Seize the Giggle
Paula Poundstone lives in the comedic moment.
Thursday, February 1, 2007
Paula Poundstone wants to make you laugh. And with almost three decades of comedy under her belt, she is well-qualified to do so.
“As a comedian, I think I’m the best I’ve ever been now, for a couple of reasons,” she says. “One is the reverence in which I hold the job, and another is that it’s a job where experience serves you.”
That experience has earned her an Emmy and an American Comedy Award for her HBO special “Cats, Cops, and Stuff,” a long-running column in Mother Jones magazine, and a run of appearances on TV shows like “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live.”
On the surface, her routine hasn’t changed much since she quit her job bussing tables at IHOP nearly 30 years ago. With a microphone in one hand and a can of Diet Pepsi in the other, she still sports her trademark pinstripe suits with loudly-colored neckties.
But her autobiographical act has matured with age. “In the main, my material changes with what I’m doing in my life,” says Poundstone, 47, who’s now responsible for the welfare of three kids, 11 cats, one bearded lizard, and a dog which she describes as “the dumbest animal in the world.”
Her comedic style is honest, observational, and often self-deprecating. With biting irony and wit, she mines comedy from a life that’s included an upbringing in foster homes and a recent, much-publicized battle with alcoholism.
“I’ve performed under the most dire of personal circumstances, and I don’t think anybody necessarily knew,” she says. Her show invokes a therapy session, only with a barstool instead of a couch and the audience members playing the role of psychiatrist.
Perhaps the biggest change has come not in her material, but in her venues. Lately she’s sought an older, more sophisticated audience, evidenced by her regular gig as a panelist on NPR’s improv game show “Wait, Wait—Don’t Tell Me!”
Her first book, There’s Nothing In This Book That I Meant to Say, was released in November. The book was originally envisioned as a memoir, something Poundstone wasn’t altogether comfortable writing at first. “In the beginning, I just felt foolish. It felt presumptuous. I kept thinking, ‘Well, I’m not dead and I haven’t really done anything, so there’s no real reason to write about Paula Poundstone.’”
So she devised a way to overcome her modesty while simultaneously mocking the self-involved concept of a memoir. She interspersed personal reflections with anecdotes from the lives of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Beethoven.
While recounting the life of Hellen Keller—who was blind and deaf—she seamlessly segues to her daughter, who “has astigmatism and won’t listen.” When discussing Joan of Arc, who claimed to hear the voice of God, she writes, “I heard God speak to me once. He said, ‘You’re wearing that?’”
The absurdity of such comparisons is intentional. “The fact that I can talk about Lincoln’s mother dying, and then switch to talking about my own mother is very silly,” she says. “For me to write about Beethoven is ridiculous…for the longest time I thought it was pronounced ‘Beet-hahven.’”
It took nine years for Poundstone to finish the book, undermining any financial benefit. “It was a good deal on the book,” she says of her contract with Harmony Books, “but since it took me so goddamn long to write it, I think I made about two cents an hour. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. I made much less than two cents an hour.”
One of the roadblocks along the path to publication was avoiding an overlap between her stage material and her written material. “I didn’t want to just transcribe my act into a book,” she says. “For one thing, my material wouldn’t have filled a book. But I didn’t want people to buy the book and say, ‘Hell, I’ve already heard all this.”’
Further complicating any stage-to-page transition was her propensity to incorporate improvisational humor into her act, which obviously wouldn’t translate well without a live audience. Her on-the-spot humor during sets is legendary, part of what earned her the #88 spot on Comedy Central’s Top 100 Comedians of All Time.
“In terms of talking to the audience, which is my favorite part of the night, originally I would have to do it,” she says. “I’d get onstage and forget everything I was supposed to say. I’d be forced to do the time-honored ‘Where ya from? Whaddaya do for a living?’”
While sudden amnesia may have created the need for comedy without a net, it’s persisted because she loves creating an open dialogue. “It’s conversation,” she says. “It’s only improv in the sense that all conversation is improvised.”
And that’s why, at this stage in her career, she still finds the motivation to continue performing. She thrives on interacting with those who pay to see her.
“All good stand up,” she says, “is a relationship between audience and performer.”
PAULA POUNDSTONE plays the Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth in Carmel, this Thursday, Feb. 1, at 8pm. $37. sunsetcenter.org or 620-2040.