Paula Poundstone talks Robin Williams, shoulder pads, and kids vs. pets ahead of Modlin Center shows this Friday
The legendary Paula Poundstone has graced the nations screens and stages for decades, and this Friday she’ll bring her world-class, (relatively) impromptu brand of comedy to the Modlin Center.
It’s been 25 years since Poundstone climbed aboard a Greyhound bus and toured the country’s open mic stand up stages, and she’s been making impacts many of us could only dream about ever since. Known in the 80′s and 90′s for her HBO stand up, her interviews and event coverage, and her amazing fashion sense, Poundstone started in the late 70′s in Boston. Her legendary cross-country tour ended when she arrived in San Francisco. It wasn’t long before she impressed the likes of other comedians like Robin Williams and her unique brand of on-the-spot observational comedy landed her in front of TV cameras.
Comedy gigs with folks like Joan Rivers, a solo series on HBO, and reoccurring appearances on the Rosie O’Donnell show kept Poundstone in the limelight through the 90′s. Forever clad in brightly colored shoulder pant suites with her signature red-frizzy hair, she was a regular character on Cybil Shepherd’s Cybill TV series,
In recent years, she’s added Author to her list of impressive titles, publishing her first book, There is Nothing In This Book That I Meant To Say (with a foreword by Mary Tyler Moore), in 2006. She is currently a regular panelist on NPR’s highest rated weekly comedy-news show, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me.
The only thing it seems Poundstone doesn’t think is a laughing matter is her family. A single mom, she’s adopted three children, two girls and one boy.
We spoke to Poundstone via phone ahead of her appearance at the Modlin Center this Friday. The 7:30 show is sold out, but you can still pick up tickets to the 9:30 show here.
BK: When’s the last time you were in Richmond?
PP: I don’t remember! It’s been a while. It couldn’t have been recent, because that would stick out in my head I’m sure.
Have you looked into the city much or do you just blow through some of these towns?
No, I’m mostly in and out. I never get to stay anywhere very long, so I don’t know much about anywhere that I go. I mean, I’m aware that I went usually. I see what you can see from the airport to the hotel, and sometimes there’s a nice view from the hotel room of the heating system, and so I see that.
(Laughs) You have a nice history of YouTube videos–my interns and I were laughing pretty hard as I was researching.
Well, thank you.
The most recent one was dealing with this new-age messaging and affirmative messaging.
The positive self-talk, yes! Which by the way I’ve made no headway on, I was very sincerely trying it. And I have made just zero headway. First of all, I think negative self-talk is pretty much the language I was raised with. It’s like trying to learn Chinese when you’re 80 or something, I’m sure. So that’s part of the problem. But usually when things are really bad, it just doesn’t occur to me to take a moment and say to myself ‘I breathe in peace.’
It seems like it’s been a while since you’ve done regular updates outside of that [the YouTube channel]. I really enjoyed the zucchinis gone bad video.
Oh, thanks! Well you know, I hate to say this for those who may be fans of the zucchini characters, but when I had them on the trampoline, eventually they all snapped in half.(Laughs) And of course, they would have rotted anyway so it’s not like I could bring them back for another season. I’ll have to grow some again but it was an ordeal there in the garden.
(Laughs) Some zucchinis were hurt in the making of this film?
That’s exactly right. And too bad it couldn’t have been kale! I am sick of kale! Are they doing the kale thing in Virginia?
I was going to say, Richmond actually has a huge foodie scene, because there’s a food tax in town so it keeps larger corporate restaurants outside the city limits. So there’s a really thriving food scene in Richmond. If you’re at all a foodie, there are tons of places to check out!
Wow! Generally speaking I get room service at The Marriott, but I do feel that there has been an invasion of kale that I just cannot support. I wouldn’t mind an occasional bit of kale, it’s a dark green leafy vegetable, I’m sure it’s replete with vitamins–but it’s just gone too far! Everything is served on kale, you know?! You go, ‘can I have a peppermint stick ice cream?’ and they go ‘cone or a dish?’ and you go ‘cone,’ and they go ‘kale or sugar?’
