Paula Poundstone returns to Montana with jokes, jokes, jokes

Paula Poundstone can’t remember the first time she performed in Montana. In a Bozeman appearance recently she mentioned it was her first time in the state, but after the show an audience member, who claimed to have seen her perform her comedy routine beforehand in Billings, corrected her.

“The truth is,” Poundstone said, “it all blends together after a while. But, I am looking forward to going there again.”

Poundstone, who just passed her 50th year, has an accomplished career that began in comedy clubs located along Greyhound bus routes. Based in Massachusetts, Poundstone carved her early career in the comedy clubs of Boston, and in the late 70s she relocated to San Francisco (her accent remains). She’s starred in several comedy specials for HBO, appeared numerous times on the late night talk show circuit, and became the first woman to receive the Cable ACE for best standup comedy special.

Poundsone’s talents secured her a program on ABC titled “The Paula Poundstone Show.” As her popularity grew she shifted venues from comedy clubs to performing arts centers and theatres. She became further immersed in American culture when she became a regular commentator on NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” a weekly news quiz program. She’s a published author and in 2009 released her first comedy album, “I HEART JOKES: Paula Tells Them In Maine.”

Poundstone continues touring with her topical humor, witty improv and interactive comedy, and is rarely seen without her trademark collared shirt and tie. She will perform Billings Friday, Jan. 28, at the Babcock Theatre.

During her last visit to Montana, Poundstone was introduced to the Cat/Griz rivalry, performing in Bozeman a day before the big game. Afterward, she dressed as a Cat cheerleader and posted a comedic video clip on her website. “I can’t tell you how little I care about football,” Poundstone said in a recent interview, “but I was happy for them. They were very excited about it. I wanted to tell them I was at least trying.”

In the short skit—one of many videos she’s produced for her website—Poundstone stated, “I understand the fire and the fury behind the rivalry with the Grizzlies. I’ve kind of become obsessed with it…I do all my household duties like I’m fighting the Griz.”

Poundstone said she’s been making video clips of her comedy for as long as it’s been possible to do so. “I’m learning as I go. They’re not terribly tech savvy, but it is kind of fun to do it. It’s just a different way of saying the same things. More jokes, jokes and more jokes.”

Poundstone wraps jokes of her daily life into her onstage routine, often discussing living in a house full of animals and kids. Poundstone has two teenage daughters and a son, and they share their home with 16 cats, a German Sheppard, a bearded lizard, one ant in the ant farm, and a lop-eared bunny.

When asked how she ended up with 16 cats, Poundstone responded, “I had 15 and I got one more.” One of her daughters volunteers at a shelter, which increased the family’s sensitivity to homeless animals.

“We’ve just sort of gotten one here and one there,” Poundstone said. “Our whole family has some DNA of cats in us or something. I swear we get kitten fever in the spring, not unlike a cat. I used to put it off for a while, but now just right away I go get a cat. They are really annoying for the most part.”

A cat aficionado, Poundstone said having that many cats is like having a movie running all the time. “Even though we’ve had cats for years and years, all day long we say to one another, ‘Oh, look at that.’ So far we have yet to become uninterested.” The world can catch the Poundstone cats in action on her website, where a live feed of their food dish broadcasts 24-7.

With all seriousness, Poundstone described the calluses on her hands from litter scooping. A labor of love, she agreed, but a labor of cleanliness as well.

Other topics on Poundstone’s radar include the sad state of California and its school system, as well as the deteriorating conditions in public schools. She’s known for her sardonic look at the news media and the political climate of the country. “I talk about hanging on by a thread trying to be a halfway decent voter,” she said. “It’s surprisingly hard to be informed theses days. There are so many red herrings out there.”

Poundstone’s favorite part of the evening is her time-honored tradition of talking to the audience in a bit called “What do you do for a living?”

“People say to me, ‘Did you read newspapers before you came about the area?’ In truth, I don’t think I could ever be that organized. I find out from grabbing audience members and talking to them throughout the show. It’s usually an accurate cross-section of wherever I am.”

Poundstone’s stage show is a combination of material and improv, and she estimates on a good night (most of them are good, she said) at least a third of the evening is unscripted. “The rest of it, I kind of have most material on a Rolodex in my head and I spin it and grab this or grab that depending on what A) seems to be the right thing to say at that moment, and B) what I can remember.”

