RED WING — The interview is only seconds old when comedian Paula Poundstone hijacks a line of questioning about what she recalls the last time she was in Red Wing.
Poundstone will be making a return engagement when she performs at 8 p.m. Friday at the Sheldon Theatre. But ask Poundstone about her last Red Wing visit, and it becomes clear that taking in the local sights and sounds typically doesn’t fit into the itinerary of a well-traveled, award-winning comedian.
“I don’t remember, so don’t ask me where I went and how much I enjoyed it, cause I don’t remember,” Poundstone said. “I didn’t go anywhere, and I enjoyed it just fine.”
But while her travel schedule may follow a set routine, her comedy on stage is the opposite, unpredictable and unscripted. Getting to know her audience and playing off what she learns from it, in fact, is a key part of her improvisational style of comedy.
“It’s kind of like how Willy Wonka’s chocolate waterfall naturally churns as chocolate,” Poundstone said. “I have material. I have 36 years of material, but my favorite is just plain talking to the audience. In this way little biographies emerge, and I use that from which to set my sails.”
That unscripted style is what made has Poundstone a popular presence on “Wait Wait … Don’t Me,” which is now heard in 5 million homes across the country. Each episode, Poundstone matches wits with some of the country’s leading pundits. And Poundstone has never stopped feeling lucky that she is on the show.
“I stumbled upon ‘Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me’ 13 years ago,” Poundstone said. “It’s been a gift that keeps on giving. Every so often, I just tweet to (host) Peter Sagal, ‘Thank you.’ He always goes, ‘What’s that for?’ I never respond.”
Poundstone also lent her distinctive voice to the character “Forgetter Paula” in the new Disney Pixar film, “Inside Out,” about a young girl who is uprooted from her Midwest life when her father starts a new job.
A lot of Poundstone’s material comes from her own life, her cats, her children. Circling back to her own life works well as comedian but isn’t a great social trait, she says.
“It’s a terrible trait,” she said. “The other day, Carol Burnett called me. A thrill of a lifetime. And I hear myself telling Carol Burnett about her show. I don’t do it on purpose. I just can’t stop it. But on stage, it actually works fairly well.”
It was more than 30 years ago that Poundstone climbed on a Greyhound bus and traveled across the country — stopping in at open mic nights at the comedy clubs as she went. It was another way in which she was lucky. Her arrival coincided with the beginning of a renaissance in stand-up comedy.
“Obviously, stand-up comedy has been around since we came out of the caves,” Poundstone said. “There was renewed interest in the form. I’ve never understood why, but a bunch of cities sort of caught fire at the same time.”
Poundstone said she was terrible when she first started out: “Everybody is terrible when you start.” Of course, she got a lot better. Poundstone doesn’t get nervous like she used to going on stage. Now, it’s “plain fun.”
“I like to leave myself lots and lots of room to just find the magic that’s in the room,” Poundstone said. “It’s an absolutely joyful experience. I think I owe any semblance of mental health that I have to my job.”