Paula Poundstone has long been known as a comedian who specializes in spontaneity.
Based on a 30-minute conversation with her, that’s truly the case — which is to say planning doesn’t figure into it at all.
“Most of it’s just throwing spaghetti up on a wall,” she said good-naturedly. “There’s no formula or plan there. There’s always talk about how, don’t go into something without a strategy. Well, I don’t, which is why I’d make a terrible leader.”
You might think she would need a strategy to excel in so many different areas. Of course, there’s her stand-up act, which she’s bringing to the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts in Menomonie on Thursday night, one of the more than 85 dates a year she performs. Those shows have brought her acclaim such as HBO specials, being named the first woman to perform comedy at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and frequent mentions as one of the most influential stand-up comedians of all time.
Beyond that, she has written books, including critically praised “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness.” She is a regular panelist on NPR’s weekly comedy news quiz, “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” Her many television appearances include guest spots on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “Star Talk With Neil deGrasse Tyson” and “Late Night With Carson Daly.” She also has a podcast, “Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone.”
But when some of those credits are noted, she again pointed out that she’s not a careful planner.
“Podcasts I do because everyone has a podcast now,” she said. “We talk so much about our differences, but let’s be honest. … Here’s what we have in common: Breathe oxygen, we don’t eat our young and we have a podcast.”
While her answers suggested everything is off the cuff for her, she responded to a series of questions with the wit and thoughtfulness for which she’s so widely celebrated.
Asked about her active presence on Facebook and Twitter, she replied: “Social media is just like being chased down the street by a shredder. An addiction it’s meant to be, and it definitely is capitalized on me.”
Poundstone acknowledged the widespread interest in social media has made promoting her shows more challenging.
“Social media’s sort of skewered the whole promotion process, but when you get booked, the people who book you care how many followers you have,” she said. “I cannot tell you. I have a fair amount of followers. Not the most, not the least. … I don’t know where they are. …
“I think it’s like in Horton Hears a Who, where the mayor just kept talking into the little horn hoping that somebody was hearing,” she continued. “That’s pretty much what I do. I just hope somebody hears.
“I like writing jokes on Twitter. I do sometimes think, however, that (stops to laugh) … they’re just going into a pile somewhere and it doesn’t really matter.”
In short, she acknowledged mixed feelings about social media.
“I’ve had exchanges with people via social media that I have enjoyed,” she said “For sure. Absolutely. Sometimes it’s given me a chance to say something to an individual that I wanted to say. ... Sometimes it’s given them a chance to say something to me. And I think there’s value in that.”
On the other hand: “I mean, I like writing postcards too. And I’m not addicted to postcards. So it would be great if you could do it without helping Vladimir Putin, I think.”
She gently corrected a question – with humor, of course – that described social media as improvisational. “The only thing that’s really improvisational about social media is the misspellings,” she said. “Because in truth you think something out before you type it. I do, very much like (President Donald) Trump, have a tendency to push send before I’ve really looked carefully.”
But, she was careful to add, mistakes aren’t always her fault “because the stupid computer goes, ‘No, you didn’t mean that, you meant this.’ I hate computers.”
While a common complaint with machines performing an ever-growing array of tasks is loss of jobs for humans, Poundstone said it’s more than that, making a serious point in the process.
“With the whole robotic revolution and scan your groceries and crap like that, everybody thinks the big concern is just jobs. And though I believe that is a concern, the bigger concern is mental health,” she said. “We need each other. We need to say hello to one another … the interaction one has with either strangers or people you don’t see that often or, you know, the clerk at the post office or the this or the that … those are important. …
“And we’re going to cast them aside and then wish like hell we hadn’t or a lot of people won’t be smart enough to figure out that’s the element that’s missing as we all become more and more mentally ill. Those interactions are crucial to human beings.”
Practicing what she’s preaching, Poundstone has long made conversing with her audience part of her act.
“The whole where-are-you-from, what-do-you-do-for-a-living element of my show is kind of the heart and the soul of the whole thing,” she said. “I have lots of jokes. In the spring I will have been doing this job for 40 years. I have 40 years of jokes rattling around in my head somewhere, and I like them. And I think many of them are really good! But the part where you talk to people just … it’s had a lasting effect on me.”
While she appreciates genuine interaction, she expressed strong disapproval about the reports of Russia using social media to meddle in U.S. elections.
“It’s like we’re a dog who’s turned their belly up for the Russians,” she said. “They found our soft spot ... By god, they could’ve just dropped a bomb on us and I don’t think it would have done as much damage in some ways as what they’ve done. And what they continue to do. And the idea that we’re not acting on that is insane.”
Figuring her audience largely consists of Democrats, she happily told a story about a woman who approached her at a meet-and-greet following one of her shows.
The woman indicated she wanted to tell Poundstone something, and when she leaned in the audience member said, “‘I’m a Republican.’ And we both laughed. And I said, ‘Well, thank you so much for coming.’ And I said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ And she said, ‘Oh yeah.’ And she said, ‘I had such a good time. I laughed so much.’”
In other words, a woman who entertains many with spontaneity received a spontaneous moment herself to appreciate.