Paula Poundstone: Puts It All In Perspective.
Comedian Paula Poundstone has it in her contract that the promoter must put a clock onstage. “I can’t tell how long I’ve been onstage when I’m performing.” Known for Springsteen like sets that top several hours, Pondstone has perfected the art of working a crowd. Stories splinter, drawing in several audience members, weaving ideas and reflections until the crowd is enchanted and falling out of their chairs laughing. From her early days in the Boston Comedy scene in the 80s to her recent ascent as a favored performer on NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me, Poundstone is relevant and a force to be reckoned with. Catch her at the Rio Theatre on March 18th at 8pm. Tickets here: http://www.riotheatre.com/events-2/2017/3/18/paula-poundstone
SUSC: When you were first doing stand up in Boston, was it a supportive scene?
Paula: Well, when I got to San Francisco there were more opportunities and more open mic nights. On a Monday, you could get to three open mics if you hustled. There we tended to move a little more together than in Boston. For me there were personality differences with the Boston comedy scene. It was very misogynist with a lot of dick jokes. Not my sense of humor and I wasn’t part of the “in” crowd. There were comics I did get along with. There was a great comic named Jack Gallagher who I was good friends with. And, Steven Wright who started two weeks after me, I think. So, we spent some time together. But it was few and far between.
Did you have to develop a thick skin to survive in that scene, socially, as well as onstage?
Yeah, I really did. I think nowadays there is a wider array of styles of comedy. In Boston there were these two guys that started a business called the Comedy Connection. Prior to that there was nothing, no scene. The Comedy Connection had two venues and there weren’t a lot of slots. There wasn’t even an open mic scene, that came later. So how the guys who did get sets developed their act, I have no idea. Frankly, they weren’t very good. Some of them are still working and they’re good now, but they weren’t then. There’s a stereotype of Cambridge, that its an intellectual mecca because of Harvard and MIT and that’s true. But it doesn’t take into account the locals. There was guy named Lenny Clarke who was born and raised in Cambridge. He was a blue collar kind of guy, very funny but, as they say, a very misogynistic viewpoint. He was nice guy, an admirable guy who even ran for office at one point. He was Facebook, before there was one. He knew everybody in town, so Lenny was the most popular comic in town. When Lenny did a show, his friends would fill the audience. The problem was when Lenny’s friends filled the audience, it was Lenny’s sense of humor that ruled the day. So, a lot of comics, especially ones just getting started, tailored what they did to that sensibility. There were comics who would have developed into different kinds of comics, and probably better, were not the fact that were mini-Lennys. So, the idea that Steven Wright came up in Boston is something no one would not have guessed in a million years. I mean, there were nights he bombed his ass off because the crowds would not tolerate Steve’s act. I certainly also had my share of that, as well. I followed in the footsteps of some other comics from Boston who went around the country to different clubs. I had no view outside Boston. These guys gave me the names of some of the clubs they had gone to. So I took a Greyhound bus around the country and up into Canada to perform at those clubs and see what comedy was like in different cities. I found that outside of Boston I did better, but now when I go home, I do great.
It must have taken a lot of courage to leave your home at 19, get on a bus and travel to places you’ve never seen to tell jokes. At the same time, basically forging the way for the future of modern comedy.
It was pretty lonely and often times, pretty scared. I had no money. I had a backpack that had a couple of audio cassettes in it, some notebooks and a bag of double stuffed Oreos. I replaced the Oreos several times. I mostly lived on Oreos. I bought something they had back then called an Ameripass. It’s basically a book of blank bus tickets from Greyhound and you could go anywhere you wanted for a month. You decide where you want to go, have the blank ticket filled out by a ticket agent and away you go. Obviously, I had to do some routing. Like if I wanted to go to San Francisco out of Boston, I would eat up 5 or 6 days getting there. So I would find comedy clubs on the way. When I got to a place I wanted to check out, I would put my stuff in a locker, find a location that was four hours away. Then I would return to the bus station for that last departure to the town four hours away. I would arrive at that destination and stay on the bus and return to the original location. That way I could sleep for eight hours without having to spend money I didn’t have on a hotel. Sometimes I would meet up with comics and when they heard how I was living would say, “Oh my gosh, come stay with me.” So I slept on a lot of floors. I ended up at Zany’s in Chicago where I had a lovely relationship for many years. I worked with a Canadian guy who was a dick in retrospect, but had a club in Toronto and Montreal and he would put me up in a motel.
What happened when you finally got to San Francisco?
I fell in love with the audience and I stayed there for years.
There were Boston comics who preceded you to California. Did they let you know how great it was?
You have to remember this was pre-cell phone. There was payphone at The Charles Playhouse in Boston, which was a Comedy Connection spot. Every comic would gather around the payphone and call them up in California and relay their conversation to the crowd. It was as if Lewis and Clark had a payphone. To us, those comics were frontiersmen.
Who were the comics you ended up hanging out with once you made it to San Francisco?
It’s names you might not know, other than Kevin Meany. It was a guy named Barry Sobel, a guy named Jeremy Kramer who was a popular oddity…some people I can’t remember their names…a wonderful woman named Jane Dornacker and that was the meat and potatoes of that group. When I first arrived I heard about Dana Carvey all the time, but he was already in New York. I met him in New York, we came back to San Francisco and we shared a house for a while. And when I say share, I mean Dana paid the majority of it. This was before he got SNL. He has always been an amazing comic to watch.