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Working The Crowd: 11 Questions With Comedian Paula Poundstone

Paula Poundstone
Courtesy Photo

With over 30 years in the business comedian Paula Poundstone is somewhat of an institution in the world of stand-up comedy.

Poundstone rose to success during the great comedy boom of the eighties landing her on HBO, Saturday Night Live and what once was the Holy Grail for stand-up comedians, The Tonight Show. Having survived the fast paced lifestyle and over indulgence of the 1980’s and endured the lethargic comedy scene of the 1990’s, Poundstone has remained relatively unscathed and still performs around the country all while raising several children and numerous cats.

As she prepares for her one night only performance at Anthology in Little Italy, SanDiego,com was fortunate to catch up with Poundstone from her home in Los Angeles and discussed her early years as a comic in Boston and the ongoing improvisational relationship she has with her audience.

Is it true that you traveled across the country via Greyhound bus doing open mics?

Paula Poundstone: Yeah, I started out in Boston and wanted to see what clubs were like in different cities, so I rode the dog all around the country and Canada. I had an Ameripass; for $150 you could go anywhere you wanted for a month.

What year was this?

PP: It might’ve been 79’ or 80’.

So this was right at the cusp of the great comedy boom.

PP: Yeah I was really lucky, and there was no genius there. It was just time and place. I also happened to be nineteen years old, which sure doesn’t make it easy.

Would you describe the nineteen year old Paula Poundstone as a free spirit?

PP: Um, no, just really compulsive. I look back on it now and if one of my kids wanted to do that; I wouldn’t stand in their way. But if they wanted to it would probably be for a good reason. But I look back on it now and I’m like, ‘Whoo boy! Gee.’ I’m lucky I wasn’t clubbed over the head.

It’s a different world now than it was back then.

PP: Yeah, it is. You’re absolutely right about that. I told my kids this story before, I sort of tell it, couching it in. The first night I spent in San Francisco; I knew a comic from Boston who’d gone out to San Francisco and I was going to catch up to him and stay with him a couple of nights or whatever. But when I got to the Greyhound station I couldn’t reach him. I believe this was the day before the elections when Reagan was elected, and there was a rally for John Anderson who I had moderate interest in knowing nothing about politics. Having really nothing else to do I went to the rally and I think I had a newspaper that I was sitting on and someone asked me if they could read it or maybe it was the other way around. And I ended up hanging around for the rest of the night with that guy. Nice young guy, probably a couple of years older than me; can’t remember his name. I remembered that he lived up a ton of stairs and we rode the cable cars together. We invested what seemed like a huge amount of money at the time which was $10 to go see Gallagher at the Great American Music Hall, and I stayed only that one night. It wasn’t like a sexual thing, I stayed in one room he stayed in another room. I have never seen that guy again. I don’t remember his name or anything about him. I remember saying to him as we were riding the cable car, ‘Isn’t this strange in a way?’ and he said, ‘Naw, people treated me nicely when I came to town.’

How long had you been doing stand-up at that point?

PP: A year, and when I say a year that means I had been on stage 10 times.

Do you remember the first time you did an open mic?

PP: Yeah, it was at The Charles Playhouse which the Comedy Connection produced the shows; I think it was in the basement of The Charles Playhouse in Boston. They had a show that was all-women that night, and I got invited to participate. The thing is you were an old timer if you had been doing it for two weeks then, because we all just started. I’ll tell you something back then if you had a car, then you were a brilliant comic, because everyone needed a ride, so the guy with the car automatically got work. I remember that set because I taped it and I eventually threw the tape away I think. I do remember I had it for a couple of years. I taped what was my first performance and I had worked for weeks memorizing my jokes. The reason it was my first night is because the Comedy Connection used to hold auditions but you didn’t work in front of an audience. It was the stupidest thing you ever heard of. They would call up the comics and have them come down and watch you. But I was so stupid; I didn’t realize Johnny Carson was reading from a script. I really thought that everyone went on stage and just talked. I had some notions but I didn’t have anything written down when I went to do the “audition.’’ And of course I crumbled, I rotted on the vine. I literally was standing in front of a bunch of guys who weren’t even sitting down. We were in the basement of a theatre and I figured; I’ll just go talk. I think I did what must’ve come off as some kind of performance art freak out. My memory of that first time was it had gone very well, and I think I was sort of the darling of the night. But that’s all relative. So I had this tape for a really long time and one day when I was alone in my house in San Francisco, I put the tape on thinking that I was listening to my brilliant first performance and it was agony to even hear.

A lot of people assume that many comedians make up most of what they’re saying on the spot, but what strikes me as funny is that your first time up your instinct and inclination was to riff.

PP: The truth is I wasn’t entirely wrong, I was just backwards. Then I understood, ‘Oh, that’s not what people are doing. They make it look like that’s what they’re doing maybe, but that’s not what they’re doing. So I wrote five minutes of jokes and I timed it, then I would go onstage and try so hard because now I believed that it was this creative professionalism to stick to what I had typed up and planned to say. And I had no idea whether what I was saying was good. My plan was that I would go down with the ship no matter what transpired I would say these words because that meant that I was somehow a professional and that was so important. And I never could do that, not even once I don’t think. I would go on and would either become distracted by something on my way to the stage or somebody would spill a drink, somebody would look at me funny. And I would always turn and address that, and the problem with that was now I didn’t know where I was in my five minutes., and you had to stick to whatever those minutes were or you were stepping on somebody else’s toes. Eventually somewhere along the way I figured out that was the good part.

So after a while you embraced the crowd work.

PP: I use the crowd as sort of bumpers in my pinball machine act. I’ll be on something with an audience member and then I use that to steer me into a piece of material. Most people have no idea when what is what. People come up to me all the time and ask me if people in the audience were plants, I respond to that question a lot. It’s a little bit like making a cake I guess. You want all the ingredients to kind of fold in and be a part of the whole cake. Even the parts that are material, I don’t go, ‘Now I’ll do this.’ I just go, ‘this reminds me of this’ and so I tell it.

It comes from a very organic place.

PP: Yeah, and what I’m trying to do on a good night is set up that kind of climate where that’s possible, and some nights are easier than others.

Does Paula Poundstone have a message for the children?

Paula Poundstone: I think it would be something like: use a dictionary.

Paula Poundstone performs at Anthology Saturday, July 2 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.