Poundstone: 'We're pack animals. We need to shake hands and hug and laugh together.'
If Paula Poundstone wasn't a comedian, she might be a librarian. In addition to serving as a panelist on the popular NPR quiz show Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me, she's the spokesperson of the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations (ALTAFF). She's also written a book, There's Nothing in This Book I Meant to Say, which might be dwelling in your local library's memoirs section.
I asked her about her less bookish habits -- stand-up and improv -- during a recent phone call.
The Daily Page: Since starting your career, what changes have you seen in the comedy world?
Poundstone: I was the lucky benefactor of Robin Williams getting rid of segues in comedy. Robin was the first guy I ever saw who'd just say stuff. He never needed to say, "So I was walking down the street..." He never needed to explain why he was doing anything; he'd just jump from one topic to another. And let me tell you, for those of us who are not brilliant writers, that was really helpful. So you see more people doing that now.
[There's been] a change in the venues as well. When I first started out, someone would go on The Tonight Show and potentially make it very big just for that appearance, but that's no longer the case at all. People could go on The Tonight Show a hundred times, and nobody knows who the hell they are. Not because The Tonight Show has lost its importance, but because there are so many other venues now.
What do you think of the new generation of comedians?
There are still people who make it big, and I wonder why. You have someone with a video of their parrot pooping, and they say something funny, and overnight they've become some sort of weird Internet success. There are also more comedians than there used to be, which makes it harder to break out of the pack.
There's a guy named Malcolm Gladwell who wrote a book called Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, he dispels the notion of inherent "talent." Basically, he says that people who are successful achieve it by dedicating thousands of hours of practice to gain experience, and I think he's onto something there. ... You look at the people who went on things like The Tonight Show years ago, and you know the huge stars? Sometimes they weren't even that good. What eventually made the best of them the huge stars they became was the practice and time they put into it.
I've read interviews from an older generation of writers who critique the younger generation for sharing their work before they're ready. Before they've gone through the kind of practice you're talking about, they're kind of airing their dirty laundry and flaunting what will become the equivalent of kindergarten crayon landscapes.
[Laughs.] Right. When I read the book by Gladwell, it really struck me as true from my own experience. I've been doing this job for I think 33 years now, and I definitely feel like there's stuff I know how to do because I've been doing it for so long. I feel like I'm at the top of my game, which is a great feeling.
If you were living in Antarctica, where Facebook was your only form of communication, it might be useful. But in truth, we're pack animals. We need to shake hands and hug and laugh together. And you can't do that through stuff like [social media]. So I think to some degree it's a distraction. It doesn't add any depth. With handshakes and hugs, I believe there is a chemical released called oxytocin that actually gives you physiological boost. It's good for our health. I'm not a scientist by any means, but I'm not aware of any studies that show the same thing about all that computer stuff. It's like eating junk food. It may be fun, but it's not going to give you the buzz that friendship is going to give you.
I think some elements of [social media] are sort of faddish. Hula hoops used to be popular, you know? I'll occasionally use a hula hoop and have a good time, but it doesn't fill any deep hole for me. Even with the people that come up on my Facebook, the people that are my followers or friends or whatever, I don't see them posting as much as they once did. To some degree, [it] had this great cachet for a while, and now it's just a pain in the neck, really. It's not how I connect with people.
Soon it'll just be chips in your brain that allow brain-texts.
Honestly. I was joking years ago with someone about cell phones, and I said someday they're going to put a chip in your brain. I was only kidding, but I don't think I landed too far away from the truth.
In history books, you'll be listed as the prophet for the eventual brain chip.
I really need to patent that. I'm sure someone already has.
You're known for your improvisational sets. Are there ever moments where you see someone in the crowd and know that you will at some point talk to them?
All the interactive bits with the audience are unplanned. The only time I specifically make note of people during my shows is when they look unhappy with me. Sometimes there will be a couple, for example, and you usually see the guy being miserable and the woman is completely enjoying herself. So what I figure is that she wanted to go, so they made some compromise that he gets to watch football later or whatever because he took her out. And for some reason, I'm often attracted to the person who seems unhappy with me. So I've began conversations simply because of that. But no, everything else is unplanned, and thought out only maybe a few seconds ahead of myself.
And the thing is, it really is easy. Because people are fun to talk to. I don't know exactly what day I became sure of that, but they really are. It's not as if everything said has to be the funniest thing ever, but to me, it's the magic of the night. It's a group of people who've forgone their other responsibilities for the night, who have decided that a good way to spend their time is to come out and be with one another for a night of laughter. So right away I love them. It's a human trait, and it's good for our species. The joy of being in a room of laughter is very uplifting.
What's the most important thing you'd learned from a book?
It probably came from [E. B. White's] Stuart Little. I read it to my kids, and I probably read it when I was in school, but our library recently got turned on to books on tape. So when I was in the car with the girls, it was a great thing to listen to. So we'd listen to a tremendous amount of great literature, and I remember that some people were so good at reading the books that it made me realize things about the story that I'd never thought about before.
So in Stuart Little, there's a passage where Stuart's a substitute teacher at one point. His class comes in, and the teacher asks, "What they should learn about?" And they say, "Math?" And the teacher says, "No, don't worry about that." And then they say, "English?" And Stewart says, "No, forget about that." Someone else suggests social studies, and he says no, and then he asks, "What are the important things in life?" So people raise their hands, and someone says, "A note of music." And Stewart says, "That's correct." Another kid says, "The way the back of a baby's neck smells if her mother has kept her tidy." And Stewart says, "That's correct." And another kid raises his hand and says something to the effect of "Vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce." And Stewart says, "That's correct."
First of all, I agree about those things, and love the fact of those things. None of them were things that no one else could get to. It wasn't even a symphony; it was a single note in music that makes life so special.
Paula Poundstone will perform at the Barrymore Theatre on Saturday, September 8.