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COMEDY REVIEW : Poundstone Shines as Usual; It's Audience That's a Drag


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — No one is better at working off an audience than Paula Poundstone, but the crowd she was saddled with in the first of two sold-out shows Saturday night at the Coach House tested the limits of even her abilities.

On a good night, Poundstone can work amazingly intricate riffs off responses to the most run-of-the-mill questions imaginable (What's your name? Where do you come from? What do you do for a living?). But the audience members she tried to engage Saturday invariably fell into one of two camps: loud and combative, or surly and uncooperative.

Then there were the fans who handed a steady stream of personal notes, some scribbled on Pop-Tart boxes (in reference to one of her best-known routines), up to the stage. If they were expecting Poundstone to get all mushy at the gesture, they obviously don't know the comic as well as they think they do.

"Doesn't anybody get the sense that maybe I'm busy up here?" Poundstone asked, in mock exasperation, at one point. Then, later: "Has anybody written a book they'd like me to take a quick look at? Some family photos, maybe?"

An act rooted so strongly in audience interaction is always a tightrope walk, and some nights will work better than others. Though most comics arm themselves with an arsenal of stock put-downs for hecklers and rowdy drunks, Poundstone tends to strike up a conversation, an impulse even she was led to question Saturday.

"A naked guy with a gun could whisper something, and I'd say, 'Excuse me?' "

Luckily, Poundstone's stream-of-consciousness style proves itself almost infinitely adaptable to interruptions, and while her rhythm was clearly off Saturday, she still managed to make the most of her set.

Poundstone's deadpan survey of life's absurdities remains refreshingly unaffected. It's the quality that made her so effective as a political "correspondent" for "The Tonight Show" during the presidential campaign. When she just doesn't get something, be it the popularity of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" or the karaoke phenomenon, no comic is funnier.

A bit on Cher segued into a musing on celebrity perfumes.

"Did they squeeze her to get this stuff?" she wondered about Cher's signature fragrance.

Poundstone's offbeat musings touched on the Easter holiday as well, and she offered her explanation of why Christian holidays are more commercially successful than Jewish observances.

"It's because they don't have a cute little character to identify with the holiday," she said, offering the Hanukkah Turtle and Passover Raccoon as suggestions.

As for Poundstone's best-known set pieces, she avoided them for the most part.

Regarding Pop-Tarts, she briefly mentioned her favorite line on the snack box, "Children should be supervised." ("I don't even think they're talking about toasting. I think it's just a general Kelloggs philosophy"). But that was about it.

And, she pointedly ignored loud and persistent calls for her funny but well-worn routine on air travel. Glancing up to the source of the requests, Poundstone said, "They could force me to have sex with Jimmy Swaggart, and I wouldn't tell the airplane story."

Then, with a shudder and a grimace, she added, "Ugh, that was a bit much even for me."

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