Feb. 10 2016 11:41 AM

Paula Poundstone talks comedy clubs, Donald Trump and owning 14 cats

If you go to see Paula Poundstone at the Wharton Center next week, don’t be surprised if you become part of the show. The veteran comedian is known for her witty exchanges with audience members.
Veteran comedian Paula Poundstone brings her act to the Wharton Center stage Feb. 18.
Courtesy Photo

A high school dropout, Poundstone, 56, cut her teeth in the Boston open mic scene in the 1970s. Before long, she was touring the country via Greyhound bus, performing her wry, improvisational comedy at open mic nights and comedy clubs. Today she crisscrosses the nation on tours, performing mostly in large theaters.

Along the way, she became something of a pioneer. She was the first woman to win a CableACE award for best standup comedy special in 1990 and was the first woman to host the prestigious White House Correspondents Dinner in 1992. She has also worked as a political correspondent for “The Tonight Show” and hosted her own variety show on HBO and later ABC. In addition to touring, Poundstone is a frequent panelist on the NPR’s irreverent news quiz show, “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

Poundstone brings her comedy act to the Wharton Center Feb. 18. City Pulse caught up with her in between tour stops to talk about her career and this year’s presidential race.

You like to improvise in your live show. How much do you plan before you go on stage?

I have 36 years of material rattling around in my head, so I have all that to pull from. And then I like to talk with the audience. My act is largely biographical, so there’s stuff that just comes up because I’m thinking about it at that time of my life. There’s three little sections, I guess. Some is totally unique to that night, some is chosen out of my closet for that night.

When you’re looking for audience members to talk to, is there something that you’re looking for? Is there a certain look that makes you think, “This person seems interesting?”

No. My manager always tells people that I somehow intuitively know, but that’s not true at all. Sometimes I am attracted to people who look pissed. That’s generally out of paranoia. I’ll see somebody who looks unhappy, and I think, “Oh my gosh, they hate being here” — that this is not what they were hoping for, or they feel like their entertainment dollars were not well spent. And sometimes I’m attracted to talking to those people. But even that is rare. Sometimes I’ll ask what I thought was a rhetorical question, and someone answers, so I am drawn to speak with that person. There’s nothing in particular.

How did you start doing stand-up comedy?

I started in Boston in ‘79 doing open mic nights. I’d always wanted to be a comic. I think I had a different image of what kind of comic I would be, but I’d always wanted to be a comic. And I thought that should I ever know the path to that, that I would be able to do it. That was really naïveté more than anything else, because I don’t think I had any idea how slim the odds were and what a challenging job it could be.

How has the comedy scene changed since you started?

I really don’t know because I’m not a part of it. I work alone, purely out of selfishness. I have the greatest audience in the world, and I just plain don’t want to share them with anybody else. I don’t want anybody opening for me. It’s just me going around the country by myself, so I really have no idea what everybody else is experiencing.

I noticed that you are booking a lot of theaters and not many comedy clubs. Are theaters your preferred venue?

Yes. Much preferred.

Why is that?

Everyone is facing me. That’s the first thing. You’ll be at another type of venue, and there are tables. And sometimes someone doesn’t even have their chair turned facing you. This is a person who’s already said, “Yeah, I’m half-in, half-out.” What I like about the theater is that everybody came to see me. There’s a sense that the energy in the room is going in the same direction. And I’m not competing with waitresses and drinks.

In the years of comedy clubs, it was all about the drinks and the tables, as far as the club people were concerned. There’s was a point in the evening where the waitresses were told they have to put the checks out. There would be this sort of pall over the audience at a certain point because everybody’s mulling over — not just the bill, but their finances for their whole life seem to come up at that moment. Everybody’s depressed. And it’s towards the end of the show. You want to be building momentum so you can have your big finish, but instead, everybody’s totally depressed for at least five minutes. So anyways, theaters are much better.

Many people know you from your appearances on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” How did you get hooked up with that show?

In the most boring of ways. They called me up and asked me. I think they guy who thought of me for the show used to work for Garrison (Keillor) at “A Prairie Home Companion,” and I had done that a few times. So when he became a producer at “Wait Wait,” it was his brilliant idea.

I had never heard of it — which I’m sure they hate me saying, but it’s true. This is how long ago it was: They sent me an audio-cassette. And that audio-cassette sat on the island in my kitchen. It just laid there for a long time. It had the name “Wait Wait” on it, and I had a nanny at the time who saw it, and he said, “Oh my gosh, I love that show! You have to do that show!” And so I did it on the advice of my nanny.

And it’s worked out pretty well for you.

It’s really a great fit. Because what they ask of the panelists — we are unscripted, except for the bluff story and the final joke, which we write ahead of time. Everything else by the panel is totally unscripted, which is great for me for two reasons. One is that I’m lousy at memorizing. And another is that that’s my preferred way of working.

To my great joy, from the first time I ever did the show, the director would say, “Jump in any time. Say whatever you want.” Wow! That’s almost unheard of in this business. It’s unheard of in reality television — which is a total phony scam. So it really worked out good that way.

You have always had an interest in politics. Have you found this long presidential campaign season interesting, or does it annoy you?

A little bit of both. I confess that in the beginning, I really thought Donald Trump was funny. And I feel a little embarrassed about that now because … it’s becoming like saying Hitler was funny in the beginning. Because I do feel, honestly, that there’s a Hitler-esque quality to what he is doing. I don’t think he’ll even be the Republican nominee, actually, but I’ve certainly been wrong before. And I absolutely don’t think he’d be voted president.

But what’s upsetting about him isn’t him. What’s upsetting is how many people support him and how vitriolic their support becomes the more awful things he says. I might bump into one of his supporters — they might be in the grocery store with me. That part troubles me.

I do think that ultimately, he’ll be just a blip. I don’t think anybody, years from now, will go “Oh yes, Donald Trump and Ben Carson were quite influential.” I don’t think that will happen.

He is a treasure trove of jokes. But I would prefer to just make up the jokes instead of have this negative influence around us all the time. I’m a fairly clever writer; if I have to, I can think of things. In his case, the jokes come already written.

Do you still have a lot of cats?

Yes. Our census is slightly down now. That’s probably good news. We have 14 now; we did have 16.

How do you end up with 14 cats?

I didn’t say to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great to have cats in the double-digits?” But I certainly went out and got each one. Some people say, “Cats found us.” No cats ever found me. I found them. Mostly from the Santa Monica animal shelter. My daughter used to volunteer there. But it wasn’t her, it was me. I’d go to pick her up and I’d say, “Oh, there’s a cute kitten.” And next thing you know … .

Why are you so drawn to cats?

They’re fuzzy, warm balls of affection. They’re fun and they’re funny. Having so many for so many years, it’s like a movie, constantly. You know all the characters and they’re always doing one thing or the other.

They’re also a pain in the ass. That, perhaps, is my fault. I swear there’s at least a few of them that have some kind of strange problem that isn’t even related to aging. Territorial peeing and — in our house, it was better when there was an established pack leader. But when there isn’t, and for years there really hasn’t been, it’s a little bit like primary season all the time.

Paula Poundstone

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18 $38.50 Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com