A Comedic Great Escape with Paula Poundstone at Bay Street Theater

Paula Poundstone. Photo by Michael Schwartz.
Paula Poundstone. Photo by Michael Schwartz.

By Michelle Trauring

Last week, Paula Poundstone had a lot on her mind.

For starters, her hectic travel schedule. Then, the current state of American politics. Mosquito-borne illness. Global warming. The curiousness of evolution, the head-scratching behavior of 18-year-old boys—namely the youngest of her three children—and the ever-puzzling rationale behind veterinary bills.

“I have 14 cats and two German shepherd mixes. And they’re a big, old pain in the ass,” she lamented. “I think they’re more expensive than human health care.”

The raspy comedian then launched into a winding story, one that involved chasing her cat around the veterinarian’s office trying to collect a urine sample as the cat urinated every few feet, and the $250 charge that followed.

Ms. Poundstone’s annoyance—a bit feigned, because it’s clear she adores her fluffy critter—was palpable.

“That one cat alone, I’ll tell you,” she said. “My daughter and I were walking the dogs one night a few years ago, and I said, ‘When you all move out, I have no reason to stay in California, so maybe I’ll go to a farm in New Jersey or something.’ And she goes, ‘Mom, how are you going to get all those cats across the country?’ And I realized, I’m stuck here, in my self-imposed prison. All I do is clean and feed and clean and feed. It’s the majority of my life—when I’m not on the road.”

She would be leaving Santa Monica the next day for two shows—one in her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, and the other in Colorado—before returning home and soon heading for the East Coast, making a stop on Thursday, September 22, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.


“I would be perfect if I were Mrs. Weasley and I could just apparate, then it would be an unbelievably perfect job. The hard part is the horrible hours and travel,” she said. “The part of performing, oh my God, it’s fun. You know, I almost feel like I’m cheating because with all this horrible election stuff that’s going on, the horrible Syria stuff, the horrible Zika, I get to go on stage in front of a group of people who come out to laugh for the night.

“Honestly, it’s two hours of the greatest escape,” she continued. “Sometimes we talk about some of those things, but only in comedic ways. Particularly the election, it’s helpful to look at it from a comedic perspective. Otherwise, you truly would explode.”

The 56-year-old said she considers humans lucky to have a sense of humor, and has made a career out of it for nearly four decades. She knew she wanted to be a comic since she can remember, and found herself in Boston in 1979, right when the standup comedy scene had started.

It was misogynistic and loud, she recalled. It didn’t suit her. So, at age 19, she hopped on a cross-country bus and landed in San Francisco, where she got a taste of new clubs and a different audience.

“In general, it’s so lucky I landed there and it wasn’t really particularly well-planned on my part. I just did it,” she said. “I occasionally bombed in San Francisco, too, but the audiences were so willing to go in another direction. They were very patient and I think they loved the idea of being on the ground floor of something. If you didn’t say something that just slayed them, they were more than happy to wait.”

In front of them, Ms. Poundstone found her quick rhythm and conversational style, one that has since been seen on HBO and ranked her among Comedy Central’s list of 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time.

“I used to try so hard to be more organized with my material, from the very start, but two things would happen,” she said. “I would get nervous and forget what I was going to say, and would end up just working the room. But I always felt like this was a bad thing, like, ‘Oh boy, now I really screwed up.’ I don’t know what day it dawned on me that it was the good part.

“It’s a great craft because you learn to do it; it’s not something someone can teach you. Comedy classes are kind of bullshit, really,” she continued. “It really is about building a relationship between oneself and the audience, and hopefully doing something different than the rest of the pack. It just takes looking at it and thinking about it and doing what’s in your heart.”

Taking a step back from her 37 years on stage, Ms. Poundstone still doesn’t feel that she’s made it big, though she admitted that she’s not sure what that means anymore.

“I have a pretty sweet deal,” she said. “I do a job that is really fun to do. When I’m in the airport at four in the morning, there’s often someone cleaning the bathrooms there at the same time. We have the same shift, but I drew the better straw, I guess.

“The truth is, I don’t know how to do anything else. I’ve had other jobs: I’m a gifted table busser and I’ve been a dishwasher, bike messenger and I’ve worked in a bookstore, and I was a home caregiver for a disabled woman at one point. But I don’t know how to do anything else where I could afford to raise a family on just one income.”

Her two daughters, who are 25 and 22, and her aforementioned son know Paula Poundstone as their mother, but the comedian insists she is the same woman audiences see on stage.

“Sadly, they’re not separate. Pretty much what you see is what you get,” she said. “It’s the same me, the difference is who’s responding. Of course I’m not vacuuming on stage, a lot of my regular life involves a cleaning product of some kind—my son’s 18 so he’s not going to do it, and has got to be the most useless thing on the planet. Nature and survival of the fittest, it doesn’t make any sense.”

She paused, getting back on track, and considered, “Maybe I should dust when I’m up there.” Breaking away from deadpanning, she laughed at herself and dissolved into a cough.

“Allergies, I’m allergic to everything,” she said. “Because of global warming, ragweed is more prevalent. It’s hard to imagine my allergies increased much more, I pretty much cough and sneeze everywhere I go. It’s one of those things. At least it’s not yet dementia. I’ll take my frequent cough and sneeze.”
Paula Poundstone will perform on Thursday, September 22, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tickets range from $69.75 to $125. For more information, call (631) 725-9500, or visit baystreet.org.