The Comedy Couch

 PAULA POUNDSTONE - March 23, 2009

Paula Poundstone

"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." - Paula Poundstone

Guy MacPherson: I'm a big fan of yours from way back.
Paula Poundstone: Oh, I'm flattered. Thank you.

GM: I'm glad you're coming to Vancouver. Have you been here before?
PP: A thousand years ago. I mean, they had just gotten electricity. It was really
a long time ago. And in fact, 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 - and I don't know where she comes up
with these ideas; it's always some idea that's going to cost me dearly in terms
of energy and time - but she goes, "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

GM: It's YouTube! Make it as long as you want.
PP: 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.

GM: Is it up?
PP: Yeah, it is. Out of defiance I should put up the long-playing version
because I thought it came out really good for me. Somebody showed me today
the Forrest Gump in One Minute film. Have you seen that?

GM: I think so.
PP: It's very brilliant and very clever and it's [by] somebody who had so much
more ability I (laughs). It's like I'm up against fine art and I'm using crayon. Do
you see what I'm saying? (laughs) I'm enjoying playing with stuff but I have no
skill at it whatsoever. So I dunno.

GM: Put up the director's cut.
PP: But I'm glad to be going to Vancouver.

GM: Do you remember where you played a thousand years ago?
PP: No. I can't remember. I can remember looking out a hotel room window.
That's as far as I get.

GM: I had heard that you said your manager told you nobody knows you in
Vancouver but I've got to say, anecdotally now, that usually I mention fairly big
names in comedy to friends and they say, "Who's that?" But when I've
mentioned Paula Poundstone, they go, "Oh! Paula Poundstone."
PP: That's nice to hear. It's gonna be a groundswell that builds with the people.
It's not going to be a media blitz. What do they call that in the old days in
politics? Grassroots.

GM: That's right. Where did she get that idea that nobody knows you?
PP: I don't know. That's what she said because I guess ticket sales were
somehow dire. She said nobody knows me in Vancouver. The thing is - and I
love my manager, by the way; she's great. She's really great, but every now
and then there's this sort of feverish... like, "Here's a problem; you fix it" kind
of feeling. And this was like, "Okay, nobody knows you in Vancouver. Fix it."
And I don't know how! (laughs)

GM: I'll fix it. I'll take care of it, Paula.
PP: I'm hoping so! I'm really hoping so. I just came from my Apple tutorial. It's
the greatest. They're so sweet, these guys, and they know anything that you
ask them. But the problem for me is that I'm so lame-o that I don't even know
what to ask anymore.

GM: And then you forget what they tell you later.
PP: I forget everything. I said to the guy today, I go, "Lookit, Tim already told
me this, but you have to tell me several times probably. After the first three
times I went - and they really are just great - but after the first three times I
went, what I could remember was where the Apple store was.

GM: That's a start!
PP: And even that, by the fourth time I think I walked the wrong way.

GM: I remember you on The Tonight Show years ago talking about playing
basketball. And that's when my crush developed. Am I correct or is my memory
PP: I think you might be correct. I do play occasionally. It's been a long time
now. I'm actually sitting right now in the parking lot at school looking at little
kids play basketball. What I play more is the second greatest game in the
world, which is Ping-Pong.

GM: I love it.
PP: 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 light bulbs for
the numbers.

GM: Sweet.
PP: Oh, it's the best. It's so much fun.

GM: In September we moved into this house that has a Ping-Pong table in
the basement. And that's the only reason I wanted to live in this house. I have
friends come over and play but I haven't had a Ping-Pong party yet. How do you
do it? Is it a round-robin tournament?
PP: It is. 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.
PP: 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!

GM: Ping-Pong brings people together.
PP: 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. Ever play

GM: No, but I know you have to hit it and run over to the other end.
PP: Right. 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.

GM: So there's a line-up at each end?
PP: In a circle. You're around the table in a circle. It is so much fun.

GM: I work up enough of a sweat playing regular Ping-Pong. I don't need to
be running around the table!
PP: (laughs) 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!

GM: (laughs) Yeah, that's not fun.
PP: I run the show here! I hate to lose at Ping-Pong.

GM: Oh, do you?
PP: I really do. My daughter's getting good, though. That's kinda nice. Keep it
in the family.

Paula Poundstone

"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."

GM: Back to you on The Tonight Show. Were you one of the comics that
PP: I don't think that 'propelled' is probably the right word. (laughs) I was on
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?

GM: Did you notice a difference in your career after doing the show?
PP: No. It really was post- that. 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. And part of the reason
I'm loving this stupid Tweet thing - because really it's stupid, but it's really fun
to do - is I write jokes. That's what I do. I think of funny stuff to say and I say it.
It's based on autobiographical information and it's based on what's on the news
as I've taken it in, but it's just joke writing. And I love doing that.

