By W.B. King–
When asked what’s going through her mind when performing, comedian Paula Poundstone paused for a moment before responding.
“The inside of my head looks like an arcade game where there is a glass booth and they blow paper money around you and whatever you grab, you can keep,” Poundstone told The Hudson Independent. “There is 43 years of material in there blowing around, but I can only use what I can grab.”
Back in 1979 when she began her career playing open mic nights in Boston, Poundstone quickly realized two challenges: a bad case of nerves and the inability to always recall the jokes she had diligently written. These awkward and sometimes painful moments of silence forced her to become improvisational with audiences, a skill she continued to hone while living and performing in San Francisco.
“I’ve done the time honored ‘Where are you from? What do you do for a living?’ The truth is that the only difference between me and other comics is that I leave my line out there longer,” she said. “You don’t just put your axe to the ground and get gold right away—that’s not how it works.”
While Poundstone initially considered her onstage persona inferior to what she had prepared, she began to see an interesting relationship developing with the audience. “To this day, I don’t have a good memory. Memorizing is really hard for me, but years ago I figured out that the heart and soul of what I do is the part where it is unique to that night,” Poundstone said. “I have material and I do it. I usually pick one neighborhood [so to speak] to get me going and then that will remind me of something else to say. Some of it is unique jokes to that night because it occurs to me then.”
Raised in Sudbury, Massachusetts, Poundstone was inspired by the likes of Lilly Tomlin, Gilda Radner, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore. And while she said she “missed being them by a country mile,” she would later cross paths with inspirational contemporaries who cheered her on.
“Dana Carvey was my roommate in San Francisco. A, he is brilliantly funny, and B, he was always very encouraging, which was nice. He was a good guy to talk to in the early days,” Poundstone said, adding this was before Carvey’s ascent on Saturday Night Live and his movie career, which included the iconic role of “Garth Algar” in Wayne’s World.
Celebrated funny man and actor Robin Williams also served as a champion for young comics in the Bay Area, Poundstone fondly recalled. “San Francisco had a great comedy scene back then. It had to do with the city itself—the audiences that came out. It also had a lot to do with the performers that came out, and it had a lot to do with Robin [Williams],” she continued. “People would come out to the clubs hoping that they would see Robin and they often did because he flitted around from club to club, night after night—he was the Tasmanian devil of standup comedy. But they also saw the rest of us, while they were waiting for him.”
Noting that standup comedy has likely been around “before we left the caves,” Poundstone said Williams breathed new life into the art form. “He reinvigorated people’s interest in standup comedy because he brought something new to it,” she said. “Everybody my age and younger owes Robin Williams a debt of gratitude.”
Poundstone’s signature style of comedy began gaining momentum and in 1989, she won the American Comedy Award for “Best Female Stand-Up Comic.” The following year, she wrote and starred in the HBO special, Cats, Cops and Stuff, winning a CableACE Award. In 2019, TIME magazine named the special one of “The 5 Funniest Stand-Up Specials Ever.”
Along with appearing in television shows and films, Poundstone has authored two books: There Is Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say (2006) and The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness (2017). She is also a recurring panelist on NPR’s weekly news quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me and hosts the podcast, Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone.
“There are still probably audience members who know me from Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me and expect me to answer questions about the week’s news and are surprised when I don’t,” she said with a laugh. “And then there are other people who never heard of Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, but fortunately the two groups get along really well. My audience is not as diverse as I might like, but boy are they loyal.”
Favorite Part of the Night: Talking to the Audience
On October 21, 2022, the Tarrytown Music Hall will welcome Poundstone back for another performance. This is but one date on a slew of upcoming shows she refers to as her “never ending tour” — a call and response of sorts to the pandemic.
“Especially after 15 months of staying at home, I’m thrilled to be doing it. Like everyone else, it was tough for multiple reasons not the least of which was I was not certain when I would have a real income again or if I would ever be able to work,” said Poundstone, noting that laughing out loud in a theatre isn’t a good match for COVID. “I really encouraged my audience to get their vaccines and wear their masks because I never want to lose this again.”
Noting that she has been performing for a “million years,” cancel culture, which has impacted certain comedians, hasn’t affected Poundstone’s approach to comedy. “I haven’t changed my stripes in anyway. I would say the same types of things now that I would say at any point in my career,” said Poundstone, who is looking forward to her upcoming performance in Tarrytown.
“The show is about two hours. My intention is to go an hour and a half, but I never do. I’ll talk about surviving through these COVID years…the travel I do around the country and sometimes I talk about raising my kids, but not very much as they are young adults now,” she continued. “I talk about raising a houseful of animals [she has two dogs and 10 cats] and I talk about how I try to pay attention to the news well enough to cast a halfway decent vote….but my favorite part of the night is talking to the audience.”
For tickets information, visit: www.tarrytownmusichall.org.Read or leave a comment on this story...