I hate the fact that I’m going to open this blog post with a defense of why I think today’s focus deserves our admiration. Today’s great thing is a stand-up comic. A stand-up comic who was court-ordered to enter rehab to deal with addiction issues and who faced charges of child-endangerment that stem from alcohol abuse. The reason it irks me that I have to do this is because today’s great thing is a comedy genius. There’s nobody else out there that’s like this comic. Paula Poundstone is a unique comic voice with mystifying improvisational abilities and I’d be hard-pressed to think of more than ten comics that I’d rank as even being on the same playing field.
Alas, Paula Poundstone is a self-professed asexual, suit-wearing, twelve-cat owning, weirdo. And, along with the child-endangerment charges came accusations of ‘lewd behavior’ with a minor. These charges were made by one of her foster children (at the time) and were later recanted and dropped. That seems like good news, right? I’ve seen enough Law and Order: SVU to know that these cases are rarely clear-cut. Unfortunately, those types of charges never really disappear if you’re in the spotlight because it doesn’t matter if you’re innocent or guilty, once the finger is pointed, you’re tarred with the brush forever. Pee-Wee Herman could tell you that.
I remember when all this shook down. I wrote Paula a little letter of support. She sent a grateful reply back. (I don’t think it was personalized JUST to me, but it was sincere and nice all the same.) I still believe, as I did then, that though she certainly had some addiction problems, she’s not ‘that type’ of criminal. Anyway, unfortunately for Paula, there will always be the mutterings of the suspicious. Take a look at this letter to the editor that was sent to a local newspaper when she recently played Rochester, NY. Post Bulletin I suppose, the good news is that for every cluster of witch-hunters out there, there are also folks that understand that she was never found guilty of these charges and will recognize her mostly for being funny. Count me amongst those people, please. If Chris Brown can still have a career for DEFINITELY kicking the shit out of Rihanna, I think Poundstone can keep her job for charges that were ultimately dropped.
135. Paula Poundstone
Paula’s been one of my favorites since way back when I was watching stand-up on VH1 and The Improv on A&E. I became a stand-up addict in the age of Poundstone, Tenuta, Romano, and Pinette . I loved watching those compilation shows. Every budding comic had their best five-six minutes shown. What a great way for a ten-year old with a bit of ADD to learn to love stand-up comedy? Even then, Poundstone made a huge impression on me. Something about the way she twisted her punchlines was instantly relatable but wholly unique. I loved her outlook on life and her audience work was hypnotically good.
Poundstone was born in the south but lived for most of her childhood in Massachusetts. This explains the coupling of the slightly southern accent with the occasional correspondence for Mother Jones magazine. Poundstone is one of those high-school dropouts whose intelligence set was built for comedy. Her show at Harvard proved that you don’t need to be an ivy league grad to be well read. Her official foray into stand-up began in Boston at open mic nights in 1979. I wonder what her early sets looked like? I remember my first set. Some garbage that questioned why other animals didn’t get hay fever. Like you don’t see rabbits out there sneezing, do you? Do you?! It’s like we’re DE-volving instead of E-volving. Right? Am I right?! Urgh.
I love everything about her comedy. I love that she won’t abandon her almost-drag fashion sense. I love that she can’t sit still on her stool. I love the mundane things she makes sound so special. I could listen to her tell the same jokes over and over and over again just because I find her phrasing and delivery so delightful.
Paradoxically, she is listed as number 88 on Comedy Central’s 2004 list of the 100 greatest stand-ups of all time and number 7 on Maxim magazine’s list of “Worst Comedians of All Time”. I should note, that there is a disproportionate amount of women in the ‘top’ ten on that Maxim list. Six of the ten worst comics (OF ALL TIME!!!) are ladies. This proves my theory that Maxim hates women unless they’re dumb as a box of rocks and wearing a bathing suit…and starring in Transformers. I should also note that this list did NOT include Dane Cook. (WHAT?!) One of the best rebuttals to their awful list was posted by reader JustJon:
“I appreciate the tireless efforts undertaken by the thoughtful staffperson(s) who wrote copy for this list. It is evident that he/she carefully set aside tens of minutes between office games of NERF basketball and watching live feed of ESPN sports on the break room flatscreen to Make Some Words. Sometimes journalists (sorry… just choked on something invisible) often fear to dip their virtual pen into the tripe bucket of the easy, the unimaginative, the predictable. Often ignored in fine publications, AND also by truly funny comedians (some of whom I see are on this list), it is good to know that MAXIM continues to understand that there is still a *dire* need out there for this kind of work. Let’s take, for example, this article’s entry about Gallagher. The copy itself is indeed an example of humor worthy of Gallagher. Or how about the entry on Sindbad? This author showed knowledge of his wardrobe, choice of accessories and choice of lifestyle that few others did not know about. I wish *more* writers out there could see the beauty of recycling trite observations. It demonstrates that your staff know never to change a thing that has worked the first several few times. He/she understands that “special sameness” should be maintained. The alternative is something that could, maybe have the potential to be novel, interesting, possibly even slightly funny, and both you and I know we don’t want Any of That. This list is sadly overlooking its most valuable, relevant member: MAXIM staff Great Job, Everybody! Consider me inspired. I hope someday I will be able to write for a publication such as MAXIM. I won’t ever have to think again. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if something opens up.”
I sort of love JustJon.
Never a particularly cocky comedian, I think she currently finds herself in a position where she feels she has to be overly self-deprecating. More and more of her material is aimed squarely at herself instead of the world at large. Hopefully, this crack in her comic facade will soon be smoothed over. I imagine it’s quite a test of confidence to get back up in front of an auditorium full of people who might still consider you guilty of child abuse. But, beyond that, video evidence proves that she’s still pretty fricking amazing. Before I moved over here to England, I’d seen Poundstone live twice–once in a small theatre at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania and once at perhaps the –Carnegie Hall for the Women in Comedy event in 1998 with Mary Tyler Moore and Rita Rudner. Talk about two strikingly different venues. She was in top form both times.
Happily, it seems like she’s still killing ’em. She recently hosted the Art Director’s Guild Awards in Hollywood and regularly makes the rounds on late night talk shows, particularly the Craig Ferguson show. I doubt she’ll be coming through the UK anytime soon, but it’s my birthday later this month and I may request both her first book– There Is Nothing in this Book That I Meant to Say and her very recent comedy album–I Heart Jokes.
I’m going to make a general effort in my life to listen to more comedy albums.
Anyway, enough excuses. I think it’s time to actually watch Paula being funny. I’ve selected three of my favorite clips. One has a joke that is repeated from another clip, but the rest of the material is different within the clip. So, sorry about the slight overlap.
First up, some newer footage:
Here’s a quickie that I think highlights her pitch-perfect delivery of highly relatable material. Also, this evidences her inability to stay put on her chair.
From Comic Relief…I LOVE the sub shop bit.
Lastly, here’s a fantastic example of her crowd work:
Oh, it is to laugh! Next time I go home, I’ve got to remember to collect all the VHS tapes I have of her performances. I’m sure my Mom will just be happy that I’m removing more crap from her house.