Paula Poundstone on How She Started Telling Pop-Tart Jokes

Illustration: Giacomo Gambineri

A new generation of fans has discovered Paula Poundstone as a regular on NPR’s panel game show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, but her success as a stand-up stretches back to the early days of the 1980s comedy boom. Her 1990 HBO special Cats, Cops and Stuff, which includes the Pop-Tarts bit that we featured on our list of “100 Jokes that Defined Modern Comedy," is a perfect embodiment of her style, a mix of observational stand-up and audience improvisation. Vulture caught up with Poundstone to talk about her history with prebaked pastries and how Robin Williams changed the game.

Do you remember when you started talking about Pop-Tarts?
In the early '80s. I started out in Boston, but I took a Greyhound bus around the country to see what clubs were like in different cities. I ended up loving San Francisco, so I just stayed. There was a wonderful club called the Other Café. They had a really hot open-mic-night circuit in San Francisco at that time — as an audience member, you saw people who were really great through absolute nutters, but they were always fun nights. I got hired occasionally to host that open mic, and it was long job. There would be 30 people that wanted to go up. I was a bike messenger during the day, so I was hungry a lot. Since the open mic started probably at eight o’clock and went until 1:30 or two, I would bring food to eat, and one of my favorite foods was Pop-Tarts. I was a young comic at the time, so I didn't really have all that much actual material, and so at a point, I would read from the box or the package of whatever food I had. I have no idea why.

And you know, the toasting instructions on the Pop-Tarts are so damn funny. Over the years they changed them — obviously, the way you toast a Pop-Tart has never changed, but they keep changing the words, and I've always assumed it has to be the legal department driving it. It's gotta be that people are somehow injuring themselves and trying to sue, and so they keep trying to clarify. So, for example, No. 1 has, for years, been, “Remove pastry from pouch.” They didn't even feel comfortable just putting, “and put it in the toaster.” They had to separate it. Which tells you that somebody's toaster was bursting into flames.

So anyways, I would read the ingredients and discuss how many times a day I ate Pop-Tarts. Then, even if I didn't have them with me, San Francisco audiences would start bringing me junk food, specifically Pop-Tarts — on an HBO special I made in San Francisco, somebody right in the front row handed me a box of them. The rest of the country saw this, and everywhere, they started bringing me Pop-Tarts.

So you weren’t planning to do that bit on the special?
No, it was just that the people had brought them. I mean, certainly, there was material that I did plan to do, and did, on that night. But no, that was not on the list. Anything with the audience was not planned.

It’s amazing that you would have that much flexibility in taping a special to do something like that.
You know, when I got hired by HBO, they said, “You can't talk to the audience.” I was just blown away. I said, “Wait a minute, then why are you hiring me? I don't understand. I don't think I should do it.” So we had an agreement that they would very carefully mic the room. They put mics hanging down from the ceiling all around the theater, and then they had people with boom mics, and their job was, if I started talking to somebody, the boom-mic people had to haul ass with those boom mics and run over to who I was talking to to get them further mic'd. The only kind of rehearsal I ever did for that show was, earlier in the day, we would have production assistants sitting in the chairs pretending to be audience members, and when I would say to somebody, “Oh, so what do you do for a living?” or whatever, the boom-mic guys practiced running over and making sure that we could get it.

When you started doing comedy, who were the people that influenced you?
Everybody of my generation has been influenced by Robin Williams. I started in ’79, and by then, Robin was already a big, big star. He was already on Mork & Mindy.  There was not, however, in ’79, this proliferation of comedy clubs around the country. But Robin, he did two things. One is he really changed how stand-up comedy got done. He did away with the segue. You don't have to be telling a story anymore, you can just sort of have a thought and say it, and that came from Robin. That sort of free-form way that he went about doing what he did ­— for those of us that don't write that well, it was really a blessing. [Laughs.]

He was also everywhere. He would work a 3,000-seat amphitheater in Cincinnati and then, that night, he would show up at Uncle Funny's Yuk House at one in the morning. So all around the country, there was this feeling that Robin Williams might show up. The truth is, not only might he, but he did. He was like the Tasmanian Devil. It was joyous and spontaneous and fun, and then what people found when they came out to the clubs was that they would see other comics while they were hoping to see Robin, and ended up discovering some of us.