Comedian searches for unscripted moments

A regular part of Paula Poundstone’s live act is interacting with the audience.

For Poundstone it truly is unscripted. She doesn’t show up with one liners at the ready for an audience member who says he’s a doctor or she’s a lawyer.

“Part of the joy of it is setting the table for those things that you can’t guarantee are going to happen, those lines that just come to you in conversation,” she said during a telephone interview.

And if she does come up with a great line while interacting with the crowd Friday at Youngstown’s Ford Family Recital Hall, she probably won’t be using it the following night in Santa Rosa, California.

“I almost never repeat stuff, partly because I do get such a wide variety of things I probably couldn’t remember it if I wanted to,” Poundstone said.

That ability to be spontaneous and in the moment makes her well-suited for her current gig as a frequent panelist on the National Public Radio quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.”

“What makes ‘Wait Wait’ so popular is we’re genuinely having a good time and the audience loves it that we’re unscripted,” she said. “The panelists know the questions will be based on the week’s news but we never prepare jokes. Every now than then, I’ll write a piece of material and throw it out there, but that’s one time out of a hundred. For the most part, I just make stuff up.”

Poundstone has been a standup comic for 40 years. Since starting at open mic nights in Boston, she’s won an American Comedy Award for Best Female Stand-Up Comic and a CableACE Award for her first HBO comedy special.

She was the first female standup comedian to perform at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and she had a recurring role on “The Tonight Show” as a political correspondent during the 1992 presidential campaign.

These days she saves some of her most pointed political barbs for Twitter, with which she clearly has a love-hate relationship. She referred to the social media platform as “a giant time suck” and an opiate for the masses. But she also considers it a great release valve.

“Sometimes something comes to you in just the right way to express it. It shoots into your head from out of nowhere.”

She cited a 2018 tweet as an example — “Electing Trump is to America what beaching themselves is to whales.”

As someone whose standup act is built around conversational monologues instead of one liners, Twitter is the perfect outlet for those 144-character thoughts.

Poundstone writes in longer bursts as well. She’s written two books, “There Is Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say” in 2006 and “The Totally Unscientific Study Of The Search For Human Happiness” in 2017. Neither book came easy. The first one took nine years to write; the second took seven.

Her goal now is to write a novel. Don’t look for it at a bookstore near you anytime soon.

“I don’t have the skill set for it, but I’m trying to do it anyway because I think it’s important … Writing seems to get the short shrift. I owe an obligation to the things that keep a roof over my family’s head.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)