She’s back. Did she ever go away? Do Millennials even know about her?
These things matter not. What matters is Paula Poundstone, the legendary comic known for her superior improv skills with audiences, has a new podcast: Live from the Poundstone Institute. Each week, listeners tune in to find the familiarity of the hit NPR quiz program Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! combined with the comedic timing of a throwback SNL sketch.
“Wait a minute, we have to pay for each bleep?” Poundstone asks cohost and Wait Wait veteran Adam Felber after learning the podcast gets charged per curse word. “It’s very expensive,” Felber answers. “Aw, s***!” Poundstone blurts out.
Each episode centers around a different scientific theme. For instance, on August 26, 2017, the audience learned about germs and how surprisingly easy they spread (never put your hands under public restroom hand dryers). Felber serves as the chief of research as well as Poundstone’s funnyman sidekick. The back-and-forth camaraderie between the two hosts is particularly delightful during a time when even science seems to be creating division. Short interviews and audience-participation quizzes make the show feel more like a comedy-science lightning bolt than the structured half-hour program that it is.
Particularly unique are the scientific themes the show chooses to discuss. “On today’s show,” Felber anounces in his trademark game-show style, “a former NASA engineer turns his attention to making something truly useful: a better Super Soaker water gun.” The program’s premiere episode, “Does Science Think You’re Pretty?” (July 8), delves into a study that found most people think they’re more attractive than they actually are. Listeners learned about an experiment conducted by researchers who Photoshopped participants’ faces to make them more attractive, then asked them to choose their correct image out of a lineup. The results were that participants tended to choose the enhanced image.
With the amount of improvised hilarity that flows freely throughout each episode, there is a surprising amount of learning that takes place. In the germs episode, Professor Paul Dawson informs the audience that only one in five men washes their hands, a finding based on comparing the number of urinal flushes with the number of times the sink was turned on. “You’re missing the guys who have both peed separately in urinals and then they go ‘let’s share the water in the sink’” Poundstone chimes in afterwards. During the August 19th episode, which focuses on gender recognition, researcher Donald McKnight talks about the difficulty scientists have identifying the gender of turtles. He then describes the process they use to determine a turtle’s gender–by using store-bought vibrators (yes, those types of vibrators).
Though not a part of any real aspect or focus of the show, subtle pokes at President Trump add to the “this podcast believes in climate change” feel of the program. During the episode about how people perceive their own attractiveness, Poundstone asks call-in guest Nicholas Epley if there are other things people overestimate. “Like people tend to overestimate how convincing their comb-over is, I think,” Poundstone jibes. Later in the show, Felber, too, takes a shot at Trump: “Doctor, have you done any research into why people tend to overestimate the size of the crowd at their inauguration?” he asks. “I’m not a clinical psychologist,” the doctor responds. In another episode, while talking to the audience about a survey, Felber explains, “We’ll find out soon what percentage of this audience would have preferred to have lived during the American Civil War—not the current one, the previous one.”
Toward the end of every show, Live from the Poundstone Institute interviews one noteworthy celebrity to participate in what they call the “PPP,” which stands for Poundstone Personality Psurvey. Entertainers such as Tig Notaro, David Sedaris, and Dana Carvey have undergone the PPP, a series of personal questions that allow the show programmers to adorably categorize the interviewee as various types of animals, foods, or board games. “According to our database, Kevin,” Poundstone announces after tabulating the results from comedian Kevin Nealon’s PPP, “you are cheeseburger in a can, which is a real product.” Dick Cavett’s PPP from July 8 is particularly entertaining, each question leading to a different crazy story from Cavett’s prominent career as a talk show host.
The real beauty of the show is never knowing what oddball thing or character is going to pop out of Poundstone or Felber’s mouth. In the September 9 episode, Felber graces the audience with a spot-on impression of a C3PO voice automation system for a car that’s noticed a squirrel. Even their sponsor bits are funny. “If you’re looking for mediocre talent to fill positions in your business, and you’re happy to fill in until the right slacker comes along, don’t pay any attention to what I’m about to tell you,” Poundstone prefaces before launching into an ad for Zip Recruiter. Her sheer wit elevates the podcast to a much cooler version of a science-packed game show. “I am walking down the hall of my high school,” Poundstone starts after being asked if she has any recurring dreams. “And my high-school math teacher Farup stops me. And she says, ‘Why weren’t you in class today?’ And I panic. And I start to make the excuses that I always made when I was in high school. And all the sudden it dawns on me that the answer is: I’m 57.”
If you love Bill Nye the Science Guy or simply have a desire to smile, buckle into your laugh diaper and subscribe to Live From the Poundstone Institute. For more information about the podcast, visit the official website or Facebook page. Click here to subscribe to Live from the Poundstone Institute, or search in your phone’s iTunes podcast app. To stream episodes, visit their Podbean page.
For more information about Paula Poundstone, visit her website . To learn more about cohost Adam Felber, follow him on Twitter. Twin Cities natives can also catch Paula Poundstone October 8, 2017, when she serves as the emcee for Opus and Olives, the annual Friends of the St. Paul Public Library fundraiser, at the RiverCentre.