With a successful career spanning nearly 40 years as a comedian, author and commentator, Paula Poundstone has likely done a lot of things right. What she hasn’t done is have a master plan or try to ride the waves of changing public taste.
“I didn’t always want to be a stand-up comic per se,” she said. “I wanted to be Lily Tomlin or Carole Burnett. I have to say I missed it all by a country mile.”
Poundstone, who was born in Huntsville, Alabama, moved to Sudbury, Massachusetts, shortly after her birth. According to Poundstone, a number of U.S. cities started a standup circuit in the late 1970s. She got her break while bussing tables in 1979 in Boston and shortly after, started doing stand-up comedy at open-mic nights.
During that period, Poundstone said, stand-up comedy was largely a boys’ club dominated by misogynistic humor. She recalled one of her early acts — when she followed a comedian who told a lewd joke that was met with raucous laughter — and how she felt out of place with her more down to earth humor and “little cat jokes.” Still, she did not let that deter her.
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“For the most part, I always put the focus on what do I need to do differently,” she said. “It’s not like I’m going to go (on stage) and change social mores.”
In the early 1980s, Poundstone traveled across the U.S. by Greyhound bus, stopping in at open-mic nights at comedy clubs en route. She stayed in San Francisco, where she became known for improvisational sets at The Other Cafe comedy club in the Haight-Ashbury. She was seen there by Robin Williams, who encouraged her to move to Los Angeles and included a stand-up comedy set for her on a “Saturday Night Live” episode he hosted. In 1989, she won the American Comedy Award for “Best Female Stand-Up Comic.”
Poundstone is a frequent panelist on the NPR radio quiz show “Wait, Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!” She was also a regular on the long-running variety show “A Prairie Home Companion.” She just released her second book, “The Totally Unscientific Study Of The Search For Human Happiness,” in which she attempts to answer one of life’s eternal questions.
Poundstone tours the country extensively, performing stand-up comedy in theaters and performing arts centers. She is known for never doing the same act twice and spontaneously interacting with the crowd. Understanding the importance of building rapport with the audience, she said she would never do something like berate the crowd for not getting her jokes.
“It’s a relationship with the audience,” she said. “(The audience) is my best friend.”
Audience members often relate to stories she tells about her life, Poundstone said, including tales of her three adopted children and multiple cats.
“I have 38 years of material rattling around somewhere in my head,” she said.
While Poundstone said she doesn’t identify specifically as a political comedian, she doesn’t hesitate to interject her views on current events into her acts. An issue that is currently on her radar is the World Health Organization’s recent declaration that gaming addiction is a mental health condition. Poundstone said that social media, the internet and electronic gadgets are hugely addictive and can hinder meaningful human interaction. She added that those addictions are controllable and she herself has tried to curtail her use of social media recently.
“My act is largely autobiographical but my reactions to what I have seen is part of that autobiography,” she said.
In this time of political strife and polarization in the U.S., Poundstone said that talking about politics during her acts can be cathartic.
“It’s a night of healing laughter,” she said. “What’s better for the brain? Nothing. It’s a great mechanism for coping.”
IF YOU GO
- What: An Evening with Paula Poundstone
- When: 8 p.m. Friday
- Where: The State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave., State College
- Info: www.thestatetheatre.org