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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Paula Poundstone

My story on Paula Poundstone, who plays the River Rock next Thursday, hit the newstands today. But you don't have to go out to your local newstand. It also hit the internet today. Read it here.

I had a great talk with Paula, who I've been a fan of for years and years. We bonded over Ping-Pong. Unfortunately, I had to get to the nitty-gritty details on her 2001 arrest. In doing some pre-chat internet scouring, I was surprised at just how many interviews with her didn't broach the subject at all. It was like the proverbial elephant in the room. The interviewer knew about it, Poundstone knew the interviewer knew about it, but nobody was talking about it. Strange, because she talks about it in her act.

I went into our conversation knowing I'd ask her about the charges. Where she took it was up to her. Maybe she'd not want to talk about it, I don't know. But I'd never know unless I asked. To her credit, she answered my questions thoughtfully, emotionally and frankly.

Of course, then I had a problem. My preference would be to write a story concentrating on her act because she is, after all, one of the top stand-up comics of her generation. But I couldn't ignore the elephant. There are people out there who, to this day, think she's some kind of pervert. They know nothing about the case other than the headlines it generated when she was first arrested. They don't realize that cops don't determine guilt; the courts do. Of course, by the time she got to court, some folks had already made up their minds.

She gave me such good quotes that I had to use them in the story. And the subject was so multi-layered I couldn't very well just touch on it in a sentence or two. So it is what it is. But if I could sum up my story in a sentence, it would be: Paula Poundstone made some mistakes, paid the price, isn't a creep, and is, in fact, still really, really funny and you should see her live show.

Anyway, here are some quotes that didn't make the final story. It gives you a bigger picture:
My manager called me the other day to say that nobody in Vancouver seems to know me and that this was going to cause a problem for ticket sales. So she said, "What if you made a film for YouTube about going to Canada?!" I said, "Why will that help?" And she said, "Well, it's better than doing nothing." Okay. I didn't want to seem like a person that wasn't go along to get along. I actually kinda got into it. So I spent two days using much more technology than I actually am skilled at. I spent two days making this film about sort of reintroducing myself (laughs) to Vancouver. I worked my ass off. I ignored the children and I finished it and I sent it to my manager, which I don't even know how to do and yet I sent it to my manager. She called me back. She said, "It's brilliant! It's genius! It's great!" And then she sent it to my agent and said, "Ooh, they thought it was great! They thought it was so funny, it's one of the best things you ever did. It was great!... Can you cut it in half?"

So then I cut it in half. I cut it in half at the airport at six a.m. I took two sections out entirely. Just sort of brutal cuts because I didn't know how to cut it down within each piece, so I just took two sections out entirely. And I call her and I say, "Fine, I cut it." She said, "Well, what did you do?" And I told her what I cut out, and she goes, "Oh, I wouldn't have cut that out!" At which point I said, "Look, if you all know so much more than me, which is fine with me, then you do it." I haven't even looked at the version that they made because it was too upsetting for me.

Here's the clip she made:

I have no hard evidence one way or the other, but anecdotally, at least, I think her manager is dead wrong. So many times, regular non-comedy people ask me what I'm working on, who's coming to town, etc. I mention some really big names in comedy and invariably they ask, "Who's that?" But when I've mentioned Paula Poundstone, they all know who she is.

I mention we bonded over Ping-Pong. She calls it the "second-greatest game in the world" behind basketball. So there was that bond, too.
Oh, man, it's too bad we're not in the same place because we have parties four or five times a year, sadly not more, that are Ping-Pong parties. My friends gave me an old, like from a high school gym, scoreboard that has lightbulbs for the numbers. Oh, it's the best. It's so much fun.
If I could, I'd play Ping-Pong every day. But it takes two. Still, I was intrigued about the Ping-Pong parties. She explained:
We have a tournament with a chart and we pick partners. We play doubles and we pick the names out of a hat for how to pair people. If I see a team that I happen to know is really going to be bad, then I cheat and reshuffle because I don't want people to have a not fun time. It's not fun to go out and just totally suck. And I have prizes for the winners. Several times I've been willing to not have prizes and then this friend of mine who helps me set up the party, he's always like, "Oh no, you've gotta have the prizes." It's usually like a Blockbuster card or something. When I moved into the first house that I lived in, which I bought because there was a basketball hoop in the driveway, by the way--

GM: Another great reason to choose a house.

