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Paula Poundstone: iconoclast, cynic, comic

Rick Chandler

Paula Poundstone considers herself lucky to be a comedian, and she’s good at it. But what she really wanted to do was bus tables.

“That’s the profession I think I was most suited to,” she said, talking by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “It’s a fairly satisfying profession, but unfortunately it doesn’t pay as much as comedian.”

One is never quite sure when Poundstone is serious, so it’s best to just go with the flow and see where the conversation leads.

“I was a great table busser; probably one of the top three table bussers ever born,” she said. “But with that job people don’t come up to you on the street and say ‘Hey, I saw you last night and you were great.’ “

If only we lived in a world in which they did, Paula Poundstone would feel right at home. As a comedian, the 47-year-old who was raised in Sudbury, Mass. (she was born in Huntsville, Ala.) is in less of a comfort zone. And that’s part of the appeal.

Usually attired in some sort of colorful jacket, tie and pantsuit combination, Poundstone fidgets nervously on a stool and delivers wry observations on the human condition as if being quizzed by the school principal. It’s like, “I don’t want to say that Darryl Hannah is an airhead, but you forced it out of me!”

Oh, yes, about that.

“Years ago I did a bit about Darryl Hannah, and now I look back and wonder if it was fair,” Poundstone said. “I’ve been doing comedy a while, and with age comes the wisdom that you don’t know everything. Darryl Hannah may have been one of those cases.”

And so you’re busted, Paula. The self-described iconoclast and cynic really does care about people; even those she’s never met.

“At the time Darryl had been doing a lot of movies, and I didn’t really know much about her, and I may have made a couple of derogatory remarks,” Poundstone said. “Maybe it was because of the attractive blonde thing, or the fact that she was in “Clan of the Cave Bear,” playing the missing link. I don’t know.

“But all of a sudden this little movement sprang up, and people on the street were stopping me and asking about Darryl Hannah. ‘Do the Darryl Hannah jokes!’ It was weird. I mean, who did she ever hurt?”

And did we say they never met? Not exactly true.

“Some years later I was at a fundraiser for Bill Clinton,” Poundstone said. “I’m on stage with a bunch of celebrities, and then something happens in the audience, and the people on the stage all went down to mingle. So I’m on the stage by myself, I thought, and I get this shudder, like someone is coming up behind me to hit me over the head. And it’s Darryl Hannah.

“And we’re the only two people on the stage. Now that was uncomfortable. If she had hit me over the head, I would have deserved it probably.”

Otherwise, Poundstone does not look back on her body of work with a lot of regret. Even the stuff from the early days in Boston, when she was just starting out.

“I started in comedy in 1979, when there was this kind of comedy renaissance going on,” Poundstone said. “I was 19 years old, which is the perfect age to do a job that doesn’t pay very well. Then I moved to San Francisco, which is a more open and rewarding place to work. Boston kind of only gets one joke. In San Francisco, the audiences were willing to wait while you experimented. It was much more rewarding.”

Poundstone came up in the San Francisco clubs with aspiring comics such as Dana Carvey, Greg Proops, Bobby Slayton, Ellen DeGeneres and Nora Dunn. Plus, a guy named Robin Williams was always hanging around.

“Robin was already an enormous deal by the time I came around,” Poundstone said. “But he would hang around with the rest of us after the show like he was one of us, which I always appreciated.”

Poundstone counts Williams as one of her greatest influences.

“A lot of comics from that time are the beneficiaries of Robin Williams,” she said. “He would play these huge auditoriums, and later that night he would show up at Uncle Ed’s Yuk House and do a set. So people went to clubs all around the country, in Iowa, Hollywood, New York, on the off chance that Robin Williams might stop by. And the truth is that he often did.

“Sometimes it felt like there were three or four Robins performing at any one time. There was this excitement in the air, and through that, people found the rest of us. And they found that they liked us, too. We weren’t Robin, but we were a reasonable substitute. It helped a lot of careers.”

Today Poundstone lives in Los Angeles with her three adopted children, Thomas, Toshia and Allison. Among her accomplishments are an American Comedy Award for “Best Female Stand-Up Comic” in 1989, writing and starring in the HBO special, “Cats, Cops and Stuff,” which won a CableAce Award in 1990, working as a political correspondent for the Tonight Show during the 1992 Presidential campaign and doing the same for “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” in 1996.

In 1993, Poundstone won a second Cable Ace Award, began writing a regular column “Hey, Paula!” for Mother Jones magazine (1993-1998), and had a variety show, “The Paula Poundstone Show,” on ABC (which lasted only two episodes). She was a regular panelist for the game shows Hollywood Squares and To Tell the Truth.

She is number 88 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest standups of all time, and had her own Bravo special as part of their three-part “Funny Girls” series, along with Caroline Rhea and Joan Rivers, entitled, “Look What the Cat Dragged In.”

Her new book, “There’s Nothing In This Book That I Meant To Say,” is available at Amazon.com. or through her Web site, http://www.PaulaPoundstone.com.

“That book took me nine years to write,” said Poundstone, who would rather spend time reading Charles Dickens than writing her own book. “The day it came out I went with the kids to the book store to find it, and suddenly realized I was looking for a book with my picture on it. That made me nervous.

“My daughter found it, looked at the picture and said, ‘That’s really nice, mom.’ It was a really sweet thing of her to say. But it’s also been a year and that’s the last compliment she’s given me.”

Q&A with comedian Paula Poundstone, who will be appearing at the Hawkins Amphitheater in Reno on Friday, Sept. 14.

Q: When are you going to get out to Tahoe again?

A: I’m not sure. I’ll have to get on that. I love Tahoe. I have to say that I’m amazed at the level of dedication of the people of Tahoe to keep that area so pristine. I come from a small town in Massachusetts where the environment has been ravaged by building and commercial interests. I go back there and it’s sad to see. But you look at Tahoe and the lake is still so clear. People there should be proud of that.

Q: You’ve always done a lot of political material, once famously referring to Barbara Bush as “a tank with eyes.” What did you think of the Gen. Patraeus Report?

A: I listened to General Patraeus, but I’m not sure what he said. It’s not because he talks poorly, it’s just that it’s too big for my head. Iraq is so complicated. Jerry Seinfeld once had a routine about watching a weather man talking about barometric pressure and cold fronts. Jerry said ‘Hey, all I want to know is do I need to wear a sweater?’ That’s how I feel about Patraeus. Just tell me if I need a sweater.

Q: How are your cats?

A: There are 11 now, and they thank you for asking. You know, any way you slice it, that’s a lot of $%#@&! cats. My son came up to me the other day while I was washing the dishes, and asked softly if we could get another kitten. I told him that I’m pretty sure my cutoff is 11. His reply was: ‘But that’s an odd number.’ He thought that argument would appeal to me on some level.

Q: How often are you on the road these days?

A: Well, let me do the math. Probably a hundred days a year, which isn’t too bad. It can be excruciating though when you have kids. I never realized how much longer a three-night gig is than a two-night gig, because I’m away from the kids. I’d take them with me, but where are you supposed to put them?

Q: Do your kids get your comedy?

A: People come up to me and say I’m funny, and my kids look at them like they have three heads. To them I’m the unfunniest person in the entire world. As they’re getting older, they’re starting to get the joke more, though.


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