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Interview: Laugh it Up!

Paula Poundstone Reflects on the History of Stand-Up and Her New Book

By Benjamin P. Gleitzman

Comedian Paula Poundstone has been performing stand-up comedy for over 25 years, and her whirlwind career has traversed television, radio, and, more recently, literature. Poundstone was the voice of Brendon’s mother on Cartoon Network’s “Home Movies,” and is a regular fixture on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” Her book, There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say, was released in early November. The Tech called Poundstone at her home in a Santa Monica, Calif. to discuss her comedic inspirations, unique style, and upcoming book release.

The Tech: The Tech wrote a review of your stand-up performance at “Play it Again, Sam’s” in Brighton in 1986. Has it been a struggle to keep your comedy fresh?

Paula Poundstone: No, not too [difficult]. I don’t sit down and write for my act, per se. From living and reading newspapers and day to day stuff, it’s sort of like a best friend that you talked to fairly frequently.

TT: A consistent theme is audience interaction in your stand-up performances. Are you an improv comedian at heart?

PP: Well, everyone’s really an improv comedian. Every joke or story you think of had to have been thought up on the spur of the moment at one time or another. I just repeat the spur.

It’s my favorite part of the night, talking to the audience. I have an act — I have regular jokes that I say and told for years — but I think the thing that really breathes life into the evening and capitalizes on the magic of everyone being together in the room is just the old fashioned “What do you do for a living?”

TT: Do you have a favorite place to perform stand-up?

PP: I love to go to Boston, mostly because I’m from Massachusetts. Generally I have friends come out and it’s awfully nice.

TT: You’re a regular panelist on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” If you could have any marginally famous person on your answering machine, who would it be? Editor’s note: The prize on the radio show is Carl Kasell’s voice on your home answering machine.

PP: Oh gee, let me think a minute.

TT: Are you on your answering machine now?

PP: No, actually, I’m not. It’s my daughter, and people have complained about this … Back when they had the little mini-cassettes I went to great effort, every month or so, to dub off a videotape a little piece of dialogue that was somehow autobiographical. When I first fostered my oldest daughter, who is now 15, and she was four when she first came to live with me, I put a little clip from Annie, when Annie first goes to Daddy Warbucks’ house, and the maids and the staff of the house are singing.

Unfortunately you can’t do that with the new answering machines, so it really took away an important part of my life.

TT: You’ve said before that you shy away from technology, but you seem to put a lot of effort into your answering machine. Has the Internet affected your routine?

PP: I don’t even know how to turn the computer on, actually. I have a Web site for which I do the writing and take the pictures, but my manager is the one who has an obsession with the buttons and doing it all … The truth is the Pony Express is the faster way to communicate with me. If you see a guy with horses that were freshly watered, give the message to him.

TT: Do you look to anyone in particular for your comedic inspiration?

PP: I bumped into a guy at the bagel place today. He was a comic that I opened for a thousand years ago. I learned a lot about my job from this guy. Not so much about how to be on stage, but being an affable “go along to get along” employee.

TT: Who was the comic?

PP: A guy named Larry Wilson. I believe he got the cinnamon raisin bagel … I think I’m probably a mixture of lots and lots of influences. I know that I am able to do the job that I do, and most comics of my generation are able to do what they do, pretty much because of one person, and that’s because of Robin Williams … He was all over the place, mostly because of the kind of energy that guy has. He was in every city in the country. You can’t go to a comedy club without finding a picture of Robin Williams on their stage that they covet and talk about the time that he stopped by. That really made people start going out to comedy clubs. Even if he wasn’t there on the night that they went out … they saw a bunch of different acts that they very much enjoyed. I developed certainly my own following, but the guy that sort of led the path to the door was Robin.

TT: How do you feel about the state of contemporary comedy?

PP: I don’t really know anything about it. I work not in clubs anymore, thank goodness. Mostly in theatres, and when I do a club I’m the only performer on the bill. I don’t mingle and I don’t go out to that kind of entertainment, because I have kids. Given that I travel for a living, they would really frown on my coming home and saying, “And now I’m going out to a night club.” That wouldn’t go over so well.

TT: Your TV special, “Cats, Cops, and Stuff” got a lot of airplay in the ’90s. Are you ever going to release it on DVD?

PP: Yes, I’m not quite sure why we haven’t. I don’t know how to make DVDs, so I think there would have to be another company involved. I think at one time or another that will happen.

TT: In Cartoon Network’s “Home Movies,” you play the voice of Brendon’s mother, but only in the first five very unscripted episodes.

PP: I made another show before that, which was originally called “Science Court,” with the same company. “Science Court” was a show with a script, although sometimes it was somewhat unscripted — improvised and sort of jazzed up a bit. In the process of doing that show, I used to go to the studio where I did that recording, and by the time I got there I always had some sort of frazzled parenting story that I had to get out before we could begin recording. So Loren [Bouchard], who eventually made Home Movies — he was the director of Science Court — said would you mind if we tried to make [a show] about you talking like that?

TT: Was that how the character of Paula was born? Was that based on you?

PP: Yes.

TT: Tell me a bit about your new book.

PP: It took me nine years to write it … It’s a series of biographies of towering historic figures. And in the telling of their stories I tell my own. It is a memoir of sorts. It will be sold in the humor section, and I’m told by those who read it in the process of making it that it’s funny.

TT: Do you have any suggestions for budding college comedians, or those aspiring to a career in comedy?

PP: My first suggestion would be to finish college. You know, if I don’t do this job, I don’t know how to do anything else. Fortunately, I love this job and I have the opportunity to do this job, but isn’t that a lucky break? The odds of that going away are really as good as any other kind of outsourced work. There’s nothing saying that people from India trained to do our accents couldn’t replace me as well.

Stand-up comedy is a relationship with the audience, and really nothing more complicated than that. Every now and then there will be a place that has stand-up comedy classes. I feel that’s ridiculous. When you’re in a stand-up comedy class, where is your audience?

It’s like teaching Spanish to Spanish speakers. There’s no way to tell whether your teaching technique was really brilliant, or they already knew how to say “leche” when they sat down. My problem is every Spanish speaking person I talk to knows how to say milk, so I can no longer bridge the gap after that.

The way I started was doing open mikes in Boston … There’s no other way to do it. It’s not like being an airline pilot where you can sit in front of a computer screen and make it look like you’re doing it. You have to go do it, and the place to go do it for someone who is just starting out is open mike night.