by Chad Lehrman (Twitter: @chadlehrman)
Paula Poundstone developed her legendary improvisational comedy style in San Francisco in the 1980s, moving on to become the first woman to win an ACE Award for Best Standup performance. She appears regularly on the NPR show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” recently released her first CD, “I Heart Jokes,” and also wrote her first book, There’s Nothing In This Book That I Meant To Say.
See Paula live @ Cobb’s Comedy Club
March 20th & 21st
8pm, 10:15pm, $30.50
First of all, I wanted to say I’m glad you’re ok cause I read on your Twitter page that you ate a cinnamon roll off the ground.
Paula Poundstone: I did! Even my kids said to me, “You don’t eat food off the ground!” It wasn’t until they said it to me that I went, “Oooh, yeah.” I’m such a pig that I barely even hesitated. So yeah, it’s a lucky thing that I’m still alive today.
You update your Twitter and Facebook pages a lot- does that help you stay in touch with fans?
PP: Umm… I think it does. Well, I think it probably helps me stay in touch with the same 10 or so cat ladies that are enormous fans but are probably housebound. It’s kind of fun. Sometimes I think of good stuff, sometimes I think of mediocre or lifeless stuff, but it’s kind of fun to force myself to think of something.
Do you ever worry about privacy concerns? You seem like a pretty private person, but then I look at your Facebook page and it’s really personal stuff sometimes.
PP: It’s no more personal than my act, really. (laughs) I don’t use names or tell addresses. It’s personal in that it’s immediate, but the truth is, in my act I tell stuff of a far more intimate nature, it’s just that it was from awhile ago, so I don’t think it has such a voyeuristic feel to it.
Boston had a good comedy scene when you started out- why did you decide to leave it for San Francisco?
PP: Well, I wasn’t really headed for San Francisco, I was headed anywhere. I was headed around the country to see what clubs were like in diferent cities. I sort of followed in the footsteps of some of my Boston brethren, who had gone to some of the places that I then went to. Some of the guys I know that actually did leave, just went out to see what was there and make contacts. It’s sort of like space exploration. These guys just went to see what was there and then they never toured again. I wouldn’t even call it touring actually, cause they weren’t getting paid. They just sort of investigated. One or two of them, to be totally honest with you, discovered other people’s material. They figured that when they went back, no one would know. They panned for gold in California, and then went back to Boston. I can remember being so impressed with some of the new material. Then I was in San Francisco a few years later and I went, “Oh, that’s where that came from. No wonder they seemed so prolific when they got home.”
I really just went to see what clubs were like in different cities. When I got off the bus in San Francisco, it was like when Dorothy opened the door after the house landed, and everything was in color. Except that Dorothy felt alien, and I felt like I was where I was supposed to be. And I love Boston. I love returning. Eventually I developed a following there, but the truth is, when I left, people in Boston thought I sucked. And really I did. You know, when I first started, if you had been doing open mike nights for 2 weeks, you were considered a trained and seasoned professional. So the truth is I did suck when I left. But the tone of what went on there was so much different than what I wanted to strike. I just wasn’t sure where I would fit in. I actually- I swear to God I’m not making this up- one night I was at an open mike night. I went on and I was following a guy who was being as disgusting as you could be. That was sort of the joke. The last thing he said was, “So I was eating out the cunt of a bear.” The audience went nuts. They thought it was hysterically funny. Then I went on. And you know, it wasn’t easy to follow that.
What stands out in your memories of San Francisco? You were a dishwasher, right?
PP: I was. And a good one. I dishwashed at The Other Cafe, which was a wonderful club on the corner of Carl & Cole. It was my favorite place to work out. It’s the place where I developed the most, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I hosted a lot of their open mike nights. A lot of people vied to get a Friday or a Saturday cause those were the “professional comedian” nights, but we’re talking about having your name up in crayon. When the clubs were packed, it didn’t mean all that much. It meant something to us because we were too stupid to realize how small those clubs were. The Holy City Zoo held 50. Everybody wanted to get the work on the weekend, but I knew how valuable it was hosting those open mike nights. Not to my income, but it was the most rigorous training ground, cause you were in charge of bringing the audience back after somebody was terrible. None of us had more than 20-30 minutes of material back then, so you ran out of material part way through. You were really forced to be in the moment and talk to the crowd. And the show went on FOREVER.
