Paula Poundstone is now a figurehead of stand-up comedy, who has pushed envelopes, and broken new ground in her over three decades behind the microphone. She will be bringing her quirky observations the Bomhard Theater this weekend. I spoke to her over the telephone from her Santa Monica home.
LEO: Who are your comic influences?
Paula Poundstone: I was a huge fan of Rowan Martin’s “Laugh-In” when I was a kid, as was everyone who’s my age. So Lilly Tomlin still remains a national treasure. I’m nothing like her, by the way, but I still like her. And then Robin Williams is the person that made what I, and many of my brethren, do possible. Because he almost single-handedly got people excited and interested in the medium of stand-up comedy itself. So if it wasn’t for Robin Williams, none of us would be working. When I was a kid, my parents had 11 Bill Cosby albums, and I stole them when I moved away from home.
LEO: What can we expect from your show now, that we wouldn’t have gotten 20 years ago?
PP: First of all, I didn’t have kids 20 years ago. And my perspective has changed. I used to hate babies on airplanes, now I love babies on airplanes. I talk about raising my children, because my act is largely autobiographical — what I’m doing and what I experience, and in doing that I touch on politics and current events. But I’m not political analyst; I can only discuss these things from my perspective. I talk about raising a house full of kids, I talk about animals, I talk about the public school system, which is nothing but frustrating, I talk about Abraham Lincoln. But it’s like going to a cocktail party — first you talk about what a pain it was to park, then you talk about current events, then someone says, “Tell that story you told before,” so you tell an old story, and then someone on the other side of the room spills a drink and you can’t help mocking them.
LEO: You’re sort of a stateswoman of comedy now. How are things different now than they were when you were coming up?
PP: I think the difference is that show business in general just gets meaner by the day, actually. A great example of that is what’s going on with the late-night talk show shake-up. You know it’s unnecessary to be that dishonest and backstabbing. It doesn’t do anyone any good.
LEO: Is that what happens when they inject money into art?
PP: Well, it is. But it’s possible to do business and not be an asshole — it really is. And obviously if somebody doesn’t get what they want, they’re going to be discouraged and offended. But you can stay true to your word.
Ya’ know kids lie a lot. It’s just part of the deal. They’re trying to figure out what they can get away with, what feels good, where there’s a pay-off, and where there isn’t. So it’s natural for them to go through a phase where they lie a lot. But it’s hard to explain to your children to be true to their world, when there’s so little of that in the rest of the world. Maybe that’s just something I saw on “Little House on the Prairie” that never really existed.
LEO: Do you believe that there’s a prejudice against female comics in the industry?
PP: No. Not at all. There may have been a long, long time ago. I think in general, not even specific to our industry, but in general, I think when Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller were starting out … yeah, it was a problem back then. And I think it really influenced the style of what they did and who they are as human beings. But I can’t really say that for any of my contemporaries. I think the rest of us walked through a path that was already tread, and I’m grateful that that’s so. But I think at this point people think too much about some sort of minority status, and they should just say, “If my work is really good … it’ll get noticed.”
LEO: I was surprised to find out that I Heart Jokes is your first comedy album. Is that a testament to the fact that the road is important to the sustainability of a comedian than the recorded documents?
PP: I never did one before because I thought it was harder to do. In truth, technology probably has changed a bit in the 30 years I’ve been doing this; it probably was harder to do before. But now, I think, “Gee, we should do more of these,” because it was so mind-blowingly simple. And because of the computer and the Internet, I can pretty much do the business of them myself. Or in-house, I have an assistant that helps. So I don’t have to mess with corporate industry or stars — which is wonderful.
I don’t like computers. I actually think they’ve been bad for us in most of ways. But one way it has been positive is that a lot of people, including myself, have been able to bypass the gate-keepers of traditional commercial paths. I spend a lot of time doing the Twitter thing, and on Facebook — just to keep in touch with fans. I like writing jokes for Twitter — I find the 140 character thing to be an interesting challenge.
LEO: The life of a comedian is hard. Do you ever regret pursuing this particular art form?
PP: Oh no. There were times in my life, through shear ignorance, that I felt like I was put-upon. But I have been stupid enough at one time or another to think, “Oh, this is so hard or this is so blah-blah-blah.” I don’t know, maybe I was chemically imbalanced. Because the truth is, this is all I do with my time. I do my job and I take care of my kids. Anytime anybody says, “Hey, what’ve you been doing?” I get a little embarrassed that I have nothing more to say for myself. I do my job and I take care of my kids, and then I do my job some more, and then I take care of my kids some more. And the beauty of this is that those are my two favorite things to do. Ya’ know, nowadays when you hear about 10-percent unemployment, I just curse myself for ever thinking this is so hard; because this is the easiest job in the whole world. I mean, there are challenges, but compared to other jobs, the challenges pale. So I consider myself the luckiest person in the world.
LEO: Is there anything off limits in your life when it comes to writing a joke?
PP: No, not really. As long as it was funny, or at least I thought it was funny before I said it, because God knows I’ve been wrong before; as long as it’s funny, I’m willing to go anywhere. I feel like if there’s a higher purpose to telling jokes — it’s shared humanity. It makes people feel less lonely — less like they’re the only one. That’s the good part.
LEO A Little Off Center Series presents Paula Poundstone
Saturday, Jan. 23
Bomhard Theater, Kentucky Center
501 W. Main St.
$25-$32; 8 p.m.