Comedian Paula Poundstone needs no script. The lightning-fast comic can ad lib with the best, and her fans live for her ability to riff on any subject that comes her way.
Poundstone was a fixture on the stand-up comedy circuit and late night TV for 20 years before her career was derailed in 2001 with an arrest for drunken driving and later accusations of child abuse. She pled no contest to an abuse charge and was placed on probation. She also was ordered into rehab for alcohol.
Today, the comedian’s career is back on track. For more than a decade, she’s been a regular on the NPR weekend comedy show “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me” as well as back on the stage and TV comedy scene.
Poundstone will perform at Pantages Theater on Friday night in her customary suit and tie as part of Tacoma’s Pride celebration. The News Tribune caught up with her via phone at her cat-filled Southern California home.
Question: Your quick wit and spontaneity are legendary. Do the rest of us seem dim-witted to you?
Answer: (Laughs) No. On stage, the audience is my best friend and the show seems to go particularly well when I’m anxious to tell them things. People are very intimidated by public speaking and performing. They view that as being quick-witted, but in truth, everyone is quick-witted in conversation and say funny things.
Q: You’re going to be in Tacoma for Pride. Tacoma was just named America’s gayest city ...
A: Really? What do they mean by that?
Q: They based it on a set of criteria. And of course we were one of the first states to pass same-sex marriage by public vote.
A: Congratulations, by the way. California is the shame of the nation. It really is. Here’s the difference between California and Kansas. Kansas didn’t pass any such thing either. Kansas has a long history of enormous pockets of ignorance, but California should know better. I always feel coastal states have a bigger responsibility. It’s where the ideas come from – from somewhere out in the ocean. When I travel the country, I die of shame from the fact that I live in California.
Q: Do you still enjoy being a panelist on “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me”?
A: It’s fun to do and it was a great match for me from the start. They really do encourage all of us to jump in wherever. The tendency was to wait quietly and not step on toes. Now, I realize no one’s toes are sticking that far out. It’s an atmosphere they’ve created – asking the people that work for them to do what they do. You’d be surprised how many performing situations you get hired for (that don’t do that). I’ve always said if I auditioned for the “Paula Poundstone Show,” they’d go, “Yeah, we’ve decided to go in a different direction with that.”
Q: Has anything ever gone wrong in your audience interactions?
A: There was a woman (during a taped Bravo channel special) who was engaged to the guy sitting next to her. I said, “Who asked who?” I don’t date and I don’t get engaged, but I just assumed that by that year (2009) that it wasn’t just the guy springing the question. This guy got so upset. He said, “What kind of question is that?!” I couldn’t help mocking the guy – which is something I normally don’t do. But there was something about his demeanor that caused me to repeat that phrase – several times. I can’t tell you how many people came up to me after the show and told me how concerned they were about that woman marrying that man.
Q: Will we see you in your trademark suit and tie?
A: I don’t know why not. It’s become a uniform now. It’s so easy to pack. In the old days when I worked night clubs, I’d wear jeans and cowboy boots and a shirt and a suit jacket. The cowboy boots – I would actually bring several colors. I felt the need to change it up – for the waitresses, I guess, so they wouldn’t get bored with my outfit. That technique has gone by the wayside. I still have those boots, but I look at them and go, “Why the hell would I have lugged them in a suitcase?”
Q: It was probably a good workout.
A: Yeah, it probably was. Now I barely carry anything in my suitcase. Still, I put it up on the thing and they say, “You’re going to have to take something out.” I go, “There’s nothing in it!”
Q: How many Diet Pepsis do you go through in a show?
A: During the show, not more than one – unless I spill it. I do have it in my rider. It’s really the only thing I ask for: some diet sodas. So (venues) think I somehow run on those like it’s gasoline. So they’ll have a bunch backstage, which I really appreciate. And I appreciate that they take half and put them in the hotel room, which is where I spend more time. But they are so funny. They’ll put three out on stage, and they’ll put some water, and they’ll be an ice bucket. I guess they think I stand on stage drinking all the time.
Q: And I guess you’re not a big fan of health food?
A: It’s not that I dislike healthy food. It’s that I really like junk food. So, it’s a struggle. I eat terrible on the road. I was just making a smoothie in the kitchen. And my daughter, who is a vegan, said, “You can put some soy milk in that.” I said, “I bet you could. And I bet if you were doing it you would. And that’s why I won’t.”
Q: How important are your children in your life?
A: They are most of it. But I have to earn a living. They are getting old now. My middle daughter just finished her freshman year in college. I have a 22-year-old daughter who just left home. And I have a 15-year-old son.
Q: As your children leave home, does the number of cats you own go up?
A: No, I’ve cut myself off. I have 16. You would not believe how much work it is. And it interrupts everything. I can’t stay out. Everywhere I go: “I have to go home because of the cats.” I sift four litter boxes four times a day. They throw up everywhere. They’re a pain in the ass. If you have this many cats and you die, you’ll be surrounded in two hours by cat feces.
Q: If you weren’t Paula Poundstone the famous comedian, would you be known as the crazy cat lady in your neighborhood?
A: One time I was working a venue and I told one of the people working at the theater about my crazy menagerie and I said, “Yeah, people probably think of me as a crazy cat lady.” And she said to me, “No, no, no. Because you have two German Shepherds. If you just had 16 cats, you’d be a crazy cat lady. But because you have two dogs, you’re an animal lover.” I never thought of it like that. The dogs are beards, really. When I tell people I have 16 cats, they say, “Have you seen ‘Hoarders’?” Like that’s a flattering thing to say. No, I don’t (watch it). The only thing more mentally ill than being a hoarder is watching that show. But I do get tingly during kitten season. So I know something is wrong with me.
Q: Your troubles with the law and alcohol abuse are behind you. But does that time still come up in your stage act?
A: For the first solid year (after the arrest and rehab), I did a lot of jokes about finding one’s self, the legal system and the whole debacle – things most people don’t know about, like the lady who watches you pee. That’s someone’s job, by the way. But my act is autobiographical so those things have mostly been pushed aside. They’re not in my consciousness anymore, thank goodness.
Q: Considering how easily it could have ended, are you thankful for the career you have now?
A: Absolutely. You betcha. I’ll tell you what I am most thankful for in terms of how things turned out. I drove drunk more than once. Eventually, I got popped for it. I consider myself so unbelievably lucky that I have never hurt anyone. That’s just the luck of the draw. I think about it now and I shudder. What could I have been thinking? I’m happy my career came back. I had fans who never left, for which I have undying gratitude. If I could turn back the hands of time, I’d fix that and I wouldn’t have this pot belly either. But I just move forward. I tell my kids when you screw up, you apologize, you come clean and you do your best to make it right. And I think I’ve taken the steps to do that. And when I say steps, I don’t mean AA. Please. I shudder. I mean human steps.
Q: I guess it would be hard for you to be anonymous in Alcoholics Anonymous.
A: I was court ordered on television, so it blows the hell out of the second A.
Q: I understand you were in Tacoma recently scouting colleges with your daughter.
A: We had a great time. She was looking at the University of Puget Sound. She ended up going somewhere else, but we really liked it. We ended up going to that really great glass museum. When I was there in Tacoma years ago, it smelled bad.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Pantages Theater, Tacoma