I love reminiscing. Maybe I’m getting to that age. In San Francisco, you could be a headliner long before you headlined anywhere else in the world, because you had a certain following there. I was raised in a different climate where there just were not that many of us. I always used to say to guys, and I still think it’s true- everybody’s in such a rush to headline, but the emcee spot is THE slot. Because you learn more doing it. Why not just ask for a little bit more money and retain that position? They’ll be delighted to have somebody good do that job. You know what I mean? But everybody’s in such a hurry. As soon as anybody gets good at one role, they say “well, now I must be good enough to middle.” So what you have is a guy who was a terrible opener for a long time, a decent opener for a couple weeks, and then moves on to be a terrible middle guy.” But maybe that’s not in the human psyche, we’re just not made that way.
And then once you headline, you want to be on NPR and you want to write a book and all that stuff.
PP: Yeah! That’s exactly what happens.
So that’s how you got so good at improvising, from hosting all those shows? Some of it must be natural talent though, right?
PP: I don’t know… I think it’s a muscle. I was just talking to my daughter about brain muscles. You can be born with a propensity for one thing or the other, but it’s a matter of doing it. How many comics do you know of who got sitcoms, got REALLY famous, fill a huge hall, and then they bomb? Cause it’s a muscle. If I were trying to do a sitcom once a week, then the time I would have to experiment would be gone. I like my jobs now though. As I get older, I think I get better at how to distribute things. I love to do stand-up, and I get to do lots. I love to take care of my kids, and I get to do that a whole lot. I love to write, and I get to do that. I’m lucky.
What’s your dream gig? Having a popular tv show? Traveling around to sold out theaters?
PP: My dream job… would be (laughing)… to be the star of a really insightful, intuitive game show! It would have everything- it would be insightful, educational, informative, warm, and it would bring us together as a nation. No such thing exists by the way, and I don’t know that it ever could. And you don’t have to rehearse for it, that’s the beauty. There’s nothing to memorize.
Would you have auditioned to host The Price Is Right? It’s not very insightful I guess…
PP: Would I have? Yeah, I probably would have, that’s the honest truth. But it’s not my dream job.
I read an interview where you said that being a woman has offered you opportunities in comedy as many times as it’s denied you opportunities. I thought that was interesting since a lot of women seem to complain about how hard it is. What advice do you have for female comics?
PP: Suck it up and tell your jokes. [laughs] It was only occasionally an issue. If there was anybody where it was really a burden, and it made it so they were swimming upstream, it would have been Joan Rivers and Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller, people that were an earlier generation than mine. I think for them it was a very big issue, and I think that you can say that for women in every job in that generation. Not just comics. For them, it also kind of molded them in a particular way. It really shaped the kind of performers that they became. In order to get themselves seen and heard, they had to bend in certain directions. I do not feel for a moment that I have had to change the shape of my comedy in that way.
When I was just starting out in Boston, the comics who were popular were very very sexist individuals. That was the audience who came to see them as well. So you already knew when you stepped out that yeah, there’s a little challenge in that direction. Even there, very early on, they decided to have a women’s comedy night at the Comedy Connection. They didn’t have enough women to fill the bill. Therefore, I get a phone call. They didn’t even like me, and they asked me to come.
There’s a few women’s comedy nights in San Francisco.
PP: Really? Maybe it’s good for the audience, I don’t know. I just like to go see someone funny. I feel it in every single walk of everything. Look at us in terms of our representatives. America can’t get over the race thing no matter how hard we try. I’m amazed how many people suggest somehow that you were voting for- not in a negative way they don’t mean it- but that you were voting for a black guy when you voted for Barack Obama. I wanted to elect somebody who had some shot in hell of getting us out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. That he happens to be black- hallelujah, but you know what? If he doesn’t do the job, out with him. Let somebody else have the job. I’m not gonna go, “Oh, but we don’t want to get rid of the black guy.” I’m going to say, “We’re still in a shitload of trouble, let’s get moving.”