Paula Poundstone — comedian, actress and author — says she’s spent her life cleaning cat up pee.
“Who wouldn’t be happy about that?” Poundstone said, amidst a veritable sea of stream of consciousness.
“I hate cats, let me just say that. I have 15, you know. I so advise against it. They’re just horrible creatures. They’re fun to pet and funny to look at and blah blah blah but you know, it’s just a daily cleaning project really. Everything your mother said about having a pet is true.”
Poundstone will perform June 26 at The State Theatre, and her show promises to be a unique performance from a seasoned comedian who specializes in spontaneity.
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When asked when she knew she wanted a career in comedy, Poundstone said, “I’m still not certain (if I should). There was, I believe it’s called a summary letter, written by my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Bump. She wrote in the first sentence of the last paragraph, where she’d already explained about my stick-to-it-ive-ness in the area of clay projects, that she enjoyed all of Paula’s humorous comments about all our activities.”
That seemingly small addition to her letter spelled big things for Poundstone.
“My parents had our report cards in a junk drawer in the kitchen, and that letter was in there for a long, long time,” Poundstone said. “I used to occasionally take it out and re-read it because I was so pleased that an adult liked something that I did. It was phrased in such a way that made you feel like she enjoyed it on an adult level, and it really influenced me. I loved the response of laughter, I always have, and I still do. It doesn’t even have to be laughter to me, even. I remember my mother used to have friends over to play canasta and she’d make us all go to bed, because apparently we were annoying, and I remember hearing the sounds of their laughter through the floor just gave me delight.”
Poundstone found success at a young age, after working blue-collar jobs to earn a living.
“In the spring of 1979, I happened to be living in Boston busing tables for a living,” Poundstone said. “I went to see a friend of a friend’s band at a club and they had a flier up on the wall for stand-up every-other Sunday. I went and took a look and I really felt certain I could do that. I had wanted to for a long time, but hadn’t.”
Differing from her more aggressive peers, Poundstone used her unique voice and relaxed yet neurotic attitude to set herself apart from the pack.
“There’s a whole generation of comics like Jay Leno and his predecessors that had the gumption to go into a strip club and say, ‘hey, can I do a few minutes of jokes in between the strippers?’ ” Poundstone said. “I would never have had the nerve to do that. I’m just not made of that. So, I was really lucky to live in a city where somebody else started up a stand-up comedy circuit. It happened in a lot of cities at about the same time — Chicago, someplace in Ohio, San Francisco. This small comedy club circuit started up in the late ’70s/early ’80s.”
Poundstone said she was lucky to be young during the “boom” period for the comedy industry.
“I was 19 years old then, which made it a lot easier because it was a stupid age,” she said. “There’s nothing you can’t do at that age. You’ve got nobody to take care of, you can live on someone else’s couch with no money without feeling very guilty for a while. I was thrown off a number of couches in my early day. I don’t think I ever had the good sense to feel guilty, but I did get ousted from a few places.”
When asked if she’d been to State College before, Poundstone answered earnestly.
“I don’t know. I feel like I would remember if I had because the name is so unusual, but I’ve been doing this for 36 years. … There was a place in San Juan Capistrano, and we had a hell of a time finding the place. We finally get there and this guy that owns the place gave me this very affectionate greeting. My daughter asked me if I’d ever been there before and I said, ‘nah, I don’t think so.’ A second later, we see an autographed picture of me on the wall that said ‘I love this place! — Paula Poundstone.’ Then, I’m walking toward the stage, there’s another wall of photos and I see a second autographed photo of me. Then, I’m almost on stage, I’m standing behind the curtain and there is a third signed photo of me. I don’t sign more than one picture at a time for a place so I’d been there at least three times. So, yeah, I don’t really know where I’ve been.”
Needless to say, Poundstone’s performance has a fair share of improvisation.
“My favorite part of the night is talking to the audience,” she said. “I do the time-honored ‘where you from/what do you do for a living?’ These little biographies start to emerge from the audience and I use that from which to set my sails. Therefore, I really don’t know what I’m doing much of the time. On a good night — and I’d like to think that some are — probably a solid third of the night has not been said before. It’s the fun part. I started out working that way because I tend to panic and forget things. At first, of course, it seemed like a very negative quality, but then after a while I realized this is really where the heart of it is. It has to do with who’s in the room, it has to do with the fact that it’s never been said before or will be again.
If she weren’t doing stand-up comedy — and providing a voice for Pixar’s “Inside Out” — she’s not sure what she’d be up to professionally these days.
“I’d probably be dead,” Poundstone said. “Lord knows I don’t have a lot of skills. So my original plan many years ago was that I would work my way up at the restaurant I worked at. I don’t know, I guess I’d still be slinging salad otherwise. The worst part is, I’m really not that healthy an eater.”
While Poundstone may downplay her talents and her success, there is no doubt that she’s become one of the most influential female comedians of the modern age.
“With the caveat that I really don’t know (what to tell young comedians to be successful), I always tell people to do what’s in their heart,” she said. “The truth is, we’re all going to talk about similar subjects because that’s what makes things funny, people can relate and they’ve heard of these things. We all have lives that are not all that wildly different. When you’re doing it from your own perspective, that’s what makes it special or interesting.”
Poundstone says young comedians need to look inward to succeed. She believes that catering yourself specifically for other people’s interests will not yield the right results.
“Many years ago I was in a stand-up comedy competition in San Francisco, which was really considered a big coin of the realm back then,” she said. “I didn’t do very well. I realized later that I wasn’t a big fan of the people who did well, and that I had put this thing that I really valued in someone else’s hands. That’s a terrible mistake. The idea that I was allowing other people to judge me makes me shudder now. I’m not saying you never listen to someone else’s opinion, but only I can figure out what I’m doing.”