Paula Poundstone continues to make people laugh—and still in a suit and tie, no less—more than a quarter-century after she developed an avid following in San Francisco's comedy clubs. Her latest gig is emceeing the spring benefit for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the midwest's biggest private HIV care provider, on Thursday night. In between gigs and her panelist position on NPR's quiz show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, Poundstone talked to us about the first time she encountered HIV and whether it can ever be funny.
The Advocate: What made you want to take part in this event?
Paula Poundstone: Unfortunately, we can't use the heroic angle on this interview, because I am being paid to entertain at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago’s annual Spring Dinner. I have actually entertained for this benefit many times, many years ago. I don't think I was paid then, if that makes me seem more heroic. I love to tell my little jokes. I do lots of benefits all over the country. The truth is, my job is a cake walk. I get to tell jokes to people who have come out to laugh, while contributing to a cause that they care about. Laughter and water are the two best things for you. If I have so much as a sip of water that night, I'll be the richest person in the room. There aren't many unworthy causes. It takes a village to do almost anything.
Tell us about your first experience with HIV; was it personal, like a friend or family member contracting the disease?
My first knowledge of AIDS was when Robin Williams gave me a ride home from a club in San Francisco one night in the early '80s. I remember he said something about AIDS killing people, and I, thinking he meant the diet candy, and always looking for a lazy way of losing weight, said, "Really, we'll have to go grab some before they take them off the shelf." True story, I swear it.
The thing about AIDS in the beginning was that it scared people. It is the only disease that I can think of, in my lifetime, where people didn't know where it was coming from. AIDS rode into town on a motorcycle and the affliction of fear, stigma, and hysteria rode in the side car.
I volunteered at a group home a long, long time ago that was specifically for children with AIDS. We were told that these children were languishing, untouchable, in hospitals, where they would die. I don't think this was ever true, by the way, but it was a terrible symptom of the hysteria. So, many children were unnecessarily brought to facilities, and separated from family life, because well intended people were scared of this freaky disease. That was debilitating.
Back in the '80s, did you think we'd still be battling HIV more than 30 years later?
I did think we'd still be trying to cure AIDS 30 years later. It came on so big and bad, how could we have expected to win that battle any earlier? I hope the research and prevention efforts continue as fast as they can... when people die from AIDS, it can never seem fast enough, but remember where we were. In terms of the world's priorities, I can tell you that the money spent on research and prevention is a good investment. I helped a friend, who had been mistakenly, and unceremoniously thrown off of Medi-Cal (California's public health care system for low-income people), get their medication and I would have gone belly up financially after only a couple of weeks of paying for those drugs that have kept his viral loads at undetectable levels for so many years.
Do you think, at this point in time, it's ok to tell jokes about HIV or to include the subject in your act?
If I have a joke that makes me laugh, I tell it, no matter what the topic. I consider myself a proud member of the endorphin production industry.
Who makes you laugh?
I have never laughed harder than when I have seen someone with toilet paper, unbeknownst to them, stuck to the bottom of their shoe. I am nothing but class.