Paula Poundstone, known for her deadpan delivery as much as for her suit-and-necktie style, will bring her standup act on Saturday, Feb. 17, to Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale.
Popular on the nightclub circuit and late-night talk shows since the 1980s, Poundstone was the first woman to win a Cable Ace Award for Best Stand-up Comedy Special (she’s had three), and the first woman to perform standup at the White House Correspondents Dinner. She is also a frequent and popular panelist on the NPR show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”
The Emmy Award winner says she’s never really sure how her show will go.
“I have 38 years of material rattling around in my head,” she says in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “You know those glass booths you see in arcades with all the prizes in them? That’s sort of what my head is like inside. If I can grab it, I can say it.”
Here are excerpts from our interview with Poundstone.
Have you ever been to South Florida for anything other than work?
Never. I lived briefly in Orlando when I was 18 years old. That’s the only part of Florida I’ve been to other than for work. I had one cat from Florida. I got one from Orlando, a Siamese and another Siamese from Fort Myers, actually. They are long since dead. That was many cats ago. I have 14 cats now.
When you worked here, was there anything distinctive about South Florida audiences?
I’ve worked in Florida. They’re a fun crowd. They don’t take themselves too seriously, which is great. I look forward to being there.
I’ve noticed that your act is topical, like many comedians, but in a different way. I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s kind of more personal and not so much the formula of setup, then punchline.
It’s because I talk about what I saw or what I hear. It’s “Look, I had this experience.” Everyone has their take on politics, and I’m watching the news, especially when I’m on the roadr. I’m stuck in a hotel room, and I have a tendency to overwatch MSNBC. So I’m just talking about my reaction to what I saw that day. I suppose the same goes for the early experience of my life. There’s this old wives’ tale that a standup comedian’s early life, their childhood, is somehow more difficult.
You also perform without a net, so to speak. You’re known for having a show that never repeats itself. It feels spontaneous. You seem to just riff off the moment and the interplay with your audience.
That’s my favorite part. I ask “what do you do for a living” and “where are you from,” and we go from there. I don’t know whom I’m going to talk to, and I don’t know what they are going to say. On a good night, about a third of it is unique to that night. When I was first just starting, I used to try desperately to stick to my five minutes. In my nervousness, I would forget to say something or I would get distracted by something I saw in the audience. I would try desperately to stick to my five minutes, and I would fail. Somehow, fairly early on, it occurred to me that is really where the fun part is. So I began to allow myself to do that. It really is kind of a muscle. Malcolm Gladwell, in his “Outliers [The Story of Success]” … the premise of that book is that there is no such thing as talent. That it is practice. I have to agree. I just plain practice a lot.
Tell me what your second book, “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness,” is about?
My book is a series of experiments of what people thought would make me happy. Every chapter had conditions and the hypothesis and the variables. The real question is for me: What did I do that would give me a reservoir of happiness when I was done doing it, that I still felt good when I returned to my regular life. Of course, the No. 1 job is for it to be a funny book. I think it earns that stripe. On the book jacket are really nice things said by Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, Lily Tomlin, Trisha Yearwood, Roy Blount, P.J. O’Rourke. I got the stamp of approval from a pretty luminary cast of people, funny writers actually.
I think you’ve been on “Wait Wait … Don’t tell Me!” for something like 16 years. Why do you think you’ve been so successful on that show? What do you bring to the mix?
Well, time flies when you’re having fun. And it’s really been fun, by the way. Part of my job is to sit in a chair and laugh, and that’s really easy with a bunch of really smart, funny people who say really smart, funny things. I hold the record for losses on the show. I bring a long career of — improvisation seems like too highfalutin a word — being able to respond off the top of my head, and that works well on ‘Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!’
Tell us about your new podcast?
Adam Felber and I, we made a little podcast that was “Live From the Poundstone Institute.” It was limited-edition. There are 10 episodes available. We are now working on a podcast that’s called “No One Listens to Paula Poundstone.” We talk about how the three ways you can tell we all come from the same species is that we breathe air, we don’t eat our young, and we all have a podcast.
You’re a spokeswoman for the American Library Association’s “United for Libraries” initiative. What’s that about?
Mostly, that manifests in that I entertain at their conventions a lot. There was this silly idea that somehow the internet would make libraries obsolete. I’m happy to say that this is not true. Libraries are places of community. There are after-school programs. There are reading clubs, reading groups. One adult volunteer teaches another to read. There are lecture series, computers, CDs and DVDs. And then, my favorite of all, there are books. And librarians are interesting people. They are very dedicated to their work, so they are interesting people to be around.
Paula Poundstone will perform 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $23-$43. To order, call 954-462-0222 or go to ParkerPlayhouse.com.