Performing last week in Lake Placid, N.Y., there were various reminders the city hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics. Not that it inspired stand-up Paula Poundstone to work on her synchronized skating routine.
“I felt fat and lazy the whole time there,” Poundstone said.
The Olympic sport she would excel at? Well, apparently, none.
“I suck at pretty much everything,” Poundstone said.
Not exactly. The Southern California resident via Boston and San Francisco has parlayed her astute wit and observations into a pretty good comedy career, taking her wares to the Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre on Sept. 21
Actually, there is one sport the 59-year-old can handle: Ping pong, with a periodic invitation only extravaganza at Poundstone’s house.
“It’s awfully fun,” Poundstone said, with one requirement: “You don’t have to be good. People do jump up and down and there’s hugging, but it’s not as cut-throat as Major League Baseball. We don’t send families packing to another state. And we don’t let little kids play.”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and Poundstone is home with her 13 cats and two dogs. Her three adopted kids are now adults, giving the former San Franciscan a perspective on child-raising and a few words of advice for those contemplating children.
“What are you, high? Don’t do it. Just don’t do it,” Poundstone said. “Even if you are going to be really good at parenting, it’s not what you see in the movies and television. It’s just a cruel prank. On the other hand, if I were to do it all over again, hopefully I’d do it better.”
An NPR regular, Poundstone was the first woman to perform stand-up comedy at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She also won an American Comedy Award for Best Female Stand-Up Comic. Her book, “The Totally Unscientific Study of The Search for Human Happiness” debuted at No.1 on Amazon Best Sellers list.
Poundstone’s constantly on the road for her mostly-Friday and Saturday gigs — she’s in Maryland this weekend, New Jersey next weekend — and has accumulated roughly 4 million frequent flier miles.
Still, “this is the greatest job in the world. It honestly is,” Poundstone said, believing she’s achieved that Zen-like “flow” “maybe not every second on stage, but a lot of it.”
There is one constant — Poundstone will do a two-hour, no opening act, no intermission show — and there’s always a good chance something off-the-wall will happen. Like recently in upstate New York.
“I’m talking something about (special counsel) Robert Mueller and the entire crowd starts screaming at me. Just screaming,” Poundstone said. “I’m trying to figure it out. Did he just die? Did something awful happened to him? Was he from here? I couldn’t figure it out. So I leaned forward, cupping my ear and said, ‘I can’t understand what you’re yelling.”
In unison, the crowd shouts “There’s a bat behind you!”
“I’m half-blind so I never saw it,” Poundstone said, pondering “Maybe that’s where ‘blind as a bat’ comes from.’ Anyway, the bat swooped into the crowd for a while, went back stage, and then up to the balcony and heckled me.”
Poundstone’s dealt with big bugs, a skunk, people having heart attacks and protests .. and she’s actually broken a rib coughing on stage … but that “was my first bat show.”
As for Poundstone’s legendary reputation of doing marathons, she recalled a 2 1/2 hour presentation in Maine one year. The comic defended herself, saying there was no clock to remind her and besides, it’s not as if she has a scripted act.
“Its not to say I don’t have material, but it’s not in special order. I reach into my head and grab something so it’s not the same night after night,” Poundstone said. “It’s unstructured, which allows for things to happen.”
As for the second night in Maine, “there was a clock on stage,” Poundstone said.
Though she would just as well enjoy going over the show in her head afterward, Poundstone acknowledged she has merchandise to peddle.
“I spend a lot of time packing the damn suitcase and taking inventory,” she said.
Poundstone’s sat with every talk-show host imaginable from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, Bill Maher, Carson Daly, and Stephen Colbert, yet hasn’t struck that big stand-up deal like Ellen DeGeneres did with Netflix when she pocketed a cool $20 million for 68 minutes of comedy.
“I didn’t know that. I think that’s great,” said Poundstone, convinced a $20 million check wouldn’t ease her into retirement.
“Would I quit? No. I really do have a great job,” she said.
Back at home, Poundstone relies on two key modern conveniences — her (OK, not so modern) flip-phone and vacuum cleaner for the daily cat hair removal. Oh, and her toaster.
“I eat raisin toast every day when I’m home,” Poundstone said, swearing by her two-slice toaster. No four-slice toaster for this gal.
“Four? You’re just asking for trouble,” Poundstone said.
Poundstone did have a problem with ticket costs for entertainers, particularly one music act charging $1,000 admission. And, in fact, Poundstone heard that one of her fans was charged $200 by a ticket agency (with fees) and was incensed.
“I guarantee you, nothing I do — all the cat jokes — is worth $200,” Poundstone said. “And the pressure of making something worth $200 … it’s too much for me.”
That’s not to say Poundstone wouldn’t pay to hear other comics. Heck, she forked over $10 to see Gallagher years ago at the Great American Music Hall, though “To me, that was outrageous,” she said.
For someone who outright makes her guffaw, it’s long-time pal Dana Carvey.
“Oh my God, he makes me laugh. He’s still just so great,” Poundstone said. “Everything he does is funny.”
It’s been an hour. Cat hair needs vacuuming and hey, maybe Poundstone contemplated getting back to Taekwondo training, what with a black belt awaiting her.
“Which sounds good until you realize there are nine levels of black belt,” Poundstone said.
Not that martial arts puts her at ease. Even after a successful 40-year career, kids who are adults, and more frequent flier mileage than a pilot, Poundstone has trouble relaxing.
“I’m pretty much stressed out,” she said. “I was once described as ‘unflappable,’but I flap the moment I wake up.”
Paula Poundstone is at the Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre on Sat., Sept. 21, 8 p.m. For more, visit vpat.net or paulapoundstone.com.