Poundstone juggles motherhood with comedy

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

During a telephone interview there are the sounds of vacuuming and children in the background, but that's typical for working mother and comedian Paula Poundstone.

Poundstone, named one of the 100 greatest stars of comedy by Comedy Central, balances a performing career and being a mother of three children. She will be appearing Aug.18 at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield

Poundstone is also a regular on "Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me," the weekly news quiz show heard on National Public Radio including WFCR and WAMC. When asked if she prepares for the show that will test her knowledge of the week's events she said, "Sadly, I do cram. But it does no good."

She didn't audition for the program, but was asked by the producers and has appeared for the past six years. Originally, she would go to a local NPR in Los Angeles and be connected electronically to her fellow contestants and host Peter Sagal.

But now the show is taped live either on the road or in a theater in Chicago and Poundstone said, "It's definitely better."

"Before I was a ball player in a batting cage," she said. She added she likes actually seeing her fellow cast members.

The live tapings mean travel, though, and Poundstone said it can be difficult being both a parent and a touring comedian. Generally, she tries to be away from her home and family only an average of eight days a month.

And when she is home she focuses on her family duties.

"When I'm home, I'm really home," she explained.

Poundstone started her comedy career at age 19 in 1979 performing in Boston. She said she had no responsibilities at that age and "rode the wave of that time" a time that she called a "renaissance of stand-up comedy."

She said she had "no particular skill or talent" but was in "the right time and the right place.

"I went around the country learning and having fun, when it was fun," she said.

She credits Robin Williams for attracting attention to the new generation of comics and for allowing random thoughts and non-sequitors to be part of the new comedy landscape.

Although her act is not known for profanity or adult material, Poundstone said "the stupidest thing" for a comic to worry about today is language.

"My goal is to entertain people. I don't want to say things that are mean," she said.

She added she doesn't deliberately want to insult people and that words are not as important as intent.

She admitted she is not as in tune with changes in stand-up comedy as some of her colleagues because many of her performances are at theaters rather than nightclubs. The advantage, she said, is that people really want to be at her shows and they're not drinking.

Today, there are fewer venues for aspiring comedians. She said that a recent club appearance she noticed several young comics who drove an hour and a half just to be able to appear a few minutes at an open mic night. She explained that in the 1980s and '90s, in a city such as San Francisco, she could do three open mics during one evening.

When asked if she had pursued the sitcom career route as so many other comics had done, Poundstone said with a laugh that she hadn't rejected sitcoms, they rejected her.

She said that her efforts to develop a sitcom hadn't made it as far as being a pilot. She said that when she first started exploring a career in television she didn't understand the language used by television executives.

This was apparent on the ABC variety show she did in 1993 that lasted three episodes. She recalled networks officials using phrase such as "We'll leave you alone." "We'll give you time to develop." and "We want something different."

She thought the show was an interesting experience that presented some "really great ideas."

She realized that there are "only a handful of people lucky enough [that]when an executive said those words they mean something."

After her cancellation she had lunch with another ABC executive who was interested in having Poundstone host a daytime program. She recalled she was uncertain over whether or not that would be a good move for her until the exec said, "We'll leave you alone."

"I've had a lot of good lunches out of show business," she said with a laugh, although she added she no longer discusses businesses over a meal.

Network execs aside, Poundstone said, "I love my job. I'm the luckiest comic in the world."