Culture » Performing Arts

From busing in Boston to emceeing in Haight-Ashbury, Paula Poundstone has come a long way

Wait, wait ...



If Paula Poundstone has it her way, you will fear incontinence at her show at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Saturday night. Don't go through with it, of course — that would be gross — but do fear it.

Known for her conversational style of comedy, Poundstone is a proud member of what she calls "the endorphin-producing industry." A regular on NPR's hour-long news quiz show Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, her career began in the late 1970s, or maybe it was kindergarten, she's unsure. But the 53-year-old, speaking to the Indy from Santa Monica, is positive that at a young age, she had to exit Boston.

"I was busing tables in Boston — I was a really strong table buser — and doing open mic nights, when I realized how misogynistic the lens of humor was in the comedy scene there. I could only get a handful of jobs, and I needed to get out."

In 1979, at age 19, she bought a $150 bus ticket to anywhere, and left town. "I went to Toronto, to Montreal, Denver ... hitting the clubs and working my material. I finally ended up in San Francisco. It was a perfect match."

She got a job as an emcee at The Other Café in the Haight-Ashbury district and began to hone her style. "I tried to learn sets at first, but I'd get distracted. I got a lot of time on stage, a lot, and I quickly ran out of material and started just talking to the audience. My favorite part is talking to the audience, and I realized that this was a strength."

One of only nine women included in Comedy Central's "100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time," Poundstone remains humble.

"I'm coming up on my 10,000 hours of stage time, it's just around the corner," she says, referring to the theory popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell that it takes at least that many hours in order to become an expert at anything. "There are too many good people, really good people in the business. I can't stand out in a crowd like that. I just want to give people a sense of connection each night and stimulate those endorphins."

It's no surprise that her banter covers the spectrum of topics. Jobs, pets, children — everything people talk about reminds her of something.

That Poundstone can speak on many subjects on the fly is what made her a logical choice when the producers of Wait, Wait were looking for another panelist in 2001. "They called. They sent me a tape ... and I'd never heard of the show, honestly."

The tape sat on a table in her house for a while. "Then my nanny-slash-agent asked me if I was going to be on the show, and told me that I just had to do it," she says with a laugh. "So I did."

For those who have ever listened to the show and wondered: Yes, it is spontaneous. The panelists don't know what they're going to get for questions. "It's a news show. So I get newspapers to study up. I take them to read when I fly out to do the show, but I usually fall asleep. That's it, that's the prep."

Whatever she's doing, she stays on her toes, dedicated to generating endorphin releases in her fans.

"Also, that table busing. I was a really, really strong table busser."

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