(Laughs) I saw one video where you had your kid in the foreground and you were dancing to some music behind. Obviously the videos are made in your house. Do you often bring your kids in on your work with that?
No. Actually, honestly, a few minutes before we filmed that, we were in the bedroom and the real life moment took place. And there was just something that struck me as funny about it. So I said ‘Thomas, come here, sit here,’ and then we taped it. But no, the original moment looked almost the exact same.
I also noticed in that video that you had a small army of cats and dogs, and I know you’ve got a number of children, so which do you prefer: pets or kids?
Oh geez, that’s a really tough one. You know, the truth is, one occasionally poops on the floor, but at the same time…that’s a really tough decision. (Laughs) The truth is I’m in up to my neck in both species, so there’s no backing out now. You know, they sometimes do this thing in high schools where in the health class or something, they’ll have kids pair off and they have to take care of an egg. Did you ever do that assignment?
Kind of. We kind of did the opposite and dropped eggs from the top of a building, but I know what you’re talking about.
No, that’s different! They ask them to take care of an egg, the idea is it’s their child. They have to know the whereabouts of the egg, and they have to do certain things to care for the egg, and I gotta say…I guess this is supposed to give kids some sense of the responsibility it takes to be a parent, but oh please with the egg! I could take care of a dozen eggs! I don’t have a problem with eggs! If kids go to high school, and they give them a car seat, and say ‘okay, tote this around for a year, and by the way see if you can get it into a car and get a kidinto it,’ they will not have sex. That’s what’ll happen. They’ll abstain from sex, I’m telling you!
(Laughs) That’s Paula Poundstone’s cure to underage sexual activity?
That’s right! Even overage sexual activity! And that’s the tip of the iceberg, the car seat for heaven’s sake! Does the egg lie to them? Do they spend every day trying to figure out if the egg is telling the truth? Boy, that one gets old real fast! Does the egg spend hours in the bathroom?!
(Laughs) I hate to bring you down some here, but I read that Robin Williams was one of the people who helped discover you.
Yes, he did.
Did you stay close to him up until the end there?
Not close enough. The loss of Robin Williams is a loss for the entire world and a tragic, horrible, sad thing that I have yet to understand thoroughly. But yes, he did [help discover me]. He was a generous, fun, kind man.
I started out in Boston in ’79, and by ’80 I was in San Francisco. I took a Greyhound bus around the country to see what clubs were like in different cities, and I landed in San Francisco. I just loved it so I stayed. Then I met Robin, and I guess he liked what I did because he me to shows with him and stuff like that. He was a great guy.
You know, nature is fierce. Not just mudslides, but the brain. They know less about the brain than they do about outer space! I think we’ve got some work to do here. I’m not going to live long enough for me to be proven right on this, but I want to go down in records as having said this: computers are screwing us up. They really are! They’re not good for the brain. I don’t know that that has anything to do at all with his [Robin's] experience, but I can tell you as a parent that watching your kids change as a result of that horrible thing–and they have a tendency to overuse and that’s part of the problem–but I think it’s happening to all of us and we don’t notice it but it’s not good for us. It keeps us separated, it’s not good.
I know you don’t use a computer because you’re not like that!
(Laughs) Not at all, not at all. I’m not recording this conversation on a computer or anything…
Right! I know! You’re handwriting!
(Laughs) I did notice in looking through some of your standup, and I know you weren’t the only one doing this, but the fashion at the time when you were first coming up, and through the early 80′s and 90′s really stood out to me. The broad shoulder pads–
Shoulder pads! You know, I feel that years from now, my generation is going to have a lot of questions to answer. The first one will be, ‘why was there ever an issue about same-sex marriage?’ They’re going to go ‘what on earth was the matter with you people?’ And we’ll say, ‘you know, a lot of the Christians didn’t have enough to do back then.’ Then they’ll say ‘what about the shoulder pads? Why did you wear those?’ And the answer is, of course, ‘to make our legs look smaller,’ which I was able to do. I don’t think any of them still lurk in my closet, but it is true, this one jacket in particular had something that designers from The Hunger Games might have done–those big, big protective shoulders. At the time it made all the sense in the world, though looking back I don’t know why.
