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Paula Poundstone Wants You to Be Her Best Friend

Paula Poundstone. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images

Paula Poundstone does not like the term “crowd work.” She finds it “antiseptic,” like a service one can request on TaskRabbit: “I need someone to do some crowd work for an hour on Saturday night.” And yet, she is one of the all-time greats at it. No one has ever taken the generic “What do you do for a living?” questions and been able to create mini-biographies, as she calls them, and foster such an atmosphere of closeness to everyone in the crowd. You can see this in her live shows (she’s on tour this fall, including an October 7 show at Town Hall in New York), but maybe even more impressively, her filmed specials, where she pioneered ways to mic and shoot the audience. Like this, for example:

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Poundstone discusses how she developed this style, how she convinced HBO to let her mic the audience, and why the audience is her best friend. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On How She Got Into Crowd Work

My favorite part of being onstage is just plain talking to the audience. There were two things that facilitated that. The first thing was when I started out in Boston and in San Francisco, open-mic nights were hugely popular — big audiences, and a long list of comics who wanted to go on. The premise of the open-mic night was that anybody who wanted to could sign up and go on for five minutes. People were very touchy about this five-minute thing. If you went on a second longer, you could hear knives sharpening in the back. The very first time I went on in Boston, I had written and typed out my set on the back of the obsolete paper place mat from the restaurant I was busing tables at, and I would spend the whole time I was busing tables memorizing that five minutes. But out of nervousness, I forgot what I was going to say, so I was stuck talking to the audience. I had nothing else to do. I then became notorious for going over, because now I don’t know what five minutes is anymore. Oh my gosh, people get mad at me.

The other thing that happened — one of the probably the luckiest things that ever happened to me as a comic was at the wonderful Other Café in San Francisco, where I often hosted open-mic nights. There you might be bringing on, like, I don’t know, 25 people. And your job is you open the night, tell some jokes, and bring up a comic. The comic may be very good or they may really be awful, but your job is to keep the audience there. As a person who only had like five minutes of material — and that was if I could remember it — I had exhausted the material I had within the first 30 minutes of the show. And so after that, I was forced to work the crowd.
I worked as a bike messenger during the day. After work, I’d take the bus home from downtown San Francisco. I’d take a shower and head out to the club on the bus. Somewhere along the way, I would stop at a market and get junk food, and I would sit at a table near the stage so that I could be ready to jump onstage when the next comic was done. Oftentimes I still had like a big bite of Pop-Tart in my mouth or a Hostess apple pie. And then sometimes I would read from the package of the Pop-Tarts, or I would offer everybody some, which is where that joke started. There was this sort of group feeling. In fact, sometimes the comic would be offstage already, and the whole crowd would turn around and go, “Paula!”

On the Energy of Her Live Shows

As much as possible, I want the room to feel like the Rosses’ basement. They were my next-door neighbors when I was growing up in a small town in Massachusetts. Mrs. Ross, who was really a wonderful woman, went partially deaf when we were kids. Hearing aids weren’t what they are now. The good news is she could turn that hearing aid off or just take them out altogether, and we could be as loud and obnoxious as we wanted, whereas in my mother’s house, she’d say she had a headache. So, at the Rosses’ house, it was the fun house. We would go down in their basement. There was a part of the basement that was really undeveloped. There were no lights in there, and it was our hide-and-seek place. I could never even measure how much time went by when we were down there. Somebody would come down and say, like, “Oh, it’s dinnertime now. You have to go to your house.”

As a comic, I will never say anything as funny as the shit that got said in the Rosses’ basement. We just laughed and laughed and laughed. So, my goal as a comic is to re-create the Rosses’ basement as much as I can. Not as loud, I suppose.

I love working theaters. It’s a real different vibe than the handful of clubs — usually they’re music clubs — where I work. But there’s a big difference between someone “heckling” or interrupting than what I have going on, and sometimes you try to explain it to the staff. Generally speaking, it’s not an issue. But every now and then, they’ll be like, “We’ll keep people quiet.” “No, I don’t want to keep people quiet.” If somebody was being an asshole, that’s one thing. I don’t even very much react to that, because (a) it’s not generally a problem, and (b) I’ve been an asshole before. From the location of the glass house that I look out from, it’s very hard to find somebody else a bigger asshole than I can be.

On Why Her Audience Is Her Best Friend

It could mean a couple of things. Like maybe I’m a really lousy friend and I don’t do well in regular relationships. But also, I tell them things about my life. And gosh, one of the best feelings that one can have — for me anyways, as a performer — is that feeling that you’ve shared something that otherwise people feel really, really isolated about because they thought they were the only one. I push for that sometimes because I’ve had the reverse experience, which is where I thought I was the only one and then I blurted something out onstage and everybody laughed, and I realized, Oh, my gosh, they weren’t laughing because like, “What a weird thing.” They were laughing because, “Oh my God, I have that.

I was raised in a small town in Massachusetts, and I always thought that the challenges that we were having in our house were entirely different. The Rosses were a bad example because it really was something charmed about a lot of their experiences with one another. But I just always thought that what we were going through was somehow unique, and it wasn’t stuff that you would tell other people, because you felt like a big loser. And, as it turns out, so many things — I would venture to say almost everything that we experience, given how many people there are in the world and who have gone before us — they’re not unique. There’s nothing I can say about my life that somebody else can’t say, “Oh yeah. I had that.” Especially, for example, in raising my children, which is such a lonely pursuit in so many ways. I’m a single mom, and maybe that made it more so, in some ways. But there were times where I just felt like, Oh my gosh, this doesn’t happen to anybody else. And it turns out, no, it happens to tons of people. But when you’re going through it, it does feel like a slog. So, that’s why they’re my best friend. Plus, don’t you want to have a great time with your best friend? And I have a great time with the audience.

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Paula Poundstone Wants You to Be Her Best Friend