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Gigglin' gal: Comedian Paula Poundstone performs Aug. 4 at the Sonoma County Fair.


Paula Poundstone keeps the offbeat humor coming

By Paula Harris

HANG ON A MINUTE, could ya?" says comedian Paula Poundstone in her famously husky voice, sounding a mite harried as she commences a morning telephone interview from her Santa Monica home. "Actually, could you call back in five minutes?" Children giggle in the background as she hangs up.

Five minutes later, the humorist is back on the line, sounding a bit more relaxed and munching on a candy bar. She announces that she's wearing a lot of Butterfinger crumbs, a pair of Gap trousers, a sloppy shirt, and sandals without open toes.

"I hate open-toed sandals," she says. "I don't want to know that much about other people."

Having first become a foster parent in 1993, Poundstone, 39, now lives the hectic life of a single mom in a household filled with her two adopted daughters, one foster son, and a slew of cats.

"I just jumped out of the bathtub with my 1-year-old foster son and he almost drowns both of us, and now I'm sitting in the office of my house and my oldest daughter is behind me playing on the CD-ROM on the computer, and I was just showing her how to use the phone book, but she knows more than I do. My 5-year-old is off at day camp," Poundstone rattles off, in between quick bites of chocolate.

The comedian--who performs Wednesday, Aug. 4, at the Sonoma County Fair--has built her career on jokes that spring from her off-kilter view of everyday situations. The kids and kitties obviously supply her with a wealth of comedic material.

"My brand of humor is mostly about just existing, I suppose," Poundstone explains. "My stuff is mostly from the kids and some from my cats. I have nine cats now and they're really obnoxious. They throw up all the time, there are big masses of cat hair, and I often ask myself, 'Why do I have all these stupid cats?'

"But on the other hand, I have hours of material about them, so I do feel they've paid for themselves," she adds with a chuckle.

Poundstone rose to prominence doing stand-up in the comedy-crazed '80s, but the Boston-area native has gone on to build a multifaceted career over the past decade.

As a contributing editor at Mother Jones magazine, she's penned humorous columns on topics ranging from Spam to Ping-Pong. Her HBO specials have earned her two Cable ACE awards, and she's also won an American Comedy Award as the nation's best female stand-up comic. Currently she's voicing the character of Judge Stone for ABC's Saturday morning animated TV series Squigglevision.

In addition, she is writing a series of comedic essays for her first book, slated to be published by Crown next year. But that project is slow-going.

"I think I've already gone past every deadline I was ever given, but so far they haven't said, 'Give us our money back,' so . . . ," she explains.

As a stand-up veteran, Poundstone has seen just about every style of humor the world of comedy has to offer. She says that, personally, she enjoys comics who are silly, smart, and honest.

"There was a trend for a while to be the 'Angry Man,' and I've never particularly enjoyed that," she says. "It kind of makes my stomach have knots, and I don't consider that a pleasant evening's entertainment."

"Or else," she adds, "there were a few guys doing supposed characters that were very racist or very sexist or whatever, and their excuse in interviews was 'Well, it's just a character.' Well, the crowd is responding to it on a particular level. We all have demons and dark sides, and I don't know that, as a group, it's a good idea to coax them out."

POUNDSTONE'S own performance style is relaxed and unstructured. Clad in her trademark shirt, tie, jeans, and jacket, the comedian often reclines on the stage floor as she shares her wry slice-of-life observations.

"I do a lot of shows in these nice 1,500-seat theaters where I'm part of a season, and the week before me was some sort of violin quintet," she says. "I lie down on the floor and think, 'I'm sure I'm the only performer doing this in here this year--unless some guy's string went out on him or something.'"

No two of her shows are alike. She interacts with each audience, asking questions and ad-libbing: "I feel pretty relaxed on stage, unless I'm going downhill at a rapid pace, which happens occasionally. I don't anticipate that'll happen at the Sonoma County Fair--but it's a possibility," she deadpans. "However, as a general rule, people like to laugh, especially if they've paid to do so."

Apparently the comedian has always had the gift. Her kindergarten teacher noted on her report card: "I've enjoyed many of Paula's humorous comments about our activities." Poundstone still keeps the little card tucked away in her carry-on bag.

"I can certainly remember enjoying getting the response of laughter when I was little," she recalls. "It's kind of a neat thing for kids. Even my foster son, who's a year old, will do something and we laugh and he looks back and tries to repeat whatever it was he thinks we're laughing at. He doesn't know what's funny--he just likes it that we laughed."

Through all her triumphs, one success continues to elude Poundstone: she can't seem to break into network television. Her 1993 show on ABC lasted just two weeks, and an animated series called "Home Movies," which aired on UPN this spring, has already come and gone.

"I have an amazing record for short duration [on TV]," Poundstone says with a quick laugh, but then she grows serious. "I don't have a big drive about it the way I once did. Certainly, there are some great shows on television with some great performers . . . but I find most of what's on television just awful, and I don't long to be a part of that," she says.

"The odds of being on something and having it be a good project are even slimmer than getting on to begin with," she continues. "If I never get on television again, which I don't really think will happen, I don't think I will lie awake nights crying about it."

Poundstone says she measures success differently these days and enjoys the immediate rewards afforded by performing stand-up comedy.

"It's such a great treat spending my life performing to a crowd live and getting paid enough for it so I can pay the rent, and I can come home and be mom," she explains. "I'm the producer, writer, and director--no one tells me what to do. There are a lot of pluses to it--but the biggest plus is that I'm in a true relationship with the people out there in front of me."


Paula Poundstone performs Wednesday, Aug. 4, at 6 and 8 p.m. at the Sonoma County Fair, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. Admission ot the fair ($5) gets you a free seat; reserved seats are $5. 545-4200.

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From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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