Paula Poundstone can improvise with the best of them

Comedian Paula Poundstone brings her show to the Garde Arts Center in New London on Friday.
Comedian Paula Poundstone brings her show to the Garde Arts Center in New London on Friday.

It's quintessential Paula Poundstone.

She posts a multitude of short videos on her website, and she begins a lot of them by saying this: "Hi! It's just me, Paula Poundstone."

When this self-effacing greeting - with its "just me" modesty and her self-introduction, even though it's on her own website - is mentioned, Poundstone responds, "I don't want to take anything for granted."

Truth be told, Poundstone has carved quite a niche for herself "tellin' my little jokes," as she calls it. Her ability to improvise and to talk entertainingly about anything has earned her a rep for a great live show and a place as a regular on NPR's news quiz show "Wait ... Wait ... Don't Tell Me."

And back in 1992, she became the first woman invited to entertain at the White House Correspondents dinner and the first woman to win a CableACE award.

Poundstone, 53, grew up in Sudbury, Mass., and now lives in California with her three adopted kids, Toshia, 22, Allison, 19, and Thomas E., who turns 15 this month.

She has taken to the new Twitter world. She keeps up a stream of Tweets, such as this one: "Would it derail some vast complicated plan if Jimmy cracked corn and I cared very deeply?"

Her website boasts short videos she makes - of herself, of her cats. The site also boasts a live stream from a camera focused on the cats' dinner bowl and water dish. In a funny bit of homemade publicity, Poundstone scrawled on a whiteboard behind the bowls that her latest CD is going to be released today.

She recently spoke by phone about life and comedy in advance of her Friday show at the Garde Arts Center.

Poundstone truly loves working as a comedian:

"I'm lucky because, let's face it, it's pretty much a cake walk. Honestly, I enjoyed bussing tables, too, so I do think part of it has something to do with what you bring to it - both attitudinally and what you're able to wring out of it. As the years go by, I do find that I enjoy my job more and more and more because - I don't know, it's kind of gotten layered as the years go by. Partly by stupid, goofy social media. Partly by, after my show, I usually (stay to meet audience members, as she will at the Garde). ... I used to hate talking to people before, especially right after I came off stage. I just felt that there was something so hard to transition from this large group in front of me to this one-on-one thing. For the longest time, I found it awkward and uncomfortable. As result of doing this now, in fact, I've found that it's delightful."

Poundstone is known for improvising a good part of her show, spinning off her interaction with the audience. She is typically self-effacing about how that all began:

"Really, just because I have a terrible memory. When I started out doing open mic nights, you got five minutes. ... I used to type my act on the back of outdated placemat menus from the restaurant I bussed tables at. When they changed the prices, I would get a ton of stationary. I would spend all this time memorizing my act. So the whole time while I was bussing tables, one might notice that my lips were moving because I was memorizing. Then, by God, it would come to the night, and I'd go onstage and invariably ... either I would get nervous and forget entirely what I meant to say anyway, or I would have every intention of saying that five-minute thing but then I would get distracted by something on my way to the stage and comment on it. Well, as soon as you've done that, you don't know where five minutes is anymore. Then I would just panic. ...

"I don't know what day I finally went: Oh, my heavens - not that I don't have good jokes, because I think I do - but there was a certain point where: 'Oh, my God, THAT's the fountain of youth, that's the good part, that's the exciting part.' ...

"The jobs I've gotten that have been very successful for me in terms of bigger TV and radio kinds of things are only the ones where they welcome the fact that I can't stick to the point."

Asked how she prepares for "Wait ... Wait ... Don't Tell Me," Poundstone responds:

"It depends what you call preparing. I put lipstick on. People can't tell that on the radio; that's why I like to say it whenever I can. I do (prepare). I usually carry a stack of newspapers on the airplane and try to cram. And I try to keep up on a daily basis with what's going on in the world. How well I'm doing that is directly proportional to the level of drama in my house. When things are really challenging here, I can't pay much attention to what's going on in the rest of the world."

Poundstone has cats. Lots and lots of cats. Sixteen, is it now?

"It IS 16, and let me tell you, I'm an idiot. It's my whole life. I can't tell you how much time I waste. I was going to sit down and get some stuff done today, and I come in and my frickin' cat Annabelle, in front of me, stood on top of the most pain-in-the-neck place she could do this - on the top of the dog's cage, which we really don't use for the dog hardly ever ... I sort of use it as an odd, dominatrix end table - stood right on top of the damn thing and peed."

Her cats have developed a habit of territorial peeing:

"I just clean and clean and clean and clean. ... I wish Nature's Miracle would put my children through college. They certainly owe me."

In addition to the cats, Poundstone has two German-shepherd-mix dogs. Ask her if she has any other animals, and she reels off the list with practiced, lightning speed:

"I have a bird, a dragon, a lizard and a lop-eared bunny. And one ant left from my ant farm."

Speaking of ants ...

"I find them inspirational. The work ethic among ants - and it could be because they have teeny brains - but the work ethic among ants is something I aspire to. What I love about them is, they know what they are supposed to do. You rarely see an ant come into a room and go, 'What was I doing?' They're so goal-oriented, nothing puts them off."


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