She voiced a cartoon character who was a single mother raising an 8-year-old son who was obsessed with making home movies. She starred in her own episode of a Bravo channel series featuring female comedians--Caroline Rhea and Joan Rivers each had an episode as well. She was the first woman to win a CableACE Award for Best Stand-up Comedy Special. She made an appearance on Larry King Live to discuss charges of child endangerment against her and the resulting stint in rehab for alcohol abuse. She was an expert on several episodes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and she is a recurring guest on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.
But the 51-year-old Paula Poundstone may now be best known as a panelist on the highly rated NPR radio show, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, an hour-long game program in which three humorous celebrities have to answer questions on current affairs. It's likely a familiarity with that role that will have Boiseans attending her show at the Egyptian Theatre on Friday, Sept. 23, more than her previous work. Poundstone will likely talk about her experiences on WWDTM during that performance, but it's almost guaranteed that Poundstone's parenting is a subject that will get even more mileage.
Poundstone, who was raised in Massachusetts and now calls Southern California home, started doing stand-up in the early '80s. Her popularity on WWDTM stems from many of the same traits that led to her long-running and successful career in comedy, which is not always an easy feat for a woman--especially one who is somewhat gangly, semi-androgynous and often self-deprecating.
But Poundstone has always embraced her awkwardness on stage. In some of her earliest stand-up, she would lean her long frame across a stool on stage, lolling forward before eventually slumping to the floor and doing bits of her routine flat on her back, sometimes with her head hanging off the edge of the stage. Poundstone is also exceptionally quick-witted, a whiz at extemporaneous speech and quite loquacious--she will expound on any subject for as long as time (and a host) will allow.
As important as Poundstone's ability to tell a great story is her willingness to make herself the subject of it. Whether she is in front of a studio audience for a taping of WWDTM or performing for a stand-up crowd, she is candid with the details of her life as well as those of her children. As a single mother of children with special needs, it would be easy to assume that Poundstone would have issues particular to their care. She does, but simply because she's a parent. Like all parents, she struggles raising young people who are trying to find their own identities, irrespective of physical, mental or emotional disabilities.
When she answered the phone for an interview with Boise Weekly, Poundstone's first words were, "Give me just a second." She was in the middle of an appointment with a specialist to talk about her 20-year-old daughter's leg braces. Her daughter had this idea that the braces would slowly be cut down until she no longer needed to wear them. Poundstone was telling the specialist that they needed to explain why that wasn't going to happen. It was a personal moment, but Poundstone didn't cover the phone, didn't pretend that she was merely dealing with the day-to-day details of raising kids. An offer to call her back at another time was quickly dismissed.
"I have very few minutes that are my own," she said. "I expected to be done and already in my car for this interview, and instead, I was trying to explain to the guy that my daughter isn't Forrest Gump," she said. "I needed to take that element out of the discussion."
Raising children has its rewards, but sometimes the rewards don't come from the kids. They come from the people she shares her stories with.
"I am not stupid enough to believe that any of our problems are exclusive to us," Poundstone said. "I tell some pretty extreme experiences on stage. It's not like the whole crowd rushes up to me afterward and says, 'Boy, we're exactly like that.' But I can't tell you how many people come up to me and say, 'Oh my god. We have the same son.' Or they say, 'We had that son. He's older now and has a job. It gets better!' So it cuts both ways."
And sometimes it goes much deeper for both an audience member and for Poundstone.
"I had a woman come up to me one night and she asked if she could hug me. She said, 'I lost my son. I haven't laughed in a couple of years and I just wanted to thank you.' It's a big circle. I feel like that's why I'm here. And what she doesn't know is that by saying that to me, I was able to go home and deal with my own nutty son."
Poundstone's professional life is equally as busy as her personal life. She has tour dates all across the country through early 2012 and, of course, there is WWDTM. She is thrilled with the success of the show but wanted to squelch one incorrect fact people have about her in regard to the show: She doesn't lose on purpose.
"I love talking about Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!," Poundstone said emphatically. "Because any opportunity I have to clear up the misconception about me on that show, I like to take advantage of. So here it is ... Yes! I am trying to win!"