Q&A: Paula Poundstone

  • Share
  • Read Later

Paula Poundstone

The joking stopped for stand-up comedian Paula Poundstone in 2001, when she was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol with her adopted children in the car. Allegations of child abuse were later dropped, and she pleaded guilty to a felony charge of child endangerment, was sentenced to probation and spent six months in a rehab facility. She's back on the stand-up circuit and is out with a book, There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say (Harmony), in which she talks about her legal problems — and many other things — through the lives of historical characters, from Joan of Arc to Abraham Lincoln. She talked with TIME's Richard Zoglin.

TIME: Why did you decide to use the device of talking about yourself through the prism of historical characters?

Poundstone: When I sat down to write I just felt like a geek writing about myself. And then it dawned on me, just because of the way I am, I can't stop talking, and part of the problem is that anything that gets said reminds me of something that happened to me one time, and invariably I cut people off and talk about myself. So it occurred to me that if I try to write about Abraham Lincoln I won't be able to shut up about myself. And so that's what I did.

How long was it after your legal problems that you were able to laugh at them?

About 30 seconds.

How long did it take to get your career back on track?

I was in rehab for six months, and I started working the second I got out. Did every place want me back? Absolutely not. There are some places that will probably never have me back. But I have a certain core of fans that continue to come see me.

Why did you decide to write about it?

My book is not about my legal case. Although I deal with it in the first chapter, it's about 5% of the book. And I know because I counted the words. When I first started writing the book, that hadn't even happened. I put it in the first chapter because there's an elephant-in-the-room quality about it. But the downside is that a lot of people have had the impression that it is some sort of tell-all book about my legal debacle, and it's not.

How did you start out in stand-up?

In Boston in May of 1979, I was bussing tables at a restaurant, Salad for All Seasons, one of the first salad bars. I always wanted to be Carol Burnett or somebody like that. But I didn't have any idea of where to go to be a performer. I did auditions at a club called the Comedy Connection. They wanted nothing to do with me. But one night they were doing a night of all women comics, and they invited me to do that. We were all so awful, but blissfully unaware of how awful we were.

You ended up in San Francisco and then LA. How tough was it for you as a women to break into a traditionally male field?

It was not difficult in the way it was for Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller. Being a woman in a very male-dominated business absolutely formed the stage personality those two women had. I don't think it did with me. It is kind of a double-edged sword. There were times — the first time I did the show at the Connection — if I had to wait around to be included in a way that wasn't gender-biased onstage, I never would have made it. But it does have a sort of Special Olympics feel to it.

Some people think women have a harder time in stand-up comedy because it's an aggressive art form.

I don't think it is an aggressive art form. [Being a woman] has offered me opportunities as many times as it's denied me opportunities.

Was there much of a sisterhood among women comics?

Not much. I think because people would decide to have one woman on the bill, there may have been more of a rivalry between us than may have been between some of the guys. Because when you were aware there was only one slot available ... It's not like you wish anybody any ill, but when there's one spot, gee, I'd like to have it.