GM: And you're good at it.
PP: Why, thank you. 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.

GM: Was there a point in your career where you thought you've made it, that
you can make a good living doing what you love?
PP: 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."

GM: Yeah. And you're kinda funny now. I saw your most recent special and it
was fantastic.
PP: Yeah, it went good. I had a great crowd. The best part of everything is that
I happen to have a really, really great crowd. When I was younger and I did
shows that were a middle act and a headliner and an emcee, everybody always
wanted to work with me. People would kill to work with me. And not because
being with me is such a stroll in the park, but because I happen to have really,
really great audience members that are willing to go with you, you know what I
mean? I don't really know how to explain it. They're willing to wait for you to find
the good stuff. And sometimes you have to wait a few seconds. My favourite
thing to do is, "Where are you from? What do you do for a living?" It's kind of
the time-honoured audience interactive. But invariably I find, I dunno, little stories
that weave together by the end of the night. And it's really, really fun. And it
makes every show unique. It is my favourite part. Besides which, I found an
audience member the other night that could help me with my computer, and
that was really good. I told them about something going wrong with my
computer and somebody in the audience said, "I can help with that." And I
went, "Don't move!"

GM: When did the lying down on the job start?
PP: As soon as I got tired.

GM: That's not something you always did, was it?
PP: Uh... fairly early on, I would say. I used to do shows in San Francisco.
During the heyday of standup comedy when there were more venues than there
are now. And it was kind of a fad. It was a really popular thing to do. There were
clubs that did this because they could and they knew that a time would come
that they couldn't so they were kinda making hay while the sun shined. They
would have three shows Saturday, two shows Friday, two shows Sunday, and
the week would start on Tuesday or Wednesday. So you know what? I was
genuinely tired. I used to emcee open mic nights in San Francisco a lot, which
was a delight, and the shows would go on until two in the morning. So there
would just come a point where I would lounge a bit. Then I discovered the foot
puppet show, which is one of my favourite things to do. I was somehow just
staring at my feet. I don't know. And one night I did my first foot puppet show,
which I've done many times since, where I bring a scene of local activity to life
via foot puppets.

GM: That can be taxing, too, holding your legs up in the air.
PP: Well, you're not kidding. I hurt my back in December and now everything
is about that, I tell you.

GM: Too much Ping-Pong perhaps?
PP: You know what's funny? I had a New Year's Eve party this year, which I'd
never done before. First of all, I don't much care for New Year's, but it just so
happened to be the night we could do it when I wasn't out of town and blah,
blah, blah. So we had a New Year's Eve party. I hurt my back on December
16th. I had to go to the emergency room in an ambulance because my back
spasmed so badly that I was screaming in pain and I just couldn't do anything
anymore. It was misdiagnosed. They thought I had... What did they think I
had? They thought I had shingles. And so for days after that I could only crawl
or walk a few feet and then lay down. My son is just the right height that my
arm can go over his shoulder fairly comfortably. Anyway, so I was really in
agony for days and people started saying to me, "Well, you should cancel the
party." And I was like, well, no, it was such a disappointing Christmas season
for the kids because I was so laid up that I said, no, I'm not going to do that. I'm
not going to cancel the party. It doesn't matter. I don't have to play. Everyone
else can play. It doesn't matter. But on New Year's Eve (laughs) it was like a
Christmas miracle a few days late! I was standing upright and I was playing
Ping-Pong! And actually I played fairly well, I might add. I rose to the occasion.
I believe the day after there was hell to pay but I had so much fun. So it's a
healing thing, Ping-Pong is.

GM: You talk about being the luckiest person in the world. After your arrest,
did you think that might be it for your career?
PP: (pause) No.

GM: No?
PP: No, I didn't. I mean, things were altered for sure. A lot of people decided
that they didn't like me. But you know what? A lot of people didn't. I'll tell ya, I
was lucky for a number of reasons. The first reason is because I have children
that I love so much that I'd walk through fire for them. So the first reason is a
really good reason to pick myself up. The second reason is that I had a big,
wild, nutty dog. A friend of a friend took him while I was still in stupid rehab. He
was a little, teeny puppy when I had to go. And one day, after I was back in
my home with my children, we're playing in the front yard and someone drops
off the largest, nuttiest, wild dog I've ever seen, and it was my dog, Cal, who
was barely recognizable at the time. And I had to walk him every day. So I had
to be out. I couldn't just hide. I had to be out. I was out in the neighbourhood. I
was walking around lots, all the time. He really needed a lot of exercise. And
everybody knows about endorphins and blah, blah, blah, so there was a variety
of reasons why that was probably a really healthy thing to do. But the other thing
is people came up to me and talked to me all the time. I was walking one day
and a lady actually pulled over and got out of her car and said, "Can I give you
a hug?" And you know what? I said yes. It was a really interesting time. And
no, I never thought that my core audience would dump me. And I was right.

