Still making ‘em laugh: Paula Poundstone, on the comedy circuit for over 40 years, returns to Northampton

  • Comedian, podcaster and writer Paula Poundstone brings her irreverent humor to Northampton March 14. Image courtesy Paula Poundstone

  • Hanging in there: Paula Poundstone has been performing comedy for over 40 years, ever since the Massachusetts native first starting showing up in Boston comedy clubs in 1979. Image courtesy Paula Poundstone

  • Paula Poundstone, who comes to Northampton March 14, has long cultivated an improvisational comedy style that’s based in part on asking questions of audience members and riffing on their answers. Photo by Michael Schwartz/courtesy Paula Poundstone

  • Paula Poundstone, who comes to Northampton March 14, has long cultivated an improvisational comedy style that’s based in part on asking questions of audience members and riffing on their answers. Photo by Michael Schwartz/WireImage/courtesy Paula Poundstone

Staff Writer
Published: 2/27/2020 9:01:47 AM

When she looks back on a career that’s now passed the four-decade mark, Paula Poundstone remembers how she started out. Like a lot of comedians, she at first prepared a monologue of sorts, a set of prepared jokes that would form the basis of her act.

“I would write down all the stuff I was going to use, and then I would promptly forget what it was I was going to say pretty much as soon as I started talking,” she said.

But Poundstone, who spoke recently with the Gazette during a phone call to her home in southern California, soon enough found her way, developing an improvisational style of comedy based on asking questions of audience members and then riffing on different topics as they came up — and, as she puts it, touching on “all this other stuff that’s been rattling around in my brain for 41 years.”

The Massachusetts native (born in Sudbury in 1959) will bring her irreverent and self-deprecating humor back to the Valley when she appears in Northampton on Saturday, March 14 at Smith College. Northampton has become a favorite stop on her cross-country tours, she says: As she noted in a Gazette interview in 2017, “It’s a smart town. I feel like it’s where all the brains are kept.”

“It’s one of the few places I can walk around,” when she’s on tour, she added, given its size. In past years, she also picked up a good number of games and presents for her three children — now all in their 20s — at A2Z Science and Learning Store.

Playing things like Mille Bourne, a French car-race card game she hadn’t been able to find anywhere else, provided a somewhat rare opportunity “for all of us to agree on something and sit down together — and actually have fun!” she said with a laugh.

Finding those opportunities has been important because Poundstone still keeps a busy touring schedule, averaging at least a couple stand-up shows a week. And when she’s not on the road, she’s working up her podcast, “Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone,” or appearing as a panelist on National Public Radio’s weekly news/comedy quiz show, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

She’s also been known to write a book or two, like 2017’s “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness,” in which she described trying her hand at a number of things — Taekwondo classes, camping, swing dancing — in pursuit of a better mood. And she’s appeared in a number of TV series and films, or performed voice-overs in them, over the years.

Poundstone says, though, that she did take a break from her busy schedule for awhile last year to spend time with and house-train a new puppy, a mix of Golden Retriever and Newfoundland — or at least that’s what she was told about the dog’s origins.

“To be honest, I don’t see a lot of Newfoundland in her,” she said. “But who am I to say? I wasn’t there at the moment of conception.”

Laughter as medicine

Though she takes some prepared jokes and general conversation ideas on stage with her, Poundstone says her favorite part of her shows is interacting with the audience, asking people questions and talking about a huge range of subjects, from the silly to the serious, and getting people to laugh about it.

“Laughter is just great medicine for so many things,” she said. “And I still feel like I have the best job in the world, where I get to go on stage and just talk about what I’m thinking.”

She’s also taken that loose-knit style to her podcast, which began three years ago with a different title, “Live from the Poundstone Institute,” on which she would offer her take on strange and obscure research studies, like one that examined what kinds of music cats enjoy. The podcast was produced by NPR and recorded in front of a live audience, and it proved to be a bit more work — and more costly — than she had anticipated, Poundstone said.

So in 2018, she started her new, more broadly themed podcast with co-host Adam Felber, who’s also a regular panelist on the “Wait, Wait” program. The podcast, recorded in North Hollywood, is something like her live shows, Poundstone said, in that she and Felber work from a basic list of things she wants to talk about but otherwise mostly improvise their sets.

“One of the things I like about it is that you can make up your own rules,” she said. “It’s kind of like the shows I would do when I was a kid, where I’d spring out of the closet and just pretend I was in front of an audience, make it up as I went along.”

A recent episode, for instance, had Poundstone and Felber riffing on things like computer passwords (“the new form of intellectual torture”) and truth in advertising for a style of women’s leggings called Fablectics, which Poundstone said have been pitched as something to make women feel “cute and comfortable.”

“I gotta tell you,” Poundstone said in a singsong voice on the podcast, “normally I don’t feel cute and comfortable.”

The two humorists also introduced the new word of the week, “myrmidon,” which Poundstone said described a servile follower of a powerful person. She then invoked U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as an example, referring to his reflexive loyalty to President Donald Trump, a man Graham had once called “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.”

Poundstone, to put it lightly, is not a fan of the president, and though he’s a good source for jokes, she says, she also worries that joking about him helps normalize what she considers his polarizing, unpresidential behavior and his terrible policies. “We didn’t elect a president so he could be the laughingstock of the world.”

But she quickly poked fun at herself, saying she watches too much political coverage on MSNBC — “It’s not healthy” — and has found herself struck by seeing “a lot of advertisements there for products for people who either poop too much or not enough. I’m not sure that’s where I want to be.”

Then she pivoted to an episode of the 1960s TV show “Bewitched,” in which Ben Franklin is accidentally summoned to the 20th century and is alternately astounded and worried by what he encounters. She wondered what the benefit might be in bringing back, say, Alexander Hamilton to assess the state of contemporary U.S. politics.

“Maybe he’d want to see that big musical all about him,” Poundstone said. “But maybe he’d also look [at the political landscape] and say ‘This wasn’t what we intended.’ ”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Paula Poundstone comes to John M. Greene Hall at Smith College in Northampton on March 14 at 8 p.m. To purchase tickets, visit paulapoundstone.com.




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