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In Our Midst: A Conversation with Paula Poundstone:

One of the great illusions in modern culture is a fan’s sense that, due to their familiarity with a given artist’s work, they actually know and thus have a kind of intimacy with, that artist. This is particularly true of stand-up comics because in many if not most cases, a comic’s onstage persona is simply an extension of their personality. Even those who manufacture a “character” (Bobcat Goldthwait, Andrew “Dice” Clay, Emo Phillips, others) are still working pretty close to the bone. In a two-hour conversation with veteran comedian Paula Poundstone, a longtime Santa Monica resident, the Mirror found, in the most positive sense, that what you see is what you get.

Paula is friendly, self-effacing, and an acute observer of human behavior, although if you ask her, she’ll typically tell you that she’s simply an average person who’s trying to figure it all out, just like the rest of us. And although she’s being unduly modest, to a degree it’s true: she’s a single mom raising three kids (two of whom are teenagers who attend Samohi) and trying to manage a busy career that involves a great deal of travel and anxiety-producing time spent away from home. Not one to complain (except about her allergies – her constant sneezing prompted her to apologize and remark that she’s allergic to “everything”), Paula is clearly grateful to have the kind of career most comics would kill for, and yet, as a performer who has more than paid her dues over the years, she’s proud and unapologetic about her success.

Much has been made of her forthcoming show this weekend at the Wadsworth Theatre – “First local gig in 15 years!” “She’s back!” etc. Paula dismisses the hype by first explaining that she does a steady stream of charity gigs around L.A., and that she hasn’t been avoiding L.A. audiences, as others comics have claimed to do. Her other reasons are completely practical: she doesn’t drop into local L.A. showcase clubs such as The Laugh Factory or The Comedy Store, typically late-night hotspots, because of her family obligations. Paula also noted that the number of venues in L.A. large enough to accommodate her concert audiences is limited, and thus, she makes most of her living on the road.

As previously noted, Paula is very community-minded, although she chides herself for not doing as much as she feels she could. In addition to an annual benefit for McKinley Elementary school, which all three of her children have attended, she’s also performed for the Mort Sahl benefit concert, the Hollywood Beautification Team, the Claire Foundation and several events, including the Death Penalty Focus organization, run by her good friend actor/activist Mike Farrell, a man she clearly admires for his commitment to social justice. She jokes that when she’s unsure about who to vote for, or how to get a grip on a particular political issue, she just calls Mike and asks him to tell her what to do (“It’s just quicker that way,” she jokes). Paula is also writing a new book, the proceeds of which she intends to donate to Friends of Libraries USA, a national organization dedicated to raising funds for public libraries nationwide that Paula has close ties to. C’mon Paula – how about saving a whale, or a baby seal or two?

Like most comics who have survived the vicissitudes of life on the road, Paula has many hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your point of view) stories of gigs gone terribly wrong. She told of opening for Jerry Garcia in San Francisco at a venue run by legendary promoter Bill Graham. She did great in the first show, but was not informed that Grateful Dead fans always buy tickets to both shows in a given evening. So, she played her second set to the same, now very stoned, group of fans who turned her act into an impromptu audience participation session wherein they quoted her act, punch-lines and all, back to her, an impressive feat of memory after an evening ingesting what many Garcia fans typically ingest.

When asked about her comedy influences, she immediately named Bill Cosby, and the similarities between the two, the dry wit, the intimate nature of their storytelling, is apparent. Paula confessed that her only act of theft was, upon leaving home, stealing all 11 of Cosby’s comedy albums. She also mentioned the late George Carlin as someone who opened many a door regarding content and social commentary, but she has a special affection for Robin Williams. “He did away with the segue,” she observed, meaning that Robin’s free-form style changed how comics structured their acts, and his example allowed them to break the mold and associate material in a non-linear fashion. She also admires Williams for breathing new life into stand-up comedy due to his manic energy level and insatiable jones for performing. “He seemed to be everywhere at once,” she said.

When asked the inevitable cliché question on how to advise young comics, her answer was right to the point: “Quit.” She then elaborated, saying her real answer to a young performer looking for her advice would be, “If I knew, I’d be too rich and famous to have this little chat.” The one piece of actual advice the Mirror forced out of her was simple: if it’s in a person to perform, do it, and follow “what’s in your heart, and what makes you unique.”

Paula also appears regularly on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, the weekly news satire on PBS radio hosted by Peter Sagal with a rotating cast of some of the wittiest writers and comics in the country: Roy Blount, Jr., Tom Bodett, P.J. O’Rourke, Paul Provenza, Mo Rocca, and yes, Paula, to name just a few. As the conversation veered to politics and public life, she expressed a kind of weary disgust with the media’s game of “gotcha.” Paula has some first-hand experience of this kind of bottom feeding, and cites a recent observation by Mark Shields about Senator Barack Obama. The veteran humorist commented on how many people held Senator Obama responsible for the comments of controversial Pastor Jeremiah Wright, of whose Christian church Obama was a long-time member, and at the same time those same people expressed distrust for the Senator because “he’s a Muslim.” It truly is, to quote Senator Obama, “silly season” in American politics, and it’s a good thing we have humorists like Paula Poundstone who are, just like the rest of us, trying to make sense of it all.

Paula Poundstone appears at the Wadsworth Theatre on Saturday July 12. The Friends of the Westwood Library will sell Paula’s book after the show and receive 100 percent of the proceeds. For tickets visit ticketmaster.com or call 213.365.3500. The Wadsworth Theatre is located at 11301 Wilshire Boulevard, LA.

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