GM: Did you spend some time in jail?
PP: Four hours.

Paula Poundstone

"With Paula Poundstone, to some degree, I think, what you see
is what you get. So I pled to what I did and nothing more. And
that's why they dropped the other charges. Let me tell you, these
are not nice people that I was dealing with. There was nobody
there that felt sorry for me or wanted to help reunite my family.
There was none of that. And so I didn't "get away" with a bloody,
fucking thing. I paid the price for the mistakes that I made. And I
deeply regret those mistakes."

GM: Even that, I can't imagine the empty feeling you'd get.
PP: It's indescribable how awful it all was. I was actually arrested out of rehab,
by the way, which I think rarely happens.

GM: What do you mean?
PP: I was in rehab when they came and got me. You know (pause) I screwed
up badly. I have sort of paid the price that one is sentenced to pay; I did every
last thing they told me that I had to do. When I think back about that period of
time in my life, they had me coming and going. It was such an insane schedule
I can't even believe that I survived it. But I did. And what was really great -
because some of this shit went on for a really long time - was that I had this audience that came to see me. I told my jokes. I told jokes about that
experience and... I don't know. Everything was kind of back in place and you
build and you do. Hence the Facebook, hence the Twitter.

GM: You were kind of a technophobe before that, weren't you?
PP: Well, I still hate all this stuff, really. I do. I started as sort of an experiment.
I bought a computer in August and I bought a laptop because you can bring it
door to door and ask people for help. Whereas when you have just the big
machine at home it's really hard to lure them into your house. But I don't even
know how to respond to stuff about back then other than thank goodness it's

GM: Was it hard to maintain a sense of humour throughout it? Or get back to
thinking funny? Or is that just your make-up?
PP: You know what? I think that it just is. I think that that's my general reaction
to most things. That's another reason to consider myself very lucky. When I
was dealing with all that I would talk to people and get laughing so hard we
couldn't breathe any more. And it was one of those things where it was a better
approach than anything else, I guess.

GM: And I guess for you there was a bit of a silver lining to 9/11.
PP: Was there? Uh, I didn't have court that day.

GM: It sort of took over the news.
PP: 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.

GM: No, of course not. So are there misconceptions out there about you? As
you said, some people didn't like you after all this.
PP: Well, I think there are. I mean, I think there are. You know, I was only guilty
of what I pled to.

GM: And that was drinking and driving with children in the car?
PP: There was a misdemeanor, a... I can't even think of the word for it now. Was
it child abuse? I guess. And then there was child endangerment. And I was guilty
of both those things. But there had been like 13 counts or something. I can't
remember anymore. Maybe it was less than that. But there had been some
things that went on and on and those were not true. I understand that a lot of
times when people plea bargain that it's sort of the best that the D.A. can do
and they're letting them get away with some things in order to just nail them on
those things. So I think one of the things that happened was people assumed,
"Oh, there must have been more. Because why would somebody...?" But in
truth, with Paula Poundstone, to some degree, I think, what you see is what
you get. So I pled to what I did and nothing more. And that's why they dropped
the other charges. Let me tell you, these are not nice people that I was dealing
with. There was nobody there that felt sorry for me or wanted to help reunite my
family. There was none of that. And so I didn't "get away" with a bloody, fucking
thing. I paid the price for the mistakes that I made. And I deeply regret those
mistakes. I'm glad I don't drink anymore. But the people that I owe apologies to
are my children and really not the rest of the nation or the world.

GM: And they're good with you.
PP: I think so. You know? My daughter said the sweetest thing the other day.
We were talking to a friend of ours. I took her to work with me in San Francisco
and we were sitting around chatting and my friend asked my daughter if she
goes out a lot. She's 14; she's going to be 15... oh shit, today! I gotta go to
the store and buy her a gift! So she asked her if she goes out a lot with friends.
And Ellie has friends. She's a social kid and she chooses friends well, blah,
blah, blah. But she got this kind of funny look on her face as if there was
something wrong with how she approaches life and she said to my friend,
"You know, I really like to stay at home." She said, you know, "I like it there."
It was the sweetest thing. She never said that to me! But it was such a nice
thing to hear because sometimes I've wondered, too. It's not the same. I don't
know how it is in Vancouver, but here in Santa Monica, California... I was raised
in a small town in Massachusetts, and we went out in the afternoon and Lord
knows when we came back. I mean, after school, that is. In the summer, we
left the house in the morning and who knows when we were going to return.
But life's not like that anymore. But it was nice to hear that she likes to be with

GM: Yeah, that is nice. Relish because if she's only 14, maybe in a couple of
PP: Yeah, it might change. It might change. But frankly, I wish her well. Our
house is a little nutty sometimes.

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