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Paula Talk : Poundstone Gives HBO a Weekly Wild Card

February 09, 1992|JOE RHODES

Ordering breakfast in a West Los Angeles coffee shop, Paula Poundstone is confirming the on-stage descriptions of her admittedly odd dining habits (including a well-chronicled Pop-Tart dependency problem). She asks the waitress for a Diet Coke, an English muffin and oatmeal, which she proceeds to douse in several packets of sugar.

"When I was a kid, I used to eat sticks of butter like candy bars," she says. "I've always been big on condiments."

Eating breakfast with Paula Poundstone really isn't all that different from watching her perform on stage. At the moment she is describing the ACE award that she'd won only two nights before for cable television's best stand-up special. She has already described how the award-night paparazzi, which just moments before were calling her name, had hip-checked her out of the way so they could get a better angle on Jane Fonda. Now she's talking about the award itself.

'It's very shiny and reflective, actually," she is saying, in her schoolmarm-with-an-attitude voice. "I know my cats (she has a half-dozen) have seen mirrors before, but there's something about it that really intrigues them. Every time they look at it they think it's another cat coming right at 'em. And, tragically, every cat I have has fallen for it at least once.

"Sorry," she says. "I tend to digress."

What Poundstone had started to talk about, actually, is HBO's first-ever talk show, which is airing every Friday night this month and happens to be called "The Paula Poundstone Show." But as much as Poundstone likes the idea of hosting her own talk show, the last thing she wanted was a desk, a couch and a panel full of the usual celebrity suspects.

"I knew what I didn't want," she says. "I didn't want to be sitting on stage with someone going, 'And I think we have a clip.' "

There are, in fact, no clips, no movie stars, no sofa and no desk. There is, instead, Paula perched on a wooden stool, doing what she's always done best, getting not-so-famous people to talk about the little quirks that make their lives interesting.

"I just wanted to interact with people the way I do in a nightclub and somehow make that work on television," she explains. "To me, the whole point of talking to the audience is that everybody has something to offer, which is why I often ask people what they do for a living.

"And they're so funny about it. They say, 'Oh, you don't wanna know about me.' Listen, unless you are a criminal, an auto mechanic or a crooked politician, then there is absolutely no reason to be ashamed of what you do."

So, instead of rock stars and actors, Paula's guests tend to be flight attendants, postal workers and meter maids. Carson may get Schwarzenegger and Arsenio may land the cast of "Cheers," but Poundstone's is the only show where you're likely to see astronaut Scott Carpenter (one of the original Mercury Seven) engaged in conversation with a cosmetologist and a mathematician who thinks blowing up the moon may improve the Earth's weather.

"That combination," Poundstone says, recollecting the four shows, which were taped in Santa Monica several months ago, "was exactly what we wanted."

In fact, her favorite moment of the evening may have been when Carpenter finished a fairly moving description of the spirituality of space travel, which was followed immediately by the cosmetologist, Vera Brown, explaining that it's always a bad idea for women to go to bed without removing their makeup. Before long, in a somewhat surreal conversation, the Mercury astronaut and the cosmetologist were discussing whether an alcohol-based shaving lotion is bad for your complexion.

"Who would have thought," Poundstone said at the time, pleased with what she had wrought, "that they would have bonded in any way."

As off-center as her show may be, it's still a lot more like a traditional talk show than Poundstone and company had originally envisioned. When dry runs were first staged at The Groundlings Theater months before the actual shows were taped, the idea was to call the series "Paula Poundstone's Adult Education" and have all the guests be people who actually teach adult education classes. Audience members, who were given pads and pencils, were encouraged to raise their hands and ask questions as if they were in a real classroom. Among the guests were people who taught Paula and the audience how to hang wallpaper, how to brew beer at home and even how to make explosives.

When the concept worked, Poundstone says, it was as good as anything she's ever done. But there were nights during the six-week Groundlings run when nothing seemed to click. There was, for instance, the psychic who held an on-stage seance to summon the spirit of the late Fred Astaire.

"It never occurred to us that, since this was a seance, we'd all have to sit there silently in front of a whole room full of people and that there was no polite way to bring this to a natural conclusion. Because, the fact is, Fred Astaire's not coming."

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