Paula Poundstone on comedy, motherhood and confidence

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Paula Poundstone admits life is not a holiday card, and that’s just fine.
Michael Schwartz

Comedian Paula Poundstone has been in the comedy game for more than 30 years now. She’s known for her stand-up, work on NPR’s weekly news quiz show, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, and voicing characters in works such as the cartoon series Home Movies and Disney Pixar’s Inside Out. After three decades, you’d think she was a bit sick of the whole business, but she has nothing but warm things to say.

“I’m sure it’s the greatest job there ever was,” Poundstone says.

Don’t be fooled by her seemingly optimistic verbiage. She isn’t a particularly idealistic person, spitting empty words of positivity to anyone willing to listen. Rather, she leans toward the realist side, emitting a resolved sense of honesty when speaking about what makes comedy such a necessity in her life.

“I can’t imagine raising kids without being a stand-up comedian,” she says. “So much of it is difficult, that’s just the way life is, but I get to tell the stories about the struggles of raising kids on stage and people laugh.”

This starts a sort of dialogue between her and her audience members. She gets approached after her shows by fans who have a great deal of understanding for her stories about motherhood, and some even offer a few words of wisdom.

“Doing stand-up helps many parts of life because it makes you feel human,” Poundstone says. “You start to say, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one. That’s great.’”

This aspect of comedy helps Poundstone avoid what she refers to as “holiday card personas.”

Her biggest frustration is Facebook. She stresses that social media only encourages people to announce the “perfectness” of their lives, making those of us who scroll through networking sites feel less human and further separated from one another.

“Nobody ever says, ‘Jesus it’s been a rough one. I was depressed for six months out of the whole year’ or, ‘Billy was suspended, but only for a couple days,’” she says. “It’s only stuff like, ‘With the kids out of school, we can all go to Switzerland for the winter break!’ or, ‘Little Johnny won the blah blah blah.’”

For Poundstone and her fans, stand-up comedy offers a more immediate, relatable sense of honesty that showcases our similarities rather than further separating us with idealized images of happiness. Her shows more closely resemble a conversation among friends — something she describes as a sort of “cocktail party” — than a typical stand-up performance. 

“The experience of being in a room full of people who came out to laugh for the night is absolutely joyous, and the fact that you just repeat dumb shit you thought up earlier that day — which is a lot of what I do — makes it a pretty easy job,” she says.

But to think that Poundstone’s job has always been an easy one would be an oversimplification.

“I think that the confidence is a fairly new thing,” Poundstone admits. “And, yes, that’s from years of practice, but also … a lot of it is the fact that almost every single night the shows are just this happy thing. I’m not saying it starts out like that. I’m sure that it’s because A) The quality of the crowd that comes to see me and B) Years and years of doing this. So now I get to reap some of the bounty of that and say, ‘Oh yeah, I know how to do this. I can do this!”