Paula Poundstone is as ordinary they come. But that’s not been the case where her success as a stand-up comedienne is concerned. Her career has spanned more than three decades, weathering some serious scandal along the way. Other comics with more brazen routines have come and gone, yet Poundstone-who’s slated for an appearance at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston on March 19-has remained the crowd-pleasing favorite.
Poundstone’s Boston show represents a personal homecoming: though born in Alabama, she grew up in Sudbury, Massachusetts. This plainspoken comedienne knew from an early age that a life in show business was what she wanted, so she dropped out of high school in the mid 70s. By the time Poundstone was 19, she had evolved into a kind of joke-telling vagabond, doing open mic gigs at comedy clubs across the country. She then became a regular on the Boston stand-up scene and eventually moved to San Francisco. By 1989, her droll, slightly cock-eyed sense of humor had earned her national notice and an American Comedy Award for Best Female Stand-Up Comic.
It wasn’t until she moved to Los Angeles in 1990, however, that her career really began to take off. Poundstone soon found herself doing work on television, appearing on an episode of Saturday Night hosted by mentor Robin Williams. She also starred in several HBO comedy specials: one of these shows, "Cats, Cops and Stuff" (which Poundstone wrote) won the CableACE Award, a distinction no other woman had earned before. In 1993, she garnered a second CableACE Award, this time for her work as an interviewer on a self-titled HBO talk show.
The rest of the 1990s proved to be an exceptionally productive time for this multi-talented comedienne. Between 1993 and 1998, Poundstone, a committed liberal, wrote a column for Mother Jones. She also served as a political commentator on the Tonight Show and The Rosie O’Donnell Show for, respectively, the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns. During this time, Poundstone also found herself shifting her venue focus from comedy clubs to larger performance spaces. There she finessed what has since become one of her trademarks: the ability to interact directly and spontaneously with the audience.
But in 2001, Poundstone found herself at the center of a controversy that threatened to permanently derail her career. A single foster mother, she was arrested for allegedly committing a lewd act on a girl under the age of 14. This charge stemmed from an incident in which Poundstone, a recovering alcoholic, was caught driving drunk with children in her car. The child molestation charge was eventually dropped after Poundstone entered into a plea bargain with the court. After a stint in rehab, she was able to regain custody of her three adopted children, but permanently lost custody of two other children she had been fostering.
This event may perhaps help to explain why Poundstone, who is so outspoken on other political issues, has claimed in her 2006 memoir that she "[doesn’t] like [and abstains from] sex." She was, however, identified as a "single gay mom" in a February 2011 interview with the LGBT newspaper, the Dallas Voice. As she has said elsewhere, "I’m now a nationally known child abuser, and believe me, what a pleasure it is to carry that moniker around."
Poundstone survived the ordeal and expanded her performance venues to include radio. In the mid-2000s, she became a regular panelist on NPR’s Saturday news quiz show, Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me, and as a recurring guest on A Prairie Home Companion. She also went on to co-author three math textbooks for children. Her most recent television credits include a 2007 Bravo comedy special, "Look What the Cat Dragged In." She also released a CD, I Heart Jokes in 2009. Poundstone has strikes against her; but as someone who’s built a career on being a regular gal rather than a comedic diva, who’s really counting?
Her inspirationEDGE: Where do you get the inspiration for your routines?
Paula Poundstone:: I have three kids, sixteen cats, a German Shepherd mix dog, a lop-eared bunny, a Bearded Dragon lizard, and one ant left from my ant farm. I also watch the news, and I’m alive in 2011. I don’t so much write as I do take notes.
EDGE: What made you decide to get into stand-up comedy?
Paula Poundstone:: I have wanted to be a comedian for as long as I can remember, although it is not what I am best suited for, which is table busing. The truth is, I was busing tables in Boston in 1979 when one or two venues began to have stand-up comedy, and audiences quickly found a renewed interest in this form of entertainment. I was 19 years old. It was a perfect storm of time and place.
EDGE: You’re primarily known for improvisational work; was there ever a time you used scripts in your shows?
TV - too many suitsPaula Poundstone:: I have a script. I just can’t remember it.
Paula Poundstone:: When I started in Boston in said 1979, I would write out my five minutes for "Open Mike Night" on the back of outdated paper place mats from the restaurant where I was employed busing tables, and spend days memorizing it. Often times my lips were moving the whole time I was busing. I would then go on stage, only to be distracted by my own observation of something that happened in the moment. I couldn’t help blurting out my "unscripted" thought, which left me totally lost in my prepared material. I viewed it as a curse. I was doomed to succumb to this undisciplined trait. I can’t remember what night I went on and realized that that was the funny part, the exciting part, the unique part, the magic part. Now I look for them moments to catch a wave.
EDGE: You’ve performed on stage, TV and radio. What’s your favorite venue and why?
Paula Poundstone:: I like just having the live audience in front of me. I do television when I can, but I hate it. It’s too pressured. Too many suits to clear things through. I’ve been doing these stupid five-minute talk show spots for almost thirty years, and I still don’t know what to do with five minutes. I just don’t really get funny until the crowd has been stuck with me for a while. I think my ideal presentation would be with an audience that lived with me on a houseboat. By the third day they’d be holding their sides.
EDGE: How do you manage to balance a hectic performance schedule that keeps you out on the road with being the single mother of three kids?
Paula Poundstone:: I’d love to answer that, but I’ve got to go pick up my kids at school.
EDGE: The stand-up comedy world is notoriously male-dominated and has not been overly friendly to women, especially those who go against gender expectations or sexual norms. How have you managed to survive for so many years in such an environment?
Paula Poundstone:: Gee, I don’t know. I’ve always liked it. I don’t think it’s as unwelcoming as you make it sound. At least I never thought so before. Now I’m scared, though. The truth is, for most of my career, I have had the great joy of telling my little jokes to people who were either already fans, or had been turned on to me by someone who was a fan. The phase where I worked in comedy clubs where someone might attend to see just whoever was on the bill, and I had to win them over, was mercifully brief. Still, it wasn’t as hard as what the guy went through in 127 Hours.
EDGE: What other projects do you have on tap after this latest tour is over?
Paula Poundstone:: My tour never ends, thank goodness. I [have been going] out almost every weekend for almost thirty years. I’m also writing a book, really slowly, appearing on NPR’s "Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me," and, of course, maintaining an active, and influential web presence. I love to craft a 140 or less character joke, and I have a twenty-four hour web-cam that focuses on my cats’ food and water bowls.
Her upcoming dates through May are: March 25, Rockland, ME; March 26, Brownfield, ME; March 31, Palm Springs, CA ; April 01, Bloomington, IL; April 2, Glendora, CA; April 8, Chico, CA; April 9, San Rafael, CA; April 10, Santa Barbara, CA; April 15,Akron, OH; April 16, Monroe, MI; April 23, Las Vegas, NV; April 24, Las Vegas, NV; April 28, Chicago, IL; April 29, Eugene, OR; April 30, Yakima, WA; May 13, White River Junction, VT; May 14, Northampton, MA; May 19, Chicago, IL (Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me - NPR); May 20, Albuquerque, NM. For a complete schedule and to learn more about Paula Poundstone, visit her website.
M. M. Adjarian is a Dallas-based freelance writer. She contributes to EDGE, the Dallas Voice, SheWired and Arts + Culture DFW and is a book reviewer for Kirkus.