Paula Poundstone: The mother of all comedians

By | July 23, 2007 at 9:54 am | No comments | Features

Paula PoundstoneUnlike most comics, who leave wake-up calls for dinnertime, Paula Poundstone typically rises before the son — and the daughters, too, for that matter. She needs every precious second to do her “real job — raising two lively teenage girls (Toshia, 16, and Allie, 13) and an aspiring drummer boy, Thomas E., 9.

By John Delery

Consider Paula Poundstone a momedian, the hilarious hybrid parent for these increasingly green times: Part ticked-off comedian, part hands-on mother, Poundstone runs on eight hours sleep and weekly booking fees.

“I get up way before noon,” she says at exactly 7 a.m. PDT recently. “In fact, I slept in a bit this morning. But usually I have to get up early just to look at my strategy map.”

On this morning in Santa Monica, Calif., she has to coordinate chauffeuring Toshia to acting camp and Allie to gymnastics camp without driving herself crazy. “Thomas,” Poundstone continues, raising her voice above the faucet running in the kitchen, “is starting high-adventure beach camp. There is no all-around camp anymore. You have to choose a particular interest and pursue that for a week, and then you can go to a different camp. So it’s a lot of organizing, trying to get everybody to different places at the same time of day.”

After more than 25 years in comedy, Poundstone, who grew up in Massachusetts, the same comic incubator as Steven Wright and Denis Leary, two of her peers, still dresses as though she had emptied her clothes closet onto her body.

And her act, coming to Austin, Texas on Aug. 31, and Maine and Connecticut Sept. 7-9, remains an amusing cocktail of current events and everyday occurrences, with a twist of sublime. The merry multitasker demonstrated she could joke and prepare breakfast for four while speaking to Punchline Magazine.

You don’t have a driver, huh?
Regrettably, I do not have a driver. For many years I’ve thought, If I were rich, I’d have a chauffeur, just to deal with the car breaking down actually.

After all these years you must have as much money as Leno.
It’s hard to believe I’ve been denied that little thrill, that little perk.

You haven’t been able to discourage Toshia from going into show business yet?
Believe me, she’s not going into show business. She’s quite the attention-getter. She’ll fall down in front of people and stuff like that. I’m forever saying, “You don’t do a show without selling tickets.” I wouldn’t mind if Toshia turned her acting skills toward the stage; when she uses them in the kitchen and the bedroom, that’s when it’s a problem.

So what’s on your mind these days? How have you evolved as a comic through the years?
I feel like I’m kind of at the top of my game in a way.

Do cats and Pop Tarts still fascinate you?
Well, I suppose they do, in a sad way. I talk about politics here and there onstage, not in a Rhodes scholar kind of way, not even in a fair-and-balanced kind of a way. I talk about raising my kids. I talk about the trials of just being a citizen, and there are many.

I’m so grateful I don’t live in Iowa because this thing of starting the [presidential] campaign, the political process this early — I can’t imagine you can even have a cup of coffee in Iowa these days without being assaulted by tens of candidates. I don’t think there was a break between the [2004 presidential campaign] and this one, which seems rather cruel.

I also talk about the public school system, which, fortunately, we’re in a fairly good one, actually.
I can’t say I’ve ever used algebra. You use it to help your kids with homework; that’s the only place you ever use algebra, unless you’re going on to higher math or going to work on the Hubble telescope. But kids need to know how to make change; that would be a little more helpful, a little more hands-on than what does “n” equal.

You once talked about a daughter you called Madame Justice, is this Toshia?
No, that would be Allie.

If I remember correctly, she was going to be a Supreme Court justice after serving eight years as vice president in Senator Peepers’ administration. That is correct. We used to call my son the senator, not the one I have now. It’s a different boy, a foster son I had a long time ago. I must say, I actually heard from his family, and he’s doing very well. So maybe there’s something in a name. He’s doing remarkably well, actually. Like, an honor student.

So different aspirations for Allie now, huh?
I don’t know what her aspirations are. The last thing she said she wanted to be when she grew up was
a fashion designer, which I think is some form of rebellion. It [fashion] is probably the thing I find least important in life.

Allie’s smart that way; she’s always known to do something I have no interest in. She plays the violin, and there’s not a lick of advice I can give. There’s nothing I can do to help her practice, other than to say, “Please practice.”

So you said you’re not rich, but after all these years you must be doing well.
Oh, gee, I wish. It’s like I spend half my day trying to convince the children that we have no money and that they should just change their plans right now. We rent this house, but really no one else in their right mind would rent this house. It’s a bit of a hovel, kind of a low-end Addams Family house — with no Lurch.

