Arts » Performing Arts

Forget about brain power

Paula Poundstone believes in the power of live comedy



If longtime comedian Paula Poundstone had to answer a trivia question correctly before boarding every bus she's ever taken, she wouldn't have made it far. That's because the wheels in her head just don't seem spin for current events and pop culture. It's obvious if you've listened to NPR's "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!," where Poundstone frequently guest stars as a panelist who attempts to answer — or not — questions on the popular radio show.

Poundstone comes to Knight Theater on July 11 and she's ready, provided she doesn't have to answer any questions. "I am the village idiot of 'Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!,' but not by design," Poundstone admits during a phone interview from her home in Santa Monica, Calif. "It just works out that way. It's almost cheating how smart they are."

That being said, it's not surprising to learn Poundstone doesn't frequent trivia circles or play games in her free time. "I remember many years ago, I played Trivial Pursuit with Robin Williams, Don Novello, The Smothers Brothers and Carl Gottlieb and I lost horribly," Poundstone says. "At one point, there was a question about Charles Dickens and the answer was David Copperfield. As I recall, they all got mad because I said the answer when it wasn't my turn. And I said 'You guys, I'm going to know one answer in the entire game, so I don't care whose turn it is, I'm saying it!'"

Luckily, Poundstone's defiance for rules remains only behind closed doors. She sticks to the no shouting out-of-turn compliance of "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!," even though, she admits to oftentimes knowing the answers to other contestants' questions — especially during the lightning rounds.

Despite what seems to be unintelligent chatter from her on the radio show, Poundstone is actually an avid reader and supporter of librarians. It's surprising to learn she's been a national spokesperson for the American Library Association's United for Libraries' "Friends of Libraries" network, a support group that raises awareness and funds to support libraries, for years. Though Poundstone says she'd never be smart enough to be a librarian, she can add penning a book to her list of accomplishments. In 2006, she released the memoir There's Nothing In This Book That I Meant To Say. After its release, she even signed a contract to write a follow-up — slated for release 2016. "I write that slow," says Poundstone, who can also credit the delay to her work in standup comedy — she's been doing standup for more than a quarter century.

A high school drop-out who traveled by Greyhound buses to comedy clubs across the U.S. before breaking into the biz, Poundstone can thank the late Robin Williams for helping her get her big break. Williams, who used to visit comedy clubs to scout for new talent, stumbled upon a young, budding Poundstone at a show in Los Angeles. "He hung out like he was one of us, even though we knew he wasn't really one of us," Poundstone says of Williams who was already successful on the comedy front.

Poundstone went on to do a standup stint on a Saturday Night Live that Williams hosted. "Honestly, I wasn't particularly good, but it was very nice of him," Poundstone says of the experience that later led to a deal with Williams' managers, who she worked with for eight years.

Drifting out of her comedy bubble, Poundstone recently lent her vocal cords to Pixar's Inside Out. The animated film tells the story of a little girl, Riley, whose life is disrupted after moving with her parents to San Francisco.

The film's main characters — featuring big names in the comedy biz — are emotions in Riley's brain. This includes Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). In the flick, Poundstone plays the small part of Forgetter Paula.

"I always tell people that 'I got a bye.' It's like in a tennis tournament when there's three players and one player just gets to skip to the next level because there's nobody for him to play."

Fellow comedian Bobby Moynihan, who plays Forgetter Bobby, also has a small role in the film. "We both knew we were the luckiest people in the entire theater [at the movie's premiere] because for the other people it actually took effort, but for us, we got to coast," Poundstone says.

She feels fortunate to have gotten the gig. She believes the film, despite being geared towards children, is also a must-see for adults. "It's a story about emotional well-being and it's really funny and moving. In my opinion, the entire world is in the midst of a mental health crisis and I think it's really good for everybody because everybody should reflect on emotional bonds and this presents it in a really funny way."

Though it sounds cliche, Poundstone isn't shy to admit she believes in the idiom "Laughter is the best medicine." In an effort to improve the publics mental health, Poundstone has released two comedy CDs — 2009's I Heart Jokes: Paula Tells Them in Maine and 2013's I Heart Jokes: Paula Tells Them in Boston. Both CDs were recorded at live shows, an atmospheric setting that she believes is critical to profound bouts of laughter.

In reflecting on her love for The Three Stooges, Poundstone professes to laughing her hardest at scenes from the show during the Three Stooges Film Festival.

"I think we have a society with a lot of isolation and sitting in a room laughing with a group of people is one of the most emotionally, mentally healthy things people can do," says Poundstone. "I don't always advocate that people have to come out to see me, but I think it's so important to go out and be among other people."

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