when I was trying to prove that it was no big thrill, I took a picture. Some places have even brought in chairs especially because they knew I was coming. They wanted their chair to reflect well on them. Most people do not bother with that. Now if I don’t do it people write, “Where’s the chair?” And a lot of people have no idea why I do it at all. They just like to see the chair. One place I was in didn’t even have a chair. I sat on an ice chest and there was no dressing room either. I was just sort of in a hallway somewhere.
How long have been doing “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”?
I think it’s about 13 years. It doesn’t seem like that long, because people say to me all the time, “I listen to you every weekend,” and I always say, “Thank you that’s very sweet of you.” But the truth is, I’m not on every weekend. I go about once a month, and then sometimes I’m on twice a month because they’ll do a clip show or something when they take a vacation.
What’s your favorite thing about doing that show?
I do like coming away with a little piece of something useful each time. If one thing can stick in my head I consider myself a genius. It’s really fun to do. I mean we sit in the chair and laugh. One guy thinks of a funny thing and he tosses it out, and everybody else piles on.
There’s a very funny clip on YouTube of you completely losing it on the show.
There was one time with me and Adam (Felber), and they had a signer on stage for the hearing-impaired audience members. Peter (Sagal) quoted Reagan that night as saying that passing a budget was like crapping a pineapple. And apparently Reagan really did say that. And Adam and I had the same instinct that was immediately after we hear the phrase, we look over at the signer because we’re just like, “well how do they do this?” And we got laughing so hard about the idea that we were forcing this poor signer — and the signers are a little bit like the British Guard. They really don’t interact.
And they’re probably not supposed to.
I think it’s like the code of the signer. And so they’re trying to ignore us while we’re tormenting this woman, and we were using different expressions. We were saying, “Crapping a this or a that,” so that we could see her do the hand gesture again. I believe Adam topped out with a live, wriggling ferret. And we were both being yelled at in our headsets. They were like “OK. Stop it now. That’s enough.” And Adam and I were just howling. It was one of those things that once you start it’s very hard to stop.
You sometimes get pretty political on Facebook and Twitter, most recently with criticism of Donald Trump. Has social media freed you to be more political or have you always been vocal?
I started watching the news in my early 20s. I lived with Timothy Leary and his wife for a few weeks. They were very kind. I didn’t have any place to go, and they let me come live with them. My general routine at that time, if I was not on the road, was that I would go to the Improv in Hollywood every night. I would sleep late in the morning and then take a nap even before I went out to the clubs. He would just come in and wake me while I was taking my nap, and he’d go, “The news is on!” like it was very exciting. And I’d go, “Oh, great,” and then I’d fall back asleep. They were like, “Don’t you watch the news?” and I was like, “No, I don’t actually,” and they just couldn’t get over that.
Did they news shame you?
A bit. So that’s how I began watching the news. And then, soon thereafter comes along the Iran-Contra scandal. And I watched those hearings over and over. That intrigued me and involved me. I’m not an expert. I can in no way keep up with the guys on “Wait Wait” in terms of knowing about politics and history and things like that. I come at it a lot of times as a blank slate actually. But you know, you don’t have to be a political genius or a great historian to say that McCain isn’t an American hero because he was caught and that makes him a loser. Those words do not come from the mouth of a very intelligent person. I don’t have to be the most informed person in the world to recognize that that is an odd perspective and not one that I support in any way. Originally when Trump first started, when this thing first started, I thought it was really funny. I kept saying he’s the Danny Kaye of politics, because it’s so entertaining. I’m less entertained now. What bothers me isn’t so much Trump as all the people going to see him and cheering him on.
Some people have expressed anger towards you in their comments. Is your attitude, “so be it?”
Yes. First of all, we needn’t all agree on absolutely everything in order to remain in conversation. And second of all, there are people with things like Facebook and Twitter, who sit by their computer all day hoping to be offended by something. I seldom engage. Given that I have a very active Twitter life, this is gonna sound hypocritical, and it is: Computers are really not good for us. We thought they were gonna move us forward in all sorts of ways and I would say largely they have not.
You spend a tremendous amount of time on the road. What’s that like for you?
I truly am the luckiest person in the world. It really is a great job. I realize that this is probably a really wacky thing to say, but the audience really is my best friend.
You’re an audience engagement specialist. Can you talk about this?
I draw a particular kind of crowd. When I used to work clubs and I was a headliner and there was a middle act and an opener, guys would kill to work with me. And it’s not because being around me is such a stroll in the park. It’s because they wanted to work to my audiences. They are just delightful. They’re fun and they’re funny and they’re willing to go along for the ride a little bit.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Jonathan’s, 92 Bourne Lane, Ogunquit
HOW MUCH: $37.50