Do you have an Itt, a Thing?
Well, we have 11 cats, a dog, a bunny, a bearded dragon lizard and an ant farm, so we certainly have
a substitute Itt somewhere in this house.

Are you touring a lot now?
I go out about eight nights a month, on average, and it’s not in a row. It’s a night here, a night there, and I’ve done that same schedule for years and years and years now. Sometimes the quality of job varies, but the schedule remains just about the same.

It doesn’t work out great financially, but it works out in terms of my being able to be home. I can take the kids to school, to camp or whatever they’re doing, and I pick them up. I’m lucky I don’t have to work 9 to 5 and no one has to be in day care or something like that; not that that would be the end of the world, I guess. I figured it out mathematically, but I think I’m there for my kids as much as the average parent who works.

Because I work weekends, I often miss the talent show, and that’s a drag, but the part where I have to bring the drums to the school for the practice, that I’m there for.

So you’re not a mother, you’re a roadie.
I do feel like a roadie a lot.

Any perks to that?
Front-row seats!

So where are you leaning these days politically?
I’m a Democrat, but I don’ know whom among the Democrats yet — probably any one of them is fine with me, to tell you the truth, just so long as it’s one of them. We’re lucky because we have a good spate of candidates. I don’t think there’s anyone on the Democratic side that would be troubling, so that’s good.

I’ve seen only a few minutes of one debate, and it was hard to see a lot of daylight between them. In fact, I wish there were a way that they could draw straws or something, so that they wouldn’t injure themselves before they’re actually running against a Republican opponent, because in their insistence on finding some sort of difference between one another, they’re going to muck it up.

But fortunately [chuckling], the Republicans have already mucked it up so badly, we do have a fair amount of wiggle room. But the Democrats do have a way of eating up wiggle room quicker than any other political group, really.

It seems so impossible at this stage, but then it always happens, doesn’t it? I say it onstage, but it’s true: One of the problems with the Democrats is that we often choose our candidates from Geppetto’s workshop: Dukakis, Gore and John Kerry had this oddly wooden quality, and yet people who know them personally swear they’re not that way.

Is it still fun after all these years?
Yes, oh, yes. In the past month or so I’ve had some reaaaaaaally, reaaaaaaally great jobs. I did an event honoring Mort Sahl, and the lineup of comics was so great. It was Albert Brooks and Richard Lewis and Jay Leno and Bill Maher and Jonathan Winters and Norm Crosby and Shelly Berman. There were all these really old managers, guys I hadn’t seen in a thousand years, and it was just delightful.

I was saying to my daughter — I brought one of my kids — that a night like that isn’t going to happen again, probably forever, because, honestly, by the time anyone could organize it, half of us will be dead. I love my job wherever I am; occasionally there’s a rough night, but really not too much.

Mostly the people who come out seem to already be fans, so I’m not proving myself very often – maybe on the Mort Sahl night, maybe when I’m just part of a lineup. But when I’m working by myself, then I’m just preaching to the choir, I guess, and I kind of like that job.

Is it almost surreal that you’re part of this pantheon of comedians?
You know, it is. You know it was just time and place. I started when I was 19 years old, and it was just the beginning of what we arrogantly refer to as the Comedy Renaissance, [in the late '70s and early '80s] when audiences became interested in stand-up comedy again, largely because of Robin [Williams], really.

He was the guy that everybody was looking for, and when they went out hoping to see him somewhere, they ended up seeing a lot of others of us. It was a really great graduating class of comics. But you know, it mostly just had to do with that I just happened to be there at that time.

And that you’re also funny.
I’m not bad. But I don’t know if I were coming up now I’d be able to do it. I’m glad I don’t have to [find out]. I hope I’m one of those acts. Like I had Cab Calloway on a show I did for ABC about a thousand years ago, one of the last shows he did, I imagine, and he was great, just fantastic.

But he was so old by that time that he was in a wheelchair. You just had the sense that his teeth knew the song, you know. And I want to be like that. I want to be welcomed to perform, and invited to perform, and able to perform. I hope my teeth know the jokes long after my brain has shut down.

For more information, check out www.paulapoundstone.com.

About the Author

John Delery

John Delery has written thousands of articles and millions of words in his career, and still he has professional goals: He wants "Be honest with me, Doc: Will I ever tweet again?" to someday supplant "Take my wife...please" as the Great American punch line.