In the world of comedy, Paula Poundstone is something of an icon. Known for her trademark vest and tie, as well as a natural improv style, she has enjoyed increasing success and fame over the past 25 years. Poundstone’s career longevity is especially noteworthy given how male-dominated her chosen field happens to be.
Since the Massachusetts native has numerous critically-acclaimed HBO specials, Emmy awards, TV appearances and Comic Relief work to her credit, it may come as a surprise that Poundstone has also made a name for herself in other venues. Most notably, she has also been a columnist for Mother Jones magazine, a contributing features writer for Entertainment Weekly, Glamour and The Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section, an award-winning children’s book author, a political commentator and a frequent guest on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion series on National Public Radio. Not bad for someone whose last gig before comedic success was busing tables.
Poundstone nonchalantly credits it all to having a bad memory. “When I was doing that [busing tables], the place I worked at had all these paper menus,” she explained in a phone interview. “I’d use them to type out all the stuff I wanted to say onstage at an open-mic night. You know, stuff I’d think about during the day. I’d read those notes over and over, hoping to memorize my act. But when I’d finally get my chance to get up onstage that night, I’d just go blank anyway.
“I realized [that] at some point I’d have to say something. So I started to find someone in the audience and use that as a launching pad. Ask them where they were from, what they did for a living and go from there.”
This seemingly unprepared approach and uncanny synergy with audiences quickly came to define Poundstone. Performing “without a plan” is less daunting today, now that she’s a known quantity. But most of all, it’s easier due to her rabidly loyal following.
“Now when I’m onstage, there are always people who’ve seen me before who are making requests,” Poundstone says. “You know, stuff like ‘Tell us about your cat’, or ‘How about the Pop-Tart story!’ Not that I tell them the same each time. Really, it gives me a chance to regenerate, reinvent old material. The stories always end up getting longer, having more detail.”
For the record, her favorite Pop-Tart is brown sugar and cinnamon frosted.
“I used to think frosted was sacrilege, but I’ve had a change of faith,” Poundstone interjects.
It’s random, rapid-fire musings like this about toaster pastries, near-death experiences, or even beloved 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln that audiences have come to expect from the comedian. As effortless as it seems, it can be hard work.
Not that her 6-year-old son would agree. “He doesn’t think I have a real job,” Poundstone says. “He’s already suggested I work in the cafeteria at his elementary school so he can see me more every day.”
Ironically, Poundstone acknowledges that being a touring stand-up comic probably makes her more accessible to her children than many working parents.
“It [touring] can be challenging by design, but most jobs wouldn’t give me this freedom,” she notes. “I decided to limit myself to eight nights a month. But still, being away can be hard on my kids. So when I’m home, I just focus on being a parent.”
Still, Poundstone can’t help but be herself. “My daughter loves that I’m a comedian,” she says, “but my son complains when he thinks I’m being too silly. However, I’ve told him how my silliness is what keeps him living in the style he’s become accustomed to.”
So what can a Salt Lake City audience of longtime fans and newcomers expect at her upcoming show? “Well, first of all, no one will get hurt. There’s not any physical violence at my show,” she deadpans. “It’s pretty much the same as when I started a long time ago. I’m up there, kind of just finding my way. Inevitably, I talk about me, raising kids. Oh, and about the dangers of cinnamon! You know, I had a near-death experience with cinnamon.”
Cinnamon? Wasn’t that one of the main ingredients of her favorite Pop-Tart?
“I’m just saying, they really need to label it properly. In its frosted Pop-Tart form, hmmm. I’m pretty sure it’s safe. I’ll have to look into that.”
PAULA POUNDSTONE Mo Diggity’s 3424 S. State Friday, Dec. 10, 8 p.m. & 10 p.m. 800-888-8499