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Friday, April 17, 2009

Paula Poundstone at the River Rock

I've been doing this blog for a few months, I think (my memory sucks), but I'm still not in a full-time blogging mindset. So when I didn't have to review the Paula Poundstone show for the Straight, I went just as a fan and sat and enjoyed it. I didn't have to sit scribbling notes so I didn't, forgetting about you, the faithful blog reader. Unfortunately that means I can't report to you here in the blog about why she was so great because my memory sucks – oh, I see I already said that. I mean, I'll do my best but it's sketchy at best.

The first impression was the crowd, or lack of one. Poundstone is one of the best comics there is and consistently sells out theatres in the States. Why should the River Rock, which seats about a thousand, be only half full? Her manager said people don't know her up here, but I don't buy it. I know that her show wasn't a River Rock event, per se. An outside party rented the room and brought her in. Lesson to fledgling promoters: You can't just announce a big name and hope the rest just falls into place. You have to actually, you know, promote the show. I'm convinced that with the proper promotion, Paula Poundstone would have sold the joint out.

But being the pro she is, not a single mention was made of the empty seats. Nor of the fact there seemed to be nobody working the place. There was no introduction, no opening act. Rather she just strode onto the stage shortly after 8 p.m. sans fanfare and proceeded to entertain us for almost two hours.

Poundstone has what seems like very little prepared material. But maybe that's just her solid crafstmanship that makes us think she's flying by the seat of her man-pants. Certainly most of the show is crowd work. And that's as it should be because she's an absolute mistress at it. (That's the feminine form of master, isn't it?)

Like a lot of great comics, she uses her inner child to perfect effect. A lot of Steven Wright's jokes rely on this. He'll take a phrase and by taking it literally, as a child would, comes up with a(n) hilarious slant on it. As adults, we know so much we automatically jump to the correct meaning. But kids don't have the experience to fall back on. Here's an example of a Wright joke:
I saw a bank that said "24 Hour Banking", but I don't have that much time.
When we were in Edmonton last summer, my wife came home from a run and said, "It's stinking hot out there." At which point our 3.5-year-old ran to the door. "Where are you going?" she asked. "I want to smell outside!" That's not a joke, but there's perhaps one in there somewhere. It's just an example of the child's literal mind at work.

Similarly we all know what it's like to be peppered with a hundred questions by a 4-year-old. They ask some really great, really tough, questions. And they don't stop. That's exactly what Paula Poundstone does. She turns her kid-brain on as she asks question after question to the unsuspecting saps in the audience. She'll want to know someone's job, and their job before that, and right back to the beginning, trying to get at how they arrived at their current position. It's the equivalent of the "why? why? why?" of a preschooler. Sometimes the interview seems to be going nowhere, but Poundstone is no quitter. She knows she's good enough to spin even the dullest of subjects into comedy gold. She's in no hurry. She takes us to the brink of losing us – she's not afraid of the quiet (except in her hotel room at night when she needs the drone of CNN for company) – and then ever-so-skillfully brings us all back into the fold.

When talking with a spotlight operator, she found out that the woman started as a teenager carrying Jane Siberry's guitar for her. Poundstone, a fan of the singer, says she never knew how to pronounce her name before. Well, the Jane part she knew, she said to big laughs. "Fuck of a lot of good that did," she said after learning that Siberry has now changed her name to Issa (pronounced eeee-sah). The one thing she knows gets changed. Story of her life.

Okay, so most preschoolers don't say "fuck", but you get the idea. She doesn't much, either. That was the only one. And one "shit". And then each repeated when she was horrified to find a couple of 13-year-olds in the front row. She generally works clean.

One prepared bit I recall was on modern medication. A lot of comics do jokes on anal leakage, but she had a great take on it. If she had a brain tumour and they offered her pills to cure it, but they had a chance of giving her anal leakage, she'd gather her kids around and tell them she loved them and she'd miss them. And then she turned the premise on its head. If, on the other hand, she had anal leakage and were offered a pill to cure it, with the possible side effect of a brain tumour, she'd ask for a glass of water. (I'm paraphrasing, of course, but it's still really funny, I think you'll agree.)

After almost two hours, Poundstone left the stage to a standing ovation. I heard nothing but good things from the people filing out of the place. It's just a shame there weren't more of them.

That's about as far as my memory will take me. If any readers here were at the show, feel free to offer your comments below. It'll spur my memory, too.

On a side note, there was one woman in the audience who almost ruined it for everyone. She had the remnants of a laugh that was a high-pitched, inhaled squeal. Poundstone addressed it a few times, but showed remarkable restraint because this woman did it throughout the show. It seemed to me, and many others in attendance, that she was just doing it for attention. There's no way you can be so aware of that noise coming out of your face and not do your best to muzzle it. She should either try harder to overcome her handicap or never, ever go to another live comedy show again. Ever. She was with two other people. I'm guessing they were new friends who had never been out with her before. She must go through thousands because there's no way I'd ever go out with her a second time.

But all in all, it was a really enjoyable experience. I'd love to see her back here again soon. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen. All it would take is a local promoter with some gumption and a work ethic and a venue that would give her the same respect they give their own acts.

1 comment:

Dan Jardine said...

Re: the whole "why why why" attack of pre-schoolers, Louis CK has a great routine about that--I'm sure you know it well. It starts with him being aghast that a stranger tells his kid to "shut up and eat your fries," and ends with Louis telling his own kid to do the same. Here it is:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4u2ZsoYWwJA