Great Barrington — “I’m not sure how we got here as a country,” Paula Poundstone mused over the phone. So instead of talking about politics, we spoke about how she became a nationally recognized comedian and author.
Paula Poundstone, 57, who will be appearing at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Sept. 16, as part of Fairview Hospital’s annual gala, grew up in Sudbury. “There were trees there, and we climbed them,” Poundstone joked, “there wasn’t much else to do.” She didn’t romanticize her childhood, explaining that, in high school, she was “an emotional wreck of a student.” She eventually dropped out of Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School and, suffering from depression, was moved to a therapeutic program for students her age on the north shore of Massachusetts.
“As a kid, I loved everything comedic. Other kids would have posters of action heroes and rock bands in their rooms; I had clippings from magazines and record jackets of Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin. I was surrounded by comedians,” she explained. At that time, Poundstone didn’t know she was funny, nor that the world of comedy would have a place for her in it.
After school, Poundstone lived with the Masiero family, now the owners of Guido’s Fresh Marketplace in Great Barrington and Pittsfield. In 1979 she began preforming stand-up at open-mic nights at bars and clubs in Boston. A few years later, she was seen by Robin Williams, who encouraged her to move out to the Los Angeles area. “He was incredibly nice to me, and very helpful,” she said. Williams even invited Paula to perform stand-up during a Saturday Night Live show he was hosting. “I think it was the first and last time they decided to do that,” Poundstone chuckled, but acknowledged that the experience helped propel her career.
Taking Williams’ advice, Poundstone moved to Los Angeles. In 1990, she wrote and starred in the HBO series Cats, Cops and Stuff. The series was met with praise and made Poundstone the first woman ever to win a CableACE Award for stand-up comedy. As a result, HBO ordered another stand-up special with her called Paula Poundstone Goes to Harvard.
In 1992 she was featured as a backstage commentator covering the presidential election for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. That same year she became the first woman to host the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
Since then, Poundstone’s career in comedy has found a place on radio. For the past 16 years, she has been a frequent panelist on the weekly NPR quiz show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me and has a new podcast called Live From the Poundstone Institute. The podcast follows Poundstone as she embarks on a quest to “gather all the world’s knowledge.” Poundstone added, “I interview scientists about fun topics, but I don’t really know what’s going on.”
Using science to explain peculiar phenomena has been a passion of Poundstone’s for many decades, but she knows that sometimes science can’t provide all the answers. As a result of seven years of research, Poundstone had her second book, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, published by Algonquin Books in May. Each chapter in the book is set up as a distinct “unscientific” experiment in which Poundstone hikes, volunteers or, in one case, drives a Lamborghini around for a day, in the hopes that doing so will lead to happiness. “I hoped the answer would just be to watch TV all day,” she admitted, “but the answers I came to were pretty unromantic. Basically, we already knew them. You have to exercise and eat well, spend time with family, and do work that is meaningful.”
Ultimately the book was about Poundstone’s life of being a comic and a parent, fostering eight children and adopting two daughters and a son. In many ways, the force that drove Poundstone to write the book is the same one that influences her comedy. “If there was a pill that could make you happy, that would be great,” Poundstone said, but she explained that comedy was integral to both her own and others’ happiness.
While late-night comedy shows have taken most of their material from the missteps of the Trump administration, Poundstone often resists the impulse to become political. “I have 38 years of material I can pull from somewhere,” she explained, adding that being on stage is “a little like walking into one of those arcade games where you are in a glass booth and they blow paper money around and whatever you can catch you can keep.”
Often unscripted, Poundstone says that her favorite moments onstage are when she talks to audience members and uses their dialogue in the show. Before hanging up, she said, “I think comedy can shed light of a fallacy or force us to look differently at a subject. That’s what I try to do and sometimes I’m wrong and it doesn’t work. But sometimes does.”
You can catch Poundstone’s latest show on Saturday, Sept. 16, at 8 p.m. at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle Street, Great Barrington. The show is part of Fairview Hospital’s annual gala and tickets are available from the Berkshire Edge calendar.