Poundstone said she is always working against her terrible short-term memory loss. “It clearly gets worse as one gets older. Fortunately, a lot of what I do is in the moment. It generally pops itself up pretty quickly, and there is a flow to it.”
Often, Poundstone’s stage show is like a conversation. “You’re remembering all sorts of things to say. You may go to tell a story and forget the details, so you jump off that one and tell something else. Or just tell it wrong,” she said.

Memory challenges aside, Poundstone is a natural performer, and she thrives on the audience’s response. “There is a bit of magic that comes from a crowd of people that come out for a laugh,” she said. “The truth is I’ve been in front of very few audiences that I dislike. The idea that people got up off the couches or came from work or decided not to go to bed early…that they come out to be part of a group and part of a community, it is already a wining formula before I slide onto stage.”

For performances on her current tour, Poundstone is giving free tickets to those who are unemployed. “Given that one in 10 of us is out of work, which is staggering, and the healing quality of laughter, it’s just a spit in the ocean but it’s something,” Poundstone said. Tickets are available by reaching out to Poundstone via Facebook or Twitter, and are given based solely on the honor system.

“Why would you lie about being unemployed?!,” Poundstone said, noting that she’s received the most sincere thanks from those that are able to attend her show under such tough times. “When someone that is having a rough time says to me, ‘Boy it means so much to me. I laugh for two hours, and now I can go back and deal with the stuff I have to deal with,’ it is worth it. Otherwise, all this is just stupid.”

Catch Poundstone at the Babcock Theatre Friday evening. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starts at 8 p.m. Reserved seating tickets, costing $29.50 plus applicable fees, are available Rimrock Mall, by phone at (800) 514-3849, or online at

Paula Poundstone discovers Montanans’ distinct charm

Review originally published Jan 30, 2011

During her performance at the Babcock Theatre Jan. 28, Paula Poundstone admitted, “I have no idea where Billings is within the state.” The stand-up comic and National Public Radio commentator imagined Montana as the bread in a cabinet, slightly smushed, where the disfigured loaf, once cut into, would replicate the state. “Are you near the crust?” she asked. An audience member offered, “We are by the lower crust.”

“I’m glad I could book a date in January,” Poundstone continued. “This is really where you’re at your loveliest.” The clever banter continued with the audience, though several members were caught off-guard.

The audience was quick to shout out clever comments to Poundstone, but when put on the spot, many were shy to speak up, as though they had no concept her shows included conversations with the audience.

A woman in the front row shut down when Poundstone entered into a conversation with her. “What do you mean, ‘I didn’t know you would do this.’ What is THIS?” Poundstone exclaimed. “You say something, I say something. Clearly people here are just not used to this.”

Further crowd interaction spurred Poundstone to say, “You guys are the strangest communicators I’ve ever met in my life. Every time I talk to you, you put your head down. It’s like playing whack-a-mole.”

Even with such strange crowd antics, Poundstone was quick-witted. She appeared onstage in neon blue high tops and a matching bright blue collared shirt, complete with her typical necktie. Poundstone spoke nearly two hours to a decently crowded theater. Her topics ranged from her children and their struggles in school to the terrible state of public education.

In the most honest and straightforward terms, Poundstone spoke of her children’s adolescence and the challenges the have experienced. She continued to include Billings’ factoids in her stand-up, asking about the city’s main industry. “Casinos” and “sugar beets” were some of the offered answers.

“You must have the liveliest town meetings,” Poundstone jested. She made even the most ordinary objects funny. Her bit on cantaloupe was delightfully funny, and as she received a sugar beet education, she continued creating laughs. The topic of Yellowstone’s potential eruption came up as she discussed emergency plans in public schools for California-style disasters.

“I didn’t know that we were in danger. We must get out! How long can you go without water?!” she exclaimed. “You are just reading in borrowed time. That puts it all in perspective. I bet no one here goes into work on time.”

Poundstone’s ability to string such random thoughts together was impressive. As an audience member shouted, “That’s why we go to casinos,” Poundstone routed the topic back and commented, “Because you’re counting on the eruption to get you out of debt? At this point North Korea is part of my economic plan!” She paused often, smiling between audience laughter, genuinely soaking up the laughs the crowd offered.

Checking her watch and acknowledging that our time was coming to an end, Poundstone said, “What can I leave you with that’s meaningful and deep? I can say I died once. My heart stopped for a minute and I can say there is no bright light.” Theorizing that her friends and family are avoiding her, even in the afterlife, Poundstone—even with such a dark topic—kept the audience giggling.

Afterward, Poundstone greeted fans in the Babcock Theatre lobby, signing copies of her book—proceeds going toward the Parmly Billings Library—and taking photos with her fans.

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