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HOME FROM THE HILL . . . LAUGHING : After Covering Election for 'Tonight Show,' Paula Poundstone Turns Talents to Writing

April 08, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN

So there was Paula Poundstone in January, decked out in her sequined inaugural evening gown and speaking live from the Arkansas Ball in Washington to "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno in Burbank.

"Show them how crowded it is in here," she said above the din to her cameraman, who panned the ballroom packed with Bill Clinton supporters. "No one can actually dance. It's more of an Arkansas stand that they're having. The only place you can actually dance is up here with the press, so we've had like Tom Brokow asking if he can put Peter Jennings' name on his dance card."

Paula Poundstone, our woman in Washington.

Back at her home in Santa Monica last week, preparing for a show at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano this weekend, she still sounded a bit awe-struck at having covered not only the inauguration for "The Tonight Show7' but also the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

She said she tried to maintain at least some semblance of impartiality in her coverage, lest she alienate a segment of Leno's audience.

"I can't very well come out and say like these Republicans are evil , because it's not my show."

But, she added, "the nights I did my best work were the points where I decided I didn't care if I got fired or not."

Like the night at the GOP convention when Barbara Bush gave a speech on family values.

"I said that the whole thing was like everybody there is really phony, and that everything was fake: The signs were fake; they made those signs up en masse. That was like family night at the convention and I said that those babies (in the crowd) didn't even belong to the people who were holding them. I said there was a baby distribution center outside the Astrodome and they had to put them on conveyor belts to get them through security.

"I just decided there's nothing unfair about calling a spade a spade."

She said she hasn't been paying as much attention to politics in recent months.

"A couple of days after Clinton was elected, somebody from the local NBC news came to my house with a camera to ask did I think Clinton would be fodder for comedy as President. I felt like it was such an unfair question. To me, it was the things that Bush did that needed highlighting. . . . I just thought people should let Clinton be in office a while.

"I have no desire to be an arbitrary negative voice, unless there's something specific to complain about. At which point my voice will be quite loud, I'm sure."

Poundstone, who was born in Alabama and who grew up in Massachusetts, has been making that voice heard almost as long as she's been able to talk.

In 1965, her kindergarten teacher sent an end-of-the-year report to her parents: "I have enjoyed Paula's humorous comments on some of our activities." Poundstone still carries a dog-eared copy of that report in her tote bag when she travels.

After dropping out of high school in her senior year, she went to work as a waitress and started doing stand-up in Boston in 1979. She still isn't sure how she lived through her first open-mike nights.

"Almost every comic has the same explanation: I think you have a certain protective ignorance. I don't think you know how awful you are; otherwise you wouldn't keep doing it."

She remembers taping her first performance on stage. At the time, she thought it went "really well. About four years later, I listened to that tape and I was embarrassed alone in my own house. I've since thrown out all those tapes."

Though she has become known for improvisational skills that make each show different, she thinks some things have remained constant in her act since the beginning.

"I guess my overall philosophy is that I never wanted to go in a mean kind of direction," she said, "despite the fact that a lot of the Boston comics were really aggressive--certainly very sexist. I know I wanted to have a kind of night where everyone in the audience could have a good time, not where a particular group of people had to be the brunt in order for everyone else to have a good time."

She feels her "interests have broadened in some ways. When I was younger I didn't pay any attention to politics at all. When Ronald Reagan came on the scene I had no idea who he was or where he came from. I think you figure out there's a world beyond yourself. Some people figure it out earlier on, but I was a late bloomer."

She has been doing more writing lately. She has contributed pieces to The Times' Calendar section and recently was signed to do a regular column ("The Poundstone Report") for Mother Jones magazine, and she said she enjoys being known as a writer.

"I just think it's classier." When she was identified at the end of a recent article as 'a comedian and writer," she remembers thinking, "that is just the coolest thing. To me, to say comedian you could also say moron. But to me, to say writer, I just think you can't be totally stupid."

She paused briefly. "That can't be true, because Rush Limbaugh also writes. There are exceptions to the rule."

In any case, although "this writing thing has really been fulfilling and fun--it's fun to be working while I'm sitting on my bedroom floor with my cats, eating Doritos," she said she'd never give up performing.

"I really do have a love for the audience." There are, as with any job, certain aspects of stand-up that "can get really annoying. But standing on stage talking to people and having them talk back to me is reality. . . . I miss them if I'm off for a while--just not being able to talk to a group.

"A lot of times during the day, you'll think of something: Who starred in a movie? What does glasnost mean? Whatever. I'll kind of struggle with it on my own for awhile and then I say, 'I'll ask the audience!'

"It's an incredible resource. Someone in a crowd of 1,500 is bound to have the answer."

Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live!

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