Paula Poundstone Has 39 Years of Material And She's Not Afraid To Use It

Paula Poundstone balances the ideas that matter
Paula Poundstone balances the ideas that matter Photo by Michael Schwartz

 “There’s nothing better for you in the world than going out and laughing for the night,” reasons Paula Poundstone, a stand-up comic who has been proving that fact for decades now across the country. “Sometimes I’ve been known to tell truthful and deeply personal things on stage, and part of the joy and the laughter is realizing we’re not the only ones. That laughter of recognition may be the healthiest laugh of all.  You go, Oh! It’s not just me, that’s part of life. Got it!”

While she been seen in film and TV roles including recurring spots on The Tonight Show, Home Movies, and Inside Out – Poundstone’s home seems to always be the open stage.  Those travels are bringing her to Houston's Wortham Center next week.

“When I go to do one of those god-awful late night five -minute performances, those are not my strength by any means,” she admits. “In part because I have made a career out of doing a two-hour show. And things do kinda weave in and out of each other. And a lot of times there’s sort of a joyous mystery to it, for me as well as the crowd. I know things are going to come together at some point, I really don’t know over what exactly.

"That’s the fun of the whole thing. I have very few kind of one-liners. Very few. I spend a lot of, well, I should say I waste a lot of time on Twitter. At least I know that, at least I’m clear. I write literally thousands of jokes that I put up on Twitter, and people always say to me that’s great – you can use that in your act. That happens very, very rarely. Part of that is I’m not a great memorizer, so even to just remember the shit I wrote on Twitter.  I don’t remember it very well. But B: you know, I’m not Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield. I’m not like ‘Here’s Another, Here’s Another, Here’s Another.’ So I tell other people’s stories and they weave into a fun night of comedy.”

Known for not only her spontaneity, but her curiosity in her audience’s backstories, Poundstone all-but-guarantees some time to riff with the crowd – just don't call it "crowd work!"  “It always makes me laugh when people call it crowd work,” she corrects. “It’s a conversation. Something somebody says may remind me of a piece of that material that’s accrued in my head after 39 years. But more often than not it’s unique to that night and that conversation.

"In the same way you go to a cocktail party and say: ‘Hi, how are you?’ Would you call that improvising? Not really. You have your standard parts of your conversation, and then somebody spills a drink on the other side of the room and you mock ‘em. And then somebody tells you to tell that story you told a while ago, and you tell that. Then somebody brings up something about current events and you go there. So it’s a bit of a pinball game in that way.”

So what can audiences expect from an evening with the 59-year-old funny woman? “The truth is: I never exactly know what I’m going to talk about. I have 39 years of material rattling around somewhere in my head, so jokes about traveling, jobs that I’ve had, and raising a house full of kids and animals, trying to pay attention to the news enough to cast a half way decent vote.  Every show is actually different.

“I have made a career of doing two hours shows with the intent of doing 90 minute shows!” she says, laughing. “I have a really hard time getting off. The last 30 minutes is all just us shaking out keys in our pockets – soon, soon we’re gonna move away from the closet and to the front door.”

Still Poundstone is not totally against late night spots. One of those spots has resurfaced in a surprising place – on the mega-set chronicling the live of Robin Williams from Time Life. Uniquely when Williams hosted Saturday Night Live in February 1984, he made one unprompted request – five minutes for Paula Poundstone. On the fact that this is rarely done at Studio 8H, Poundstone is quick to retort. “I may have been the reason they don’t do that!”

She continues: “Looking back, I haven’t seen it since I did and I don’t think it’d give me any pleasure. I was young and no more adept at those five-minute things than I am now. The difference is in recent years when I’ve done Colbert a couple times and mercifully, he does not ask me to do those goofy five-minute sets. I used to do them for Craig Ferguson all the time. And even on Colbert, there’s a similar thing. They all say to me: don’t worry about the time, say what you want. And I get so boxed in as to have mental paralysis over the discipline it takes to memorize my goofy five minutes and tell it just as it is. I think it's partly because I’ve spent years benefiting from the joys of not doing that.

"Which is not to say that I don’t do material, which I do. I do lots of it. But just having a certain flow to – and I mean that in psychological term. Hitting that place of flow, or one might call it: in the zone. And I find that very hard to do in a memorized, stayed way. Now most venues don’t bother me with that type of thing any longer. Like me on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me – that was Lucy and Desi before it went bad. They benefit from the fact that I think of things and say them, and I benefit wildly from the fact that they let me do it.”

Asked for a career highlight, Poundstone zips immediately to the 45th Emmy Awards in 1993. “I was the first person to do backstage coverage at the Emmy’s. And the only rehearsal that I did was I came to the camera rehearsal and they said: ‘Can you stand here?’ They needed to know where I was gonna be. And that was the only rehearsal that I did.

"I had a stage manager-like guy with me, and he had a headset on. And because I didn’t have an ending line, and because I was allowed this freedom – there was no, thank you goodnight! So no one knows when it was over, and because I can’t tell time. So my guy Javier, he would crawl on the floor and tug on my pant leg. And I was so engrossed in what I’m doing, I literally didn’t see him crawl on the floor – well it may turn out I have glaucoma as well, but I didn’t see him crawl on the floor. I just felt this tug on my pant leg, and at one point, he’s down below me and he’s about to tug on my pant leg – I can hear from his headset, it bleeds on to the open air and I could hear the director say: 'No, let her go!' It really was a great moment. And the truth was, I really was in over my head; there I was with all these big television stars and I was just silly, stupid Paula Poundstone, and the idea that Angela Lansbury was the host. So the idea of taking a few minutes away from Angela Lansbury to go backstage with Paula Poundstone, it was fabulous.”

In the end, Poundstone is a great advocate for the concept that you haven’t really seen a comedian until you’ve seen them in person – a gift sadly Netflix can’t replicate. “It’s because the energy of the other audience members, the shared experience!” the comic says.

“Why would you know this, but I’m gonna tell you: I’m a huge Three Stooges fan. I’ve seen all those shorts without exaggeration, Jesus, like 50 times a piece. I watched them growing up on TV, I watched them in the morning, then later they were on in the afternoon, I watched them on DVD, I had them on videotape, I showed them to my children and they too found it funny, which made it — it's hard to find stuff we all found funny. They were sort of a hallmark of my kids growing up, even though my daughter is far too mature for that now.

"But a couple of times – you know, when I watched them with my kids, I laughed out loud. But when I watch them by myself, I never laugh out loud. I acknowledge by myself that I think it's funny, but I never laughed out loud. You know, when most people type LOL, it’s a terrible lie. But the couple of times we went to the Three Stooges film festival at the historic Alex Theatre in Glendale California. Boy, to be sitting in literally a packed theater of all Three Stooges enthusiasts, it was just glorious. It was like surfing on the waves of laughter. And even though I have seen those shorts that many times, until I heard people laughing, there were things I never even saw: that particular nuance or heard that thing that Curly said.

"So there’s something about taking things in in groups, to be out among your people. I do believe that’s the best way to see a movie or the best way to hear music. It’s important to hear other people. We’re pack animals, whether we want to stand around with our stupid flat things or not.”

The performance is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Friday, January 18 at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 832-487-7041 or visit $40-$120

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee