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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012

Paula Poundstone's Obsessions

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“I raise a house full of kids and animals, and it's fun to talk about on stage. I don't so much write as take notes.”

So explains Paula Poundstone about the current wellspring of her stand-up comedy after 33 years behind the mic. No doubt she will share stories of those critters and kids, among the other kinds of observations that led Comedy Central to name Poundstone one of its top 100 comedians, when she performs at the Pabst Theater on Friday, Sept. 7.

Restlessness may have been a contributing factor in Poundstone making a niche for herself in such a competitive field as stand-up. After all, she dropped out of high school to pursue her current career. But even now, another kind of antsy behavior animates her humor. Asked what aspect of her personality most contributes to her artistry, Poundstone offers, "Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Everything that gets said [in my routine] reminds me of something else that I feel I must say. It's a good thing I'm a stand-up comic. Otherwise, I'd just be annoying neighbors late at night. This works out better."

It's not like Poundstone doesn't have other skills to fall back on. She has written pieces for magazines such as Mother Jones, starred on a self-titled variety show, co-authored children's math books and published her own memoir. Cartoon voice work has also figured into her résumé, as has acting as a presidential election correspondent for Jay Leno's “Tonight Show.” And she has been a national spokeswoman for the Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations. But the interaction that can only be had between a comedian and her audience continues to be her professional mainstay.

"My show is like a conversation," Poundstone says. "I'm excited to tell people stuff that I think is funny, and I love talking to the crowd. I do the time-honored 'Where are you from? What do you do for a living?'

"In this way, little biographies emerge from the crowd, and I kind of use those to set my sails for where I go next,” she continues. “So, my show is never the same."

Neither are her frequent appearances on National Public Radio's news-based game show “Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me!” (WHAD 90.7 FM Saturdays at noon and Sundays at 7 a.m.), a fitting display for the breadth of her wit, which includes self-deprecation, personal observation, sociopolitical jabs and the degrees to which she's attuned—or not—to pop culture at any given moment.

It's likely that she would not have accrued most of those credits if she hadn't been so masterful at her primary job, though. For honing her skillful stream-of-consciousness routine, she credits those attracted to her brand of schtick.

"I have great audiences," Poundstone declares, adding about her early days on stage, "Back when I did shows that had an opener, a middle act and a headliner, other acts would kill to work with me—not because I'm such a stroll in the park, but because they wanted to work my crowd.”

And as seen in her run of cable-TV specials, her way with any given crowd can be personable enough to seem like a long-unseen, endearingly quirky friend. But she's also not above giving caustic rib-tickling treatment to anyone who would give her grief in the course of her work.

It takes a certain amount of ego to make one's living in the public eye, especially in a profession that demands Poundstone's kind of self-revelation, but there's humility in her approach to making others laugh. That appears to be a thread that runs through the rest of her life as well. When asked how she would like to be remembered once she passes on and becomes eligible for placement on American comedy's Mount Rushmore, she answers, "I'd like to have given more than I took." But, like the smart aleck she is when her feet hit the footlights, she adds, "And I want people to remember me for the beach volleyball outfit I wore in my 'Portia Mil-Ler Miller' film I posted on PaulaPoundstone.com."

Humble as she may be, Poundstone still knows self-promotion matters. And when she does it so amusingly, that show of ego is no big deal.

Paula Poundstone performs at the Pabst Theater on Friday, Sept. 7. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
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