Yeah! That's the selling point. When I moved into my first house, my friend gave me a surprise party on that night, which, looking back, I think is insane. But it was the only thing that I had set up. Obviously it was all boxes. But the only thing that I had set up was the Ping-Pong table. It was in a garage that you didn't use a car with. It was like a refurbished garage. And she just got my book and called people whose names she had remembered me mentioning at one time or another. She didn't really know everybody that I knew. So we had this really eclectic group of people that didn't know each other. And by the end of the night people were hugging and slapping one another on the back. You know, because when you play together you get so excited about... You're friends for life once you've been a doubles team. Especially if you're a winning doubles team!

And then, okay, for your party here's what you need to do. At the end, when all the glory's already been had, you do around-the-table Ping-Pong. There's no number who can play. Everybody can play. It's very fast. The good thing about it you lose and ten seconds later you're back in the game. It used to be you'd leave the paddles on the table, as I recall, but people say that's not good so instead you pass the paddles. Then when it's your turn you hit the ball and then you run and obviously if you miss, you sit down. But it's such a fast game that nobody loses and then doesn't play. You're around the table in a circle. It is so much fun.

My game's not what it used to be. I used to be sort of the ringer. And now sometimes when somebody's really good, I don't invite 'em back!

I run the show here! I hate to lose at Ping-Pong.
We talked about her early years on The Tonight Show. Most of her appearances were with Jay Leno, but her first couple were with the legendary Johnny Carson, who propelled the careers of many a stand-up comic. I wondered if she was one of them:
I don't think that 'propelled' is probably the right word. (laughs) I was on Carson a coupla few times. I think by the time I came around we were a generation or two apart and I was just sort of there, in terms of him, you know what I mean?

When Joan Rivers was first on, the next day everyone knew her. But no, by the time I came around it didn't have the same power that it once had. I mean, unless you were extraordinary when you did it, which I wasn't. I was just okay. You know, I was fine. I wasn't bad, but it wasn't the kind of thing where the handful of people that saw it talked about it the next day. It wasn't like that. It wasn't meteoric by any stretch. My whole career's been that way, though. Everything has just been one foot in front of the other. Plodding might be the right word. I don't say that by way of complaining because in fact I support myself and I have three children that I've been able to raise with the money that I make. And we have Ping-Pong parties. I'm doing this new silly stupid technology thing and I'm kinda having fun with it.

I consider myself truly the luckiest person in the world. Because it doesn't necessarily last forever, people wanting to come see you. Some people that I started out with don't get to do this job at all anymore. And, you know, my plodding pace has done it.
Despite all her successes, Poundstone remains humble:
I've never considered I quote-unquote "made it". And I'm so silly. You know, I still go to the mailbox with enthusiasm and I answer the phone with excitement as if there's going to be a letter in here or there's going to be a phone call wherein they say you've made it. And I wait for it every single day, I swear. It's the silliest thing in the world and it never happened. I have gotten to the point, because I'm 49, where I look around, particularly in this economy, and I'm able to go, "Wow. Lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky." And I like when I see my stuff go up on YouTube or whatever. I mean, I don't know how to do that. I just recently learned so I didn't put most of that stuff up there. Somebody else did. But I look at my old stuff and I go, "Gee, I was kind of funny back then."
Yes, she was. And still is, judging from her last Bravo! special a couple years ago. Here's a clip of her from back in the day. It still holds up:

I mentioned that her legal problems came in 2001. Some of you might remember that year. When I suggested that she might be one of the few Americans to see the silver lining in 9/11 if only because it finally pushed her name out of the headlines, she said:
It took over the news. Yeah, yeah. Well, it's true that in the grand scheme of things what was happening to me did not belong on the news one way or another. So, uh, yeah. Although certainly I wouldn't wish to have anything precluded by that.
There's more, but I don't want to take away from your full enjoyment of the transcribed interview. I'll let you know when that gets posted on the Comedy Couch. Meanwhile, enjoy a clip of Paula from her last special. It's lie-down comedy of the highest order:


darren frost said...

please try and transcribe this sooner then later as she is one of my favorites

Guy MacPherson said...

It's done, Darren, and submitted to the Comedy Couch for publication. Once it gets posted, I'll let you know.

Anonymous said...

I love that you can interview a comedian and end up talking about ping pong (and basketball). You must be a refreshing change from the usual drone questioners.

I'm seeing her this week and bringing along a girlfriend who's never heard of her. I love introducing people to comics.

Loved your interview.