Armed with nothing but a stool, a microphone and a can of Diet Pepsi, stand-up comedian, actress, author, and radio personality Paula Poundstone draws on her own life in her stand-up show. And nothing is off the table: her kids, her cats, politics, her secret affair with junk food and a full complement of neuroses. A Poundstone concert is like watching your funniest friend go off.
Poundstone brings her stream-of-consciousness wit to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, Saturday, Oct. 6.
Very much a trailblazer, she was the first woman to win a Cable ACE award for her HBO special, the first woman to perform at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, and the first to be invited to Harvard University. Her second one hour special for HBO, Paula Poundstone Goes to Harvard, also marked the first time Harvard allowed its name to be used in a television show.
Before she made it as a comedian, Poundstone did a stint as a waitress at an IHOP on Orlando's Orange Blossom Trail. She found a new fan base as a panelist on NPR's game show Wait, WaitÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦ Don't Tell Me!
Poundstone, who is ambivalent to the point of boredom about her sexuality, called Watermark from her home in Santa Monica. During our conversation, she also talked with her children, steamed a suit, prepared a grocery list and fended off a cat bite.
WATERMARK: Tell us about the show you’re doing here in Tampa.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: There’ll be no physical injuries. I talk about raising a house full of kids and animals. I talk about the public school system and the state of network news. My favorite part is where I do the time-honored, “What do you do for a living?” I love talking to the audience. Little biographies of audience members emerge and I play off that.
How would you describe your comedic style?
I’ve been asked that question many times and you know, I haven’t come up with one decent answer. I don’t know how I’d describe it; I’m just me. It’s largely autobiographical in nature. I’m in no way trying to make anyone share my viewpoint; I’m not that kind of comic. Basically, it’s my strategy for getting through life. I have obsessive compulsive disorder and I can’t stop talking to save my life. So I've turned it into a job. I always tell the crowd, “The sad thing is, I’d be doing this whether you were here or not.” It works much better with an audience though.
Is it true you used to work at a diner on Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando?
I did! I worked at the International House of PancakesÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âeleven at night to seven in the morning. I was just telling my son the story of me heroically saving a man who had passed out and almost drowned in his eggs. My son was like, “You can’t drown in eggs.” I told him, “Sure you canÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âif they’re over easy!”
Even back then, the area wasn’t top-of-the-line. I lived in an apartment off Orange Blossom Trail which was probably four miles away. I used to walk to workÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âat night. I couldn’t get over how many people offered me rides. I had no idea that those other women walking out there were hookers! What’s worse, I did occasionally get in men’s cars! Nothing bad ever happened. I just remember marveling at how friendly the people were. [Laughs] I would be wearing corduroy pants, these really thick walking shoes, a backpack, and I smelled like butter and syrup. I think these guys were, in fact, honest Johns looking for sex, but they gathered fairly quickly that I was just a kid working down the street.
Watermark's publisher never misses Wait WaitÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦ Don't Tell Me! He says he'll drive around in his car the whole hour if you're a panelist. How did your gig on the NPR radio show come about?
They just called me up and asked me if I wanted to do it. At first we didn’t even do it in front of a live audience. We were all in separate studios wherever we lived and hooked up by phone. Once they discovered the magic of a live audience, they located themselves into the basement of a bank in downtown Chicago, which is our headquarters now. They're coming up on their 15th anniversary. Honestly, I had never even heard of the show [before they contacted me], which I’m sure they appreciate me saying. I’ve been on it for close to a dozen years now.
Do you think the radio show has exposed you to a broader audience?
Definitely! A lot of people come to my shows and say they heard of me because of Wait WaitÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦Don’t Tell Me! It’s such a great audience. They’re well-informed, smart, have a great sense of humors. They class up my shows.
Editing on that show is masterful! They make me sound smart. [Laughs] When people meet me they’re blown away since I’m barely functional.
You're on record about your love of junk: Twinkies, Ho-Hos, Taco Bell. With three kids at home, do you make an effort to feed them healthy foods?
I make a huge effort to make them eat healthy. In fact, I just sent my oldest daughter out to buy a food scale. I insist that she eat in accordance with the five food groups. [Laughs] She just tried to pass off one-and-a-half cups of leaf lettuce as a full vegetable portion!”
So, yes, I try really hard to have my kids eat healthy. But if I'm being truthful, I recently bought a rather large safe for my bedroom closet, and in there you will find my stash of Butterfingers. I do a lot of my junk food eating in my walk-in closet late at night. And on the road it’s just disgusting, too. It’s hard to get food that’s half way decent. When I’m eating healthy on the road, it means that instead of getting Fritos from the vending machine, I get the Chex Mix… lower in sodium.
How do you feel about Michelle Obama’s healthy foods initiative?
I’m totally on board! Let me tell you somethingÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âthis will piss people offÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬ÂI even applaud Bloomberg for his ban on super size sodas. Not because I think it’s a solution – I mean, any idiot can just order five smalls. But he's bringing to light the topic of obesity, just like Michelle Obama has. In our local elementary school there is a 60% obesity rate. That’s obscene! And the fix is ridiculously easyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Ânutrition and sleep. We are also sleep deprived, by the wayÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âwhich is why Starbucks has had its way with us.
I love Michelle Obama. She's so goddamn good-looking and smart! I especially love that she had a crooked piece of hair sticking out during her convention speech. It made her more like us. I bet when she was about to go on some operative went, “Come here. Let’s fuck up your hair a little bit.”
How do you handle politics in your act without provoking a backlash?
I suppose I annoy people. I generally say to the audience: ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã…”Full disclosureÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬ÂI'm a Democrat. I might say things with that slant, but my job is not to change your vote. My job is to make you laugh.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã‚Â
There are comics that do a combative thingÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âand do it brilliantly, I might addÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âbut not me. I approach everything with an understanding that I could be wrong.
I love talking politics, though. What does it mean, that Mitt Romney needs to be “humanized?” Analysts on the left and the right say that. It’s not the kind of thing you’d want to hear about your kid at a parent-teacher conference. “Billy’s doing very well, but he needs to humanize.”
As a veteran comedian, has your approach to comedy changed?
As I get older, I’ve realized that walking into a room full of people that want to laugh is just paradise. It’s so damn much fun. I love being on stage. And now I even do a meet and greet. I used to hate stuff like that because I felt uncomfortable having conversations with people. Now I can’t believe how much time I wasted by not embracing that years ago. I love hearing about their children, where they work, where they were raised and what brought them to the show that night. To have that connection, I treasure thatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢”šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âespecially in a world of stupid Facebook.
WHO: Paula Poundstone
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 6, 8:30 p.m.
WHERE: David A. Straz Center, Tampa