A mother, a tap-dancer-in-training, an activist, a writer and an extremely unprofitable cat farmer, comedian Paula Poundstone plays Babeville on Oct. 2. One of the signature elements of a Poundstone show is talking with and riffing off of the audience. So come with your questions, your comments or any Pop-Tart related issues. She spoke in her signature stream-of-consciousness style with The Public recently from her home in California. Before she would begin the interview, she vowed that, in her efforts to win over our town, she will master the “shuffle off to Buffalo” tap-dancing routine.
You talk about your kids all the time—why do you think that raising kids is such an important part of your life?
Important part of anybody’s life who does it. I didn’t birth them, so it’s not a body-part thing. It takes over your life, that’s for sure. In your life, the day before and day after you get the kid are hugely different. When I was first adopting, I had a room added on to my house. It was set up with all this stuff: curtains, a crib and rocking chair, and a snare drum for a night table…I’d sit in there and try to anticipate and imagine what it would be like. The first baby came, and I realized that there’s no simulating this. The exhaustion and the inadequacy…it is impossible to do “correctly.”
What is the most challenging thing happening right now with them?
Electronics addiction. I’ve been reading and researching the topic for the past few years. Right now, I’m reading Reset Your Child’s Brain by Victoria Dunckley. Electronics alter the brain; particularly the developing brain. Everyone who uses them has an addiction to some degree. It hasn’t delivered on its promise—certainly educationally. When Pres. Clinton said our kids will be all connected through the information super highway…It was a good thought. We need to recognize that it’s not helping and we need to do something else. The negatives now outweigh the positives—certainly in the world of education.
Since we think that it’s educational, we’ve been putting our kids in front of computers since they were three, and didn’t let them watch TV. It turns out that the “flat things” [Poundstone’s word for electronic device screens] are far more destructive. I’m fighting that battle every day with a teenage boy. In some ways it’s like having a heroin addict—I mean, he won’t die from choking on his own vomit (though there are people whose body parts shut down from addictive gaming).
When you say “screen addiction,” people feel the need to suggest that it’s not real. They might say, “He can use them just a little; just for school.” But the brain doesn’t differentiate—no one would say: “Oh, he can use heroin just a little bit.” I mean, I love to tap dance, and practice the drums, but I haven’t yet tried to figure out how do to those things while driving so the cops couldn’t see. I’m concerned that the new DSM 5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the bible for health diagnoses] was released and this is not included.
You have 16 cats, is that correct? Are they all indoor cats? How does that work?
Well…it’s 15 now. And yes, they are all indoors. I clean a lot. I can do an impression of a cat throwing up so well. Though I do get kind of tingly at kitten season, I’m not [acquiring cats] any more. The best story about my cat habit is, one time when Allie and Thomas were younger, I picked them up from school, and said “I have a surprise for you!” Allie replied almost resignedly, “Kitten?” That day it was actually two kittens.
In listening to some interviews with you, you seem to have a very healthy sense of detachment about your expectations of your kids and their relationship with you as their parent.
I base some of that on my own experience. When I was a young adult, I felt very strongly that I make my own decisions—I was determined. You can’t tell a teenager very much; you know that Mark Twain, joke, “My father didn’t know anything when I was 18, he learned so much by the time I was 20.” Me saying, “You should do this or that,” wouldn’t work. I imagine a version of that song, “follow every rainbow until you find…my dream for you.” I am never going to be on the cover of Parenting magazine. I do feel that kids have a certain level of self-determination that if you mess with that, you’re not going to get what you are looking for. It’s different from support—I would support them in all sorts of things, but not tell them what to do. If someone had done that to me, my instinct would have been to run the other way.
You’ve said you’re not close with your siblings or parents.
I would like my kids to be close to one another. They’ve seen it both ways—my own family experience may be a lousy example, but I’m still close to a family I lived with as a teenager. They had seven kids. We vacation with them every year. They are a great example of a family who remains close over the years. My kids will do what they do. It has to come from them; I will encourage them in that direction.
You are pretty vocal about your views on mental health. You’ve said that the “entire world is in a mental health crisis,” and that we’re all “mad as hatters.” Why do you think like that?
First of all, chopping people’s heads off is not a sane thing to do. The fact that this is happening anywhere in the world—and that they can recruit from the US and Europe by fishing around for the disenfranchised is a borderless insanity.
The computer, it has some wonderful uses. Though by now, I’m not always sure what they are. The fake connections through the internet easily get mistaken for real connection. There’s a growing pool of people who, in their efforts to feel connected, become more and more disconnected. Not just kids.
Just look at the fact that Donald Trump can even halfway fill a football stadium with people listening to him. He’s insane. I mean, okay, one guy is insane, who cares. But when a lot of people want to listen to him, that’s a problem.
I’ve stumbled through bouts of OCD.
What are the most striking effects of aging for you?
