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Paula Poundstone on the communal power of comedy (and cats!)

Acclaimed comedian Paula Poundstone has recently hit the road again to perform live after an extended hiatus from the stage amid the pandemic.
Shannon Greer
Acclaimed comedian Paula Poundstone has recently hit the road again to perform live after an extended hiatus from the stage amid the pandemic.

Acclaimed comedian Paula Poundstone has recently hit the road again to perform live after an extended hiatus from the stage amid the pandemic. During the lockdown, the famously outgoing performer kept in contact with her fans via her podcast and spent down time with her 10 cats and two dogs. Poundstone, of course, is also a regular panelist on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” but for the veteran comedian, nothing can quite compare to the communal nature of playing in front of a live audience. She performs Thursday at the Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff and recently caught up with KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius via Zoom from her home where she was accompanied by some of her many furry friends.

Ryan Heinsius: This looks to be one of your famous cats.

Paula Poundstone: This is one of my famous cats. This my cat Severus. He a—well, he might have put on a little weight, but basically, he’s one giant muscle. One thing you don’t want to do is make Sev mad … I think four animals named after Harry Potter characters. That’s my dog Sirius. Sirius! … I’m making sure there’s still chest falls since he’s not listening to me. Sirius—so I took him to the vet ‘cause he was breathing weird a couple weeks ago and he was diagnosed with congenital heart disease. He’s 10 years old. So, here’s what they do: they stuck a, they inserted a tube into my bank account and drained it and that seemed to have helped the dog. Oh my gosh it’s expensive. Pets are expensive.

RH: You’ve recently gotten back on stage and you’ve got a pretty lengthy tour planned. How has it been to perform in front of live audiences again?

PP: Fantastic. Prior to the pandemic, I was known—not for a long time but near, say, months before the pandemic—I may have whined a little bit about travel. I might have. I might have here and there said my hips hurt from sitting on the airplane, and I never had time to do, you know, things I felt I needed to do. Uh, boy I don’t complain anymore! There’s no vestiges of that whining period any longer. I was so happy to get back to an audience, but also that opportunity to stand right in front of somebody and look them in the eye and talk to them, was glorious.

RH: You know, we live in some pretty scary times and for many people comedy is a way to cope with uncertainty or anxiety. As a performer, what does comedy give you when things are grave or dire?

PP: Oh, the same thing. I mean, thank goodness for nature giving us this coping mechanism. I think racoons might have it and maybe dogs—this ability to laugh at things and for that to reduce anxiety and make you able to function. But that experience of laughing together, or crying together, or you’re in a movie watching a scary movie and you’re all scared together. There’s something about that communal experience that is so healing, so much richer. Humans are weird! I don’t think dogs laugh together as a group. I do think racoons might.

RH: Well, this being NPR I, of course, have to ask about “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” Is it as fun as it seems it would be to work with Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis and the rest of the folks on that show?

PP: It’s great. You know, one of the things that’s fun about it is when one of us makes a joke, the other one is welcome to pile on, and I don’t anybody really takes authorship of anything. It’s great when everybody can jump in the pool that way. It’s very freeing as a performer for one thing. I do like talking about “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” in particular for one reason, which is I like to clear up a misconception: Yes I’m trying to win! A lot of people seem to believe that I throw the match intentionally. Never, not even once. I’m always trying to win. I’m very competitive. I’m just not very good. It’s a frustrating combination. I feel the others cheat. I feel that many of them are born into the world knowing more about current events than I. And that’s not right.

Ryan Heinsius was named interim news director and managing editor in January 2024. He joined KNAU's newsroom as an executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.