LOS ANGELES -- A few years ago, on the NPR weekly news quiz show "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" comedian panelist Paula Poundstone got into a food fight with Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" and "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto."
It was over Ring Dings, the snack cake that Ms. Poundstone proclaimed has made her life worth living.
"Are you going to tell me that's not a food?" she asked.
Mr. Pollan, who was invited to play a segment called "Not My Job" on the hit radio program, tried to draw the distinction between real food and food products by asking Ms. Poundstone to list the ingredients.
"Devil's food cake, one," she said. "A creamy filling, two. And a rich, chocolate outer coating. What's the matter with you?!"
That's classic Poundstone.
Famous for her sharp wit and spontaneity, she has a comedic style that has been compared to improvisational jazz, "swinging," as The Boston Globe put it, "in unexpected directions without a plan, without a net."
Ms. Poundstone tosses off her repartee so effortlessly that some people come away from a show wondering if the random folks asked, "What do you do for a living?" are plants posing as audience members. Their emerging mini-biographies -- the comedian's favorite part of the night -- in turn determine the direction her performance will take.
"Improvise always sounds like such a highfalutin word, but normally a third of the night is unscripted," says Ms. Poundstone, 52, who recently headlined a breast cancer benefit in Long Beach, Calif.
She describes her stand-up style as visiting a friend you haven't seen for a long time.
"You start to think about all the stuff you want to say," she says. "Sometimes you talk about stuff from a long time ago, you talk about what you're doing now and then you might talk about current events outside of yourself. And then there's the stuff that happens just because the two of you are together. That's how a show goes."
Ms. Poundstone has been telling jokes on stage for 33 years. A native of Massachusetts, she flourished in San Francisco and later Los Angeles as the first woman to win the CableACE award, in 1992, for best stand-up comedy special, and the first woman invited to entertain at the prestigious White House Correspondents dinner, also in 1992. She has starred in several HBO comedy specials, appears frequently on late-night talk shows and is at work on her second book for Random House, as well as a CD.
She's also a regular panelist on "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" where she riffs on everything from politics to motherhood.
Just like she's doing now.
"The dog's tail will knock some pictures off the refrigerator -- and by the way, that happens every day," says Ms. Poundstone, speaking from Santa Monica, where she lives with her three children, Toshia, 21; Allison, 18; and Thomas E., 14. "Why we don't just move the pictures I don't know. But anyways -- I come into the kitchen where my 21-year-old and my 14-year-old are sitting eating breakfast and I go, 'I assume the dog knocked these off?'
"'Yeah,'" they'll say.
"Am I the only one capable of seeing it?" she asks.
"'No,' " they'll say.
"OK," she says. "Will one of you please get up and put them back?"
"'Yeah,' " they'll say.
"But they don't get the time frame," she says. "Kids don't feel the urgency."
Ms. Poundstone's anecdotes and off-kilter remarks have become the stuff of legend on "Wait Wait" since her first appearance on the show in 2001. In fact, her exchange with Mr. Pollan has been the subject of tweets and emails because of the national panic over Hostess Brands going out of business.
"A friend of mine wrote me an email the other day," she says. "I read it on the fly and it said, 'We're so sorry for your loss' and 'We feel your pain.' And I thought, What do they know that I don't know? My heavens! Someone has died.
"At the bottom it said, 'What will you eat for breakfast?' "
As it turns out, Ring Dings were made by Drake's, a baking company that was acquired by Hostess. And it was Ring Dings she had talked to Mr. Pollan about that day.
"When people come and do the 'Not My Job' thing, often it's just over the phone, but there are times when they are there," she says. "We were in Berkeley when Michael Whatshisname came down to the show and sat in a chair on the stage.
"I've never known if he left [mad] or if he just left," she says. "I assume he probably just left because most of us have lives. But I don't know. I certainly struck at the man where he lives."