ARCHIVE: Pounding Out the Punchlines

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Paula Poundstone brings her trademark asexual look and her highly interactive “autobiographical” act to the stage of the Count Basie Theatre Saturday night.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on RedBankGreen June 16, 2010)

When Paula Poundstone returns to Red Bank’s Count Basie TheatreSaturday night, she’ll bring a road-tested and audience-friendly act that bears the accumulated wisdom of some 30 years of showbiz highs and lows — ranging from coveted honors (the Emmy, the American Comedy Award, and a pair of Cable ACEs) and successful runs in such neglected niches as public radio and game show panels; to at least one of thefastest-cancelled series in TV history.

Then there was that interlude during which she made national news in 2001 — a period marked by a DWI arrest, charges of child endangerment and lewdness, the (temporary) removal of her adopted kids, and her (permanent) removal from the foster parent system. It’s a topic that she’s hardly swept under the rug, whether addressing it in her memoir There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say, or in a stage act that she characterizes as having “evolved into something extremely autobiographical.”

The 50-year-old comic will be meeting and greeting her audience in the Basie lobby following her 8p show. Until then, nine questions for Paula Poundstone, coming right up.

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redbankgreen: So what can we expect to be seeing when you return to the Count’s crib on Saturday?

PAULA POUNDSTONE: Now that I’m 50, I’ll talk a lot about raising kids, animals — I’ll talk about God, and Abe Lincoln, and about being a halfway decent voter.

I talk about politics a little bit — not because I’m always right, and hopefully not in a way that makes everyone else wrong. I’m hoping that even those who espouse different views from mine will find something there — and I approach everything knowing that there’s a possibility that I could be wrong.

Do you prefer these kind of theater-scale gigs to the nightclubs anymore?

A lot of times, people will go out to a club without knowing who’s playing, just to enjoy the club atmosphere. But working in a theater makes things so much more relaxed — you don’t have to go through the whole spanking machine gauntlet.

Isn’t the heckling thing just the flip side to the audience interaction you’ve always specialized in? Do you think audiences these days expect to be part of the show, in one way or another?

They do, but not necessarily in a heckle-y challenge sort of way. When I started out in Boston, I had to come prepared with my ‘heckler lines,’ and then I’d get all nervous, forget the material I prepared, and I’d have to come up with something new to say. That’s the origin of the audience interaction; a variation on the time-honored ‘Hi, where you from?’ thing. It was a way to fold fresh ingredients into the show each night — I’d hear waitresses at the clubs complain about comics who do the same exact thing every night, and I didn’t want to be one of them. I wanted the waitresses to like me!

Speaking as someone who’s ordered the quesadillas at comedy clubs, I’m glad that at least one person in the room was folding in some fresh ingredients. Now, I was looking at your website the other day and I was shocked to discover that you only just released your first CD in the year 2009!

I know; I guess I thought that a CD was harder to do than it was. And I’m glad I did it, because I like to work interactively with the crowd, and I hope that comes across. When I did my first HBO special years ago, they didn’t want me to talk to the audience! But I did, and I got this one audience member telling me this horrible story about her mother injuring herself, cutting her head — it turned out to be a memorable moment, and somehow to this day it’s the most mentioned piece that I’ve done!

Would you say that your way with talking to people has helped you get a little side career going as a game show panelist? Surely it can’t be as easy as you’ve made it look.

That’s a format that plays to my strengths, especially when I have no idea what the specific questions will be — I’ve been doing Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me on NPR a little less than ten years now. And I’m the luckiest performer in the world, in that these shows have largely sought me out and found me.

Since you’ve been part of the major standup circuit since the early 1980s, what’s your take on the whole Comedy Explosion of those years — how’d it all come about?

I think the real interest in the scene came because of one comedian — Robin Williams. There was such an energy to him; he caught the wave at the right time and he was everywhere back then — there’s not a club that doesn’t have a picture of him on the wall. He would go from headlining a theater show to jumping on stage at a little club for a late set with whoever was in town that night. He did away with the segue in comedy; he went from one thing to the next with breakneck speed, and the rest of us came to work with that, whether we realized it or not.

So then what about the Comedy Implosion? Who or what killed it off?

We had our butts kicked by karaoke! Seriously. It made more sense after a while for a club owner to go that route. Nothing lasts forever of course — I remember playing a so-called comedy club years ago, and noticing that way up in a dark corner of the ceiling was a mirrored disco ball left over from the previous incarnation of the place. I immediately thought, ‘This won’t last.’

Alright, what about the inevitable question of Worst Gig EVER?

That would be when I appeared in front of 30,000 people, inside the Superdome in New Orleans — I was approached to do Farm Aid, me and just one other comic, and my ego got the best of me. Plus I really wanted to meet Willie Nelson and the Neville Brothers. But the only real reason I was there was to give Neil Young time to tune up. It was a six hour show; people had been drinking for hours, and they were in no shape to pay attention to me, especially while Neil Young and his band were tuning their instruments right behind me. Fifty percent of the crowd was yelling at me because they wanted to see Neil Young, and the other fifty percent thought I was Neil Young.

So not every audience interaction is a positive thing — but by and large, would you say that the rapport with the crowd is more essential than ever to your act?

It’s where the magic comes from — at least a third of each show I do is unplanned. My audiences are so enthusiastic — and patient; they’re willing to wait to find the good stuff. And I go away from every place I play with a really good sketch of the community.

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