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Ask most people what Improvisational Comedy means and chances are they’ll assume you’re referring to what happens on “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” or (at the other extreme, and with more preparation) Viola Spolin’s noble experiment in Chicago, which led to the original Second City and the ascendancy of its graduates — Alan Alda, Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Joan Rivers, Severn Darden, Roger Bowen, Robert Klein, Paul Mazursky, and, earlier, Mike Nichols and Elaine May — to the Pantheon of post-war American humor.
Those are valid responses, of course, but the greater form is that practiced occasionally by Robin Williams and wholly by Mel Brooks in his heyday with Carl Reiner: wading in without prepared remarks. Call it what you will — working without a net, riffing on the audience itself — it’s the comedian’s equivalent of an extended jazz break, an ability so uncanny it’s almost akin to spiritual channeling. And while there are, seemingly, thousands of comics around, big and small, more than ready to perform what Spaulding Gray once called “genital-scented humor” (“pop!” “bang!” “pow!”), usually on the prescribed topics, there are never more than a handful of true verbal magicians in existence at any one time. Paula Poundstone is more than one in a million; she’s one in 300 million.
She was in top form last Friday evening, when she brought her Big Picture tour to convulsively funny life in Fletcher Hall at The Carolina Theatre in Durham, skewering with deadly accuracy everything from the ubiquity of Viagra commercials and the media’s current obsession (in which the news is about “how everyone’s talking about Martha Stewart”) to her own, much publicized, difficulties with alcohol, during which she “got a court order to attend Alcoholics Anonymous — on television.”
Poundstone, as her website correctly maintains, is not a comic “defined by the usual gender-biased topics of relationships, diets, men, or sex.” Yet the last time I saw this astonishing American treasure, at Charley Goodnight’s in Raleigh, some unsung idiot booked three female stand-ups to open for her, and all three made endless (and largely puerile) jokes about — wait for it — relationships, diets, men, and sex. It was as though Henny Youngman had introduced Lily Tomlin.
Although she now works a good deal of material concerning her foster and adopted children into the mix, Poundstone’s observations are the furthest thing from the usual young comedian’s applause-milking pap about family or — more horrifying — the precious, sick-making bilge we used to get courtesy of Art Linkletter. Poundstone’s world is one in which her daughter uses cerebral palsy as an attention-getting device, abandoning her mother to the task of explaining it to strangers (“Really, she doesn’t fall over any more than the rest of us”); her son’s grammar school teacher thinks she’s reading obscenities to the class when the phrase “silly ass” turns up in Emil and the Detectives; and their school requires parents to compose something called “Comfort Notes” in case of emergency.
Poundstone also delivered a phalanx of achingly funny remarks on any number of peripatetic subjects: the increasing difficulty, in our age of ear-bud cell phones, to tell CEO from the schizophrenic; the insanity of injecting man-made fat into our food. Concerning Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Poundstone proved her own manifestation of the condition — as she phrases it, her “inability to stop talking” — by regaling us for over two hours, sans the intermission she forgot to stop for.
I doubt anyone minded. We were all much too busy laughing.
The Carolina Theatre: http://www.carolinatheatre.org/onstage/index.html#paula [inactive 1/07]. Paula Poundstone: http://www.paulapoundstone.com/.
Controversial comedian Paula Poundstone will bring her Big Picture tour to The Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC, tonight (March 4th) for a one-night stand that The National Enquirer and other scandal sheets will not be documenting in breathless purple prose. Her well-publicized legal troubles — which began in 2001 and ended after six months in rehab — are behind her; and Paula Poundstone is back on tour, performing her own unique brand of improvisational comedy, with just a microphone, a barstool, and a can of Diet Coke for props.
According to her official biography, "…Paula Poundstone's ability to create humor on the spot is legendary. There's a wonderful synergy to each of her one-of-a-kind two-hour shows. She improvises with a crowd like a jazz musician. She'll find an audience member who sells grass seed to golf courses in part of the state of Maryland and wonder, 'In such a small territory, even if the grass seed were any good at all, how could you possibly be working to your full potential?' — then she swings in another unexpected direction without a plan, without a net. Paula is so quick and unassuming that audience members leave complaining that their cheeks hurt from laughter and debating whether the random people she talked to were 'plants.'
"Known for her honesty, and an off-kilter view of the world, Paula is currently delighting crowds across the country on her hilarious national tour, The Big Picture. 'My show is about finding the teeny tiny part we play in the "Big Picture," like a life-sized "Where's Waldo!"' says Paula. Never one to be defined by the usual gender-biased topics of relationships, diets, men or sex, Paula nimbly mixes in everything from how the shameful deterioration of the broadcast news industry threatens our democracy, and arguing over a parking space at the museum of tolerance, to recycling her newspaper with the cover story on the oil spill, her near-death experience with cinnamon, and the frustration of living in a house full of pencils with no erasers. 'How can an eraser that small possibly eradicate all of the mistakes one could make with all of that lead?' She even handles politics without provoking the pall of disapproval less artful comics have received.
"A single working mother, with children ages l3, 10 and 6, much of Paula's material is based on her life at home in Santa Monica. The house is never quiet. There are nine cats, a big cat-eating dog, a bearded dragon lizard, an elderly bunny, and one doggedly determined ant left from an ant farm. Recently, one of her children was upset that the family didn't celebrate Easter: 'First of all, it's not our religion,' she told the child. 'Second of all, you all don't like eggs. Third of all, you guys don't look for anything.'
"'I love doing my job,' Paula says. 'It's a privilege to perform for people who come to see me and I would do it if there were only six, although I'd have to up the ticket price.'…
"Paula grew up in Sudbury, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston) and began performing at open-mic nights in 1979. She was among a handful of comics who rose to prominence during the comedy craze of the 1980s, and her talent was so genuine, she was still standing when the fad subsided. Paula credits her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bump, with her success in comedy. Bump stated in a 'summary letter' sent to Paula's home in 1965 that 'I have enjoyed many of Paula's humorous comments about our activities.' Paula says, 'she found something positive to say and expressed an adult interest instead of squelching my sense of humor. In the first grade, Miss Carter wrote I was subject to emotional outbursts and that I had poor penmanship. That didn't help at all.'…
"Paula has lent her services to help raise funds for several causes she believes in, including legislation for gun control and campaign finance reform, healthcare for the homeless, the Democratic party, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Actors and Others for Animals.…
"While she has amassed an impressive list of accolades in print and on stage, Paula is a dedicated single mother, so the majority of her time is spent at home, with her children, where she watches steadily improving cartwheels, denies junky snacks, tries desperately to remember the parts of speech, corrects long division, listens to Nancy Drew read aloud, overcooks noodles, and tries to explain that life isn't always fair, but that right now it's Thomas E's turn to use the pogo stick. She says things couldn't be better."
The Carolina Theatre presents Paula Poundstone in The Big Picture Friday, March 4, at 8 p.m. at 309 W. Morgan St., Durham, North Carolina. $21-$24. 919/560-3030. The Carolina Theatre: http://www.carolinatheatre.org/onstage/index.html#paula [inactive 1/07]. Paula Poundstone: http://www.paulapoundstone.com/.