WASHINGTON — Like many of the panelists on NPR's popular "Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me!" trivia show, Paula Poundstone hails from a comedy background and consistently contributes to the hilarity of each episode.
But on its face, "Wait, Wait" is a trivia contest, and Poundstone claims to put in a good faith effort in preparation before her every appearance. Alas, the studying rarely pays off.
"I actually do try to get the answers right," Poundstone said. "I try to read as much of the week's news ahead of time. Whatever method I use clearly doesn't work because I do hold the record for losses."
Poundstone has been a regular panelist on the show for 17 of its 20 years on the air, and in lieu of successfully answering questions, the producers must ask her back for her comedic pedigree. That's been the story for Poundstone since kindergarten.
The first sentence in the last paragraph of a year-end summary written by her teacher in lieu of a report card in May 1965 states: "I have enjoyed many of Paula's humorous comments about our activities."
"This is documented proof that when I was a kid, adults responded to what I thought was funny," Poundstone said. "Not always — I think things got a little rocky in the second grade. But I still have that letter."
Poundstone took that validation and ran with it. By the the end of her teenage years, she had broken into the Boston open-mic scene. By Greyhound bus, she explored the rest of the country at any open mic event that would have her, eventually settling into the San Francisco comedy scene at the Haight-Ashbury club The Other Cafe.
By then, Poundstone had already honed a trait that would turn into a hallmark of hers — improvisational interactions with the audience. It was a tactic she tried to suppress early in her career, during those first open mics in Boston, because she believed it ran counter to how a big-shot comedian performs a stand-up routine. She "stuck to a script" that she didn't normally deviate from.
"I thought it was the mark of a lack of professionalism," Poundstone said. "The very idea that I was concerned with professionalism is laughable to me now."
Eventually, Poundstone realized that it was the moments when she veered from that script that she was having the most fun and connected most with the audience. She hardly had any trouble with hecklers, and the majority of her audience wasn't the type to give her too much trouble.
So every one of her performances included a portion where Poundstone started pointing to somebody in the crowd and ask, "Where ya from, what do you do for a living?" And once she got going with the questions for that individual, the audience member became more fascinating and she unearthed even more improvisational jokes to make.
Except for the people who were software engineers.
"I do glaze over ever so slightly when I hear that," Poundstone said. "And I tell ya, nowadays you find a lot of software designers. Then I quickly say, 'What do you do in your free time?'"
Most comedians who find sustained success might upgrade to a network television show or as a talk show host. But Poundstone's next act came from an NPR radio show that, at the time, was only in its third year and was largely unknown (Poundstone hadn't even heard of "Wait Wait" when she was asked to join).
The show's producers discovered her from occasional guest appearances on "A Prairie Home Companion." Poundstone didn't know what to expect from the comedy-game show hybrid and was shocked to discover the hands-off approach from the producers. And in many ways, it played to all her best strengths, from her hilarious grasp of improv to dropping in humorous comments based off a particular question or fellow panelist's answer.
"Oftentimes I think the suits are the bane of the existence of many shows," Poundstone said. "So many shows hire an apple and they try to get it to be a peach. And they hire a peach and they insist it be more banana-like. And it just confuses the fruit. But on "Wait, Wait," they let you do what you do. And that's kind of brilliant."
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3262 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.