If comedy comes from pain, then Paula Poundstone should be funnier than ever. The comedian went through an achingly public drubbing in 2001 after her struggles with alcoholism resulted in her pleading no contest to one count of felony child endangerment and one misdemeanor of inflicting child injury, the first count stemming from an alleged episode of driving while intoxicated with her children in the car (the details of the second are court sealed). After a 180-day rehab program and probation, she finally got her kids back—lewd-conduct charges that caused most of the media blitz were completely dropped—and got herself back on the club circuit.
Anyone who likes to laugh should be glad. You know that Poundstone is a great comic the way you know any fine performer when you see one—there's a disarming ease in her craft, an immediate sense that she's so quick on her feet you need never worry about the possibility of something going wrong. Though she made an appearance in Tacoma about two years ago, Poundstone hasn't returned to Seattle since a terrific set at the Paramount just before the proverbial crap hit the fan. Now she's back performing three nights at ACT Theatre (beginning Friday, Nov. 19; call 206-628-0888). During a recent phone conversation, she had to break off occasionally to deal with typical home-life distractions ("This is way too loud," she says to a child blaring vintage pop from a radio. "I've seen the Temptations. They don't play that loud"). But, as you'll see, she seemed ready to roll.
Seattle Weekly:You're probably sick of talking about all the stuff you've been through in the last few years. . . .
Paula Poundstone: Quite honestly, yes. You know, I say with a huge sigh of relief, it was three and a half years ago. I had a drinking problem. I haven't had a drink [since then]. I paid an enormous price. I mean, I'll answer what you wanna ask about it. I talk some about it in my act—only the funny parts.
What about the recovery process? That's such a private thing—
Oh, not in my life. I was court ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous on television. I didn't have a moment of privacy. [As] I say onstage, that pretty much blows the hell out of the second "A."
How much harder was that process for you, though, to know that at some point you were going to have to go back up in front of the public again?
Ah, you know, the real joy of a sense of humor is that it gets you through things. That's my job, but it's also just the way I would deal with life anyway. The other thing is, I may be one of not so many people that's gotten quite so publicly pilloried in the way that I did, but I'm certainly not the only person who's made mistakes, and I'm certainly not the only person who's dealt with that kind of problem before.
Has it been harder for you to get bookings?
Well, I suppose it has. But I'm also straddling a more difficult balance in terms of how much work I can do because of the absences I've had from my children. I don't want to be gone one second longer than is absolutely necessary to pay my rent. And, having said that, it certainly combines with [the fact that] nobody says, "Well, come do the Greek [amphitheater in L.A.] tonight, and it'll be enough to pay for the month." One time I actually did say to my manager, "You know, I'd really like to work the Greek." And I remember the funny look on her face when I said it. I didn't realize this until much, much later, but I always had really good seats when I went to the Greek—apparently I never turned around and looked behind me. I thought it was 12 rows. I coulda packed it if it was 12 rows. It's all those seats behind where I used to sit—those were gonna be the hard ones to fill.
Do you still have an easy rapport with an audience, or do you feel like you have an extra hurdle?
A lot of people have asked me that question. You have to keep in mind, I'm working to a more pro-Poundstone crowd than I ever worked to before. People seem to think that people come and yell things at me. Nobody's gonna pay 30 bucks to go yell things at me. I really am working to the devoted at this point. Which was, by the way, in terms of the recovery process, a huge component.
The last time you were here, some of the most hysterical parts of your set were your irreverent attitudes toward child rearing. Is it just curtains for that kind of stuff now?
Oh, heavens, no. That job hasn't gotten any easier. And now I have to do it sober, for heaven's sake. Let me tell ya, I would still lobby hard for a one- or two-drink high—I just kept overshootin' it. I am not the only person who struggles with parenting issues. I remember a thousand years ago, my mother used to say something about me making fun of her onstage. I said, "Look, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but honestly—you're not that unique." If people didn't recognize what I was saying, they wouldn't think it was funny. I have people come up and thank me for saying some of the stuff I say onstage, because I think they felt like [they were the only one]. You tell people stuff. And it's paid off in almost every way. Except for when I had a nightmare about making out with Larry from the Three Stooges, which I have mentioned to people and, I swear, if you're on a couch with a person they scooch over just a little. No one else has ever told me they had that dream.
Does that trouble you?
No, I think it makes me wonderfully unique. When they're wearing their pinstripe suits, and they're not looking like Stooges, he cuts a fine figure. I think he's the unsung Stooge. Although these days I'm into Wilbur Wright.
What about Wilbur Wright?
Well, I went to Kitty Hawk. [The Wright brothers] built this little structure to dwell in. And when you see the photographs of it, all the canned goods are facing the same direction. Now, I have OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder]. Here these guys were inventing the first successful motorized airplane, and they took the time to turn their cans. I think that's the only reason they were successful, by the way. A lot of people tried to figure out the flight thing, but [the Wrights] obviously had OCD up the yin-yang. How many inches was the first flight? It was very short, and frankly, I think they coulda walked it. But they celebrated, because they had already made one that was only half a centimeter. They did it over and over and over again. I think I would have loved that in [Wilbur]. Have you seen the pictures of him? All sweaty, hefting that glider up the hill? They were wearing suits! I love that in a man.
How political are you onstage now?
I talk about politics some. I'm not the most learned nor scholarly. Years ago, I covered the conventions for The Tonight Show, and I think the success of that came from just sort of conceding from the get-go that I'm the least informed person in the room, and then kind of seeking out information on the topics from the people I was interviewing. I don't think there's a better interviewer than Charlie Rose, though. I think he's actually read those books [he talks about], but I would say, "Can you tell me what the inside has to do with the picture on the cover?" Another approach altogether. I think Charlie Rose knows, like, how many words are on each page. He's cheating, in my opinion. I mean, if you're gonna read it, sure you're gonna know. Lousy guy.
Has your definition of what your job is changed over the years?
Well, yeah, 'cause I used to bus tables. Although, you know how when Ben Franklin wrote his own epitaph, he wrote that he was a printer? I feel like I'm still a table busser. It was the only thing I was ever really skilled at. Man, was I good. When I quit my table-bussing job, they had to hire two people. People never seemed to notice 'cause I made it look so easy.