The same could be said of bell-bottoms, bell-bottoms were atrocious. In the 70s, we had these very, very big bells, and you sort measured a person’s hip-ness by the width of their bell. Geez, they were ugly! The idea that the width of the end of your pant should be an issue, one way or the other, pro or con, is laughable but my mother was a staunch believer in a straight pant, and I, being of the younger generation, was a big believer in the large bell. And this was a huge area of contention for us!
So you’ve got some teenage kids of your own, at least one. How do you feel about their fashion? Are they wearing skinny jeans or are they wearing big, baggy pants?
Well, my son likes to do the thing where the pants come off his butt. And because I remember the bell-bottom struggle, I try not to weigh in on it very often. In truth, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s silly, it’s sort of like the hair thing. That’s the one thing I think I have been halfway decent about as a parent: I don’t care about hair one way or the other. It doesn’t matter. It changes over the years what is considered stylish, and it’s really odd that people don’t pick up on that. In my generation, oh my heavens your parents could make a fuss about your hair.
My own personal hair knows no bounds, so it doesn’t matter what the fashion is. My hair is a collection of individual hairs that are sort of like unbent coat hangers and there’s nothing I can do about it! That’s just how it is. Honestly, it depends on the town I’m in. I go to Arizona and I have poker-straight, broom straw hair from the moment I come off the airplane and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Then I go one state over to Texas and I have to rent the Astrodome so there’s no ceiling for my hair!
(Laughs) So the last album you put out, I Heart Jokes, was a recorded live show you did, and I thought I saw another album you did that was recorded from another live show somewhat recently. When you’re doing an album like that, do you just record all of your shows and then you go ‘hey, that was a good one,’ and put it out as an album? How does that process usually pan out?
Honestly I’m not quite sure I remember any longer. This is an issue of contention between my manager and I. I think we just did one, but they were edited because my show is longer than a CD. I do around two hours usually, it depends. It depends how much of the audience has left. If 50 percent of the crowd is gone, I may as well leave myself, that’s my feeling. I’ve been in the show business quite a while now.
(Laughs) You’re coming to Richmond, you’re going to have a lot of local material to work off of: capital of the confederacy, Virginia politics are usually making headlines somewhere. Is there anything you’re looking forward to bringing up when you come to Richmond this weekend?
No, I’m going to have to find out from the crowd at hand!
I read that that’s a large part of your show. How do you pick up on what to talk about with a crowd?
You know, my manager always tells people that I know how to pick from the crowd– that’s not true at all! Everybody once you get talking to them, is great. Everybody has really fun, interesting stuff to talk about once you get them going for a couple of seconds and ask the right questions. I don’t select in any particular special way, but I do find that once I get talking to a couple of audience members, I find out a lot about the area that I’m in. Sometimes it’s from the reaction of the crowd to what the person is saying, but that’s pretty much how I find out where I am.
(Laughs) Between the airport drive and the audience, you’ll figure it out.
That’s all it takes. Oh my gosh, I get some great people.
I’ll wrap up with just one more here. Obviously you’re a prolific woman in comedy, the work you do with Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! is fantastic, you have a life of great achievements here–any advice for young women who want to follow in your footsteps?
Oh gee, don’t do that! No, you know, I feel you have to do what’s in your heart. As a performer, the way that you make sure you’re unique and therefore that there’s a slot for you, is you do what’s in your heart, you don’t let other people tell you what to do. And therefore, there’s no piece of advice that I could give that would really be particularly helpful to anybody.
Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you want to say about your show here in Richmond?
The duo will perform from their respective collections of hits, as well as songs they collaborated on together for Vega’s lauded 2011 off-Broadway musical debut Carson McCullers Talks About Love.October 27, 2015
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