I think some of it is biochemistry—the neuron fireworks settle down as you get to a certain age. I’ve become less dramatic. I used to go around bragging about how little sleep I’d gotten, purely by choice. For years, I thought it was cool, and it struck me as a great thing to tell people how little I’d slept. It became self-perpetuating. You are a nutter when you don’t get enough sleep, and then every day you are regenerating and building on the nuttiness.
I’ve observed my daughter is going through a more dramatic phase. When she was little, and I’d suggested watching a movie like “Old Yeller,” she’d get angry and couldn’t understand why you’d want to watch such a sad thing. Cut to now; she made me watch “The Skeleton Twins,” a slog through suicide attempts and unhappy loves, with characters that you have no reason to care about. It was miserable, and she thought it was great! She watched it over and over! There are certain ages where you just gravitate towards drama.
Maybe when you have kids, you don’t need to generate drama. They’ve done a study which revealed that people who don’t have children are happier; it makes sense. As a parent, you’re responsible for kids whose lives also have ups and downs, you’ve got this double-quantriple-whammy of things going wrong. When you don’t have kids, you don’t have that. I still like drama a little bit.
If you weren’t a stand-up comic, knowing what you know about yourself, what do you think you’d have become?
I’d be dead. I’m not smart or intuitive; have truly suffered with debilitating OCD at certain points of my life. I’m not a gifted life philosopher—it happens that I do a job that produces endorphins, that’s lucky. I didn’t say to myself that I would do this work that produces endorphins. I’ve been an undeserving beneficiary of this for 36 years. I was good at bussing tables, and worked 12-14 hours a day, a good day of hard labor felt great to me sometimes; working hard, doing well—it felt like an accomplishment. I am very lucky that I have the ability to think of things that I think are funny and say them to a crowd.
What do you think is an antidote, if there is one, to the state of world?
Get out, laugh, be with others, it truly is the best healer and the best way to feel less alone.
No matter how screwed up my personal life has been, I’m able to go on stage and tell people about it. “Recognition laughter” is great—that feeling that you are not the only one. To hear someone say it, and be able to laugh at it takes a burden off people. You can realize that it’s the human condition. Don’t just go to see my show, I tell people. Go out, see a funny movie, or just out to dinner and laugh.
Even though you quote them occasionally, “reports” and “studies” seem to infuriate you. I noticed you tweeted about one recently that compared the dangers of sitting to smoking…what do they represent for you?
I’m just baffled by some of it. Who is funding these studies? Peter [Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, the news quiz on which Poundstone is a regular], talked about this one study that found that “cats are the only animal that don’t forgive.” I mean, people like to put cats down. And, you know, I don’t consider myself a crazy cat woman; I don’t think that they are better than human beings. But who would do such a study? What is the upside? And, how do you know if a cat has forgiven you?! Part of it is funding: They’re always cutting back on school budgets, but when some idiot wants to do a study…they should have to do a bake sale to pay for the studies.
You talk frequently about crappy pastries like Pop-Tarts, Ring Dings, etc. What’s the deal with that?
I’ve eaten a lot of junk food and I don’t recommend it; I’ve paid a price. But I haven’t learned my lesson. Even if I were diabetic, I would continue to do it.
Also, because of Pop-Tarts’ packaging, and the ease of transport, they were a main staple for many years when I was on the road. Audience members would bring me Pop-Tarts and related gifts. One time I was carrying this case through an airport. It looks just like a pop tart. A security guard said “What’s this?!” It said “Pop Tart” right on it, with fake sprinkles and plastic icing.
What advice do you give comedians just starting out?
“Learn to do the job.” Work really hard. If you’ve got an audience of five people, appreciate them for being there, rather than being angry that there are so few people there.
You certainly seem to work hard.
The truth is that the audience is my best friend. That might not be mentally healthy. It’s just true. They just are. I’m always glad to see them. No matter how lousy I’m feeling before I go on…for example, the other night in Wisconsin, it was truly in the middle of nowhere. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. I flew to Duluth, where I had a half-hour in a hotel before a several-hour drive to the show, which was in a tent. In the car, my head was leaning on the glove compartment. I could see the looks of the people helping me; they were concerned. I said, “If you could bring a handcart to take me to the dressing room”… I was kidding. And of course, I knew that the minute I hit the stage I’d feel great. And it was absolutely true.
Work is a big part of life. What do you tell your kids about their job prospects?
Of course, I want my kids to do jobs that they are happy with, and where it’s exciting and fun to go to work. I tell them, though, that three-quarters of the jobs in the world don’t fit that description. I know how lucky I am that I get to do my job. Do I wish I was a big movie star? Yeah, that would be great. But, when I talk to people directly after my shows…I get that human exchange—I get to meet their kids, they’ll tell me that they are recovering from cancer, or their husband died or they have seen me in six different states. That contact, those details…those are the privileges.
Jana Eisenberg, a frequent contributor to The Public, is a Buffalo-based editor and writer.