Comedian Paula Poundstone built a solid career as an observational comic with a razor-sharp wit and enviable improv skills. She reads a room, and when she senses the slightest vapor of a bite, she rides the comet. She’s established herself as a force to be reckoned with on stage.
As with many artists of longevity, it’s a challenge to find a new stone to turn, yet Poundstone always manages to approach topics with a fresh perspective. During a recent interview with EU Jacksonville, I decided to follow her lead by going off-script. Like her act, I prepared a loose outline to follow, and, because I lacked confidence in my ability to keep up without a safety net, a couple of glasses to break in case of emergency.
The result was a couple of middle-aged gals chatting on a Tuesday afternoon about the rotten core of the current administration, the pressures of emergency evacuations, and the relief that exists with simplicity. Presented by The Florida Theatre, Poundstone performs November 23 at the WJCT Soundstage (www.floridatheatre.com).
Poundstone is a decorated humorist, the kind of comic more habituated to the radiation from thousands than under the microscope of a few hundred fans. As it turns out, she’s not intimidated by an intimate setting. She’s perfectly comfortable playing to a modest audience or a stadium crowd. Both are a far cry from her early days, taking the stage in the wee morning hours before a handful of souls scattered around an empty room.
“Sometimes when I work places they say, ‘do you want us to put the lights up so you can see the crowd?’ and I’m like, ‘no, I don’t want them to feel like roasting chickens in the grocery store.’ When I was just starting out in San Francisco, there was a club that seated like 50 people. It was a very popular club among the comics, and there was a lot of open mics there. You were sort of given the slots about how you were as a comic, but there was a little hierarchy there. In the beginning, I would be put on at 1:30 in the morning, and there would be three people there. Also 39 years ago, they started an event called Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park which is an outdoor free event in San Francisco. I did it the second year, and at that time was 60,000 people. So, I can do either.”
She’s stayed true to the curious way she sees the world and mines the best bits on life from her own experience. That includes keeping a watchful and informed view on the state of the union and the lasting impact the current administration. “In general, my act is rather autobiographical, so often I talk about raising a houseful of kids and animals. I talk about trying to pay attention to the news well enough to cast a half-way decent vote and the goddamn mire we find ourselves in now. I hope I say it loud enough for Vlad to hear. Somewhere in our arrogance we never thought it could happen to us. There are too many tentacles. The Democrats keep trying to line up their impeachment charges, and they just keep finding more stuff.”
A recent text that woke Poundstone from a sound sleep tested the notion that some warnings should be taken seriously. She lives in Santa Monica where the area is under what seems like under a constant threat of raging wildfires. The text warned of an imminent evacuation order.
“I was groggy, and I thought about it for a few minutes. I have a lot of photos, and I’d want to get them out. I have 13 cats and two dogs, and I’d want to get them out, too. It’s like the articles of impeachment. There are just too many things. How do you decide what not to include? I don’t know if the Democrats have made the same decision or if the analogy ends there,” she laughs.
With her oldest daughter at home at the time, Poundstone opted to drive her to safety before returning home to go down with the cats. “Fortunately, there was another text that gave details about the area, I don’t know how much later, because I did go back to sleep, but I just couldn’t imagine that we were in the line of it. I’m certainly open to the idea that I’m wrong. Although when I woke up, the smell of smoke was really strong, so you never know.”
“The job itself is so life giving. To go on and say things you might think are funny to a group of people who have come out to laugh for the night, just to be a part of that energy, it does something kind of magical.”
In truth, Poundstone is open to inspiration regardless of the situation. Ideas usually arrive in fragments while she’s driving or doing chores around the house. Like any good artist, she takes notes in her phone or a small notebook. Sometimes, it’s just a single word, like “nipple” that’s frustrating to decipher later on.
“A common joke, comics when we we’re open mic-ers, we always had our little notebooks and goofy tape recorders. You’d hang out with other comics waiting to go on, and, when someone would go on, we’d take their notebooks and [write] like “nipple” in it, so when they came back, they were like, ‘why did I write that?’ I’m definitely short on memory, but I think I always was.”
One way to simplify life and make the grind of constant travel a little easier: “I figured out some things, like I don’t unpack my suitcase. There are some things I have that are duplicated. There is absolutely zero purpose to having only one toothbrush. Just put another one in your suitcase. How hard is that?” She maintains a sleeping uniform of t-shirt and sweatpants. “You’d be surprised how long it took me to figure that out. Airplane travel is just ragged on your body. I feel like my bones just resent me. They have meetings at night like, ‘let’s get out of here’.”
Through life’s peaks and valleys, Poundstone’s funny bone remains intact. It’s not science, but she’s learned how to isolate the variable in a way that makes audiences think while belly laughing. It’s not an easy balance, but, like us all, she’s still a work in progress.
“Because I’m a person, and my life has ups and downs, I’ve gone on in every state of life’s frustrations and tragedies, and it’s still the best place to be in those circumstances,” says Poundstone. “The job itself is so life giving. To go on and say things you might think are funny to a group of people who have come out to laugh for the night, just to be a part of that energy, it does something kind of magical.”