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Paula Poundstone talks Dick Cavett, Donald Trump and getting comfortable in her own skin


Paula Poundstone talks Dick Cavett, Donald Trump and getting comfortable in her own skin

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Standup comedian, panelist, commentator and author Paula Poundstone brings her wry humor to the Holland Performing Arts Center on Friday, August 24.

She owns history with two native Nebraska television comedy icons. She guested on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. At the 2012 Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk honoring his legacy, she was joined by fellow satirist Dick Cavett, whose own talk show she’d done. Last fall she did a Lincoln gig with the venerable host, author and New York Times columnist.

“I love Dick Cavett,” she said\ “In 2014 we did this series in Los Angeles where writers interview writers in front of an audience, and I interviewed Dick for that. Somehow from that came this thing of he and I working together in Nebraska. It was so much fun.”

“Oh my God, that was a dream night,” Cavett said of their latest collaboration. “We have a rapport somehow on stage together. We just like each other. We don’t interrupt. There’s no trace of competition. That’s rare with two performers both out there pulling for laughs. It’s a little theatrical miracle. We both get each other’s rhythm and it starts climbing and it just gets into a freewheeling situation you don’t want to end. It plays so well you’d almost think it’s a well-directed play.”

“He’s a wordsmith,” Poundstone said of Cavett, “so mostly I try to make sure he has some space to do his thing. You know he’s got so many great stories. I don’t know if he did this by design or if it’s just the way life worked out, but he became friends with legends – Stan Laurel, Groucho Marx …”

Cavett confirmed it was by design he befriended these towering comic figures, but he added he counts himself fortunate to know Poundstone, too.

“Paula is a genuine wit. So smart and so funny. Seeing Paula work an audience is one of the great experiences in performing arts. She’s an acknowledged genius at it.”

He recalls she was one of his few guests who ever hand-wrote him a thank-you note. Chalk it up to her New Englander-by-way-of-Southern-good-mannered-parents-bringing-up. Meanwhile, she defers any IQ edge to her erudite colleague.

“Dick has me there. He’s corrected my grammar before in emails. So he wins.”

It still blows her mind he was targeted by President Richard Nixon. As a pundit, Cavett criticized Nixon and tackled the still unfolding Watergate scandal on national TV when no one else in mainstream media would touch it (see Dick Cavett’s Watergate on YouTube).

“I’ll tell you what Dick has that I’m so jealous of, which is audio tape of Nixon saying, ‘Is there any way we can screw him?” What I wouldn’t give for (Donald) Trump to go down and for them to later find him cursing me along the way that he will somehow get me.”

A Trump-aimed barb she tweeted in the 2016 campaign did trigger a response, only not from the man Cavett’s called “the missing Fifth Marx Brother – Trumpo,” but from what she suspects were his minions.

“For the next maybe 48 hours my Tweeter feed was busting with vicious, cruel, horrible comments about me,” she said, “and then it went away. I’m fairly certain it was, A, Putin, B, bots, and, C, an army of people Trump has ready to do that. But why me, I don’t know, because I’ve tweeted many things since then not flattering to him and it never happened again.

“But an automated tweet is not nearly as good as Nixon saying how can we screw him.”

Even though Trump provides steady fodder, she said, “I would be happy to never come up with another joke again in exchange for justice being served in terms of Donald Trump. I’ll gladly make stuff up. I don’t need our lives to suck in order to think of jokes.”

She’s never thought her work as frivolous but “as the years go by,” she said, “I personally value my job more and more and more.”

“I consider myself a proud member of the endorphin production industry given the evidence of how important it is not just laughing but laughing with other people.”

“When people type LOL, generally speaking, it’s a lie. Looking at something on a screen when you’re by yourself you don’t laugh. You might acknowledge you think it’s funny, but you don’t laugh. The experience of laughing, even if you go by yourself to a theater or a movie or whatever, you have some connection to the rest of the audience. It’s important being in the room with other people.

“I don’t suggest people have to come see me, although wouldn’t that be nice, but it’s really important to go out and be with other people for a night of laughter. To me, the fact I get to do that and I get paid for it feels better and better every day that I live.”

Decades into her career, she feels freer being herself than ever before.

“There is something to be said for experience. The other thing is and I think this goes along with just life in general, I’m becoming more comfortable with who I am. What I endeavor to do on stage is actually to be the most me I can be, whereas when I was younger I don’t know if I was entirely comfortable with who I was in the way one becomes as time goes by.

“I went to my 40th high school reunion last fall and it was so damn much fun. I went to a couple of them before but none were as good as the 40th because you’re just old enough you don’t really feel the need to impress people, nor are you impressed by others who do feel that need. It just felt like everyone had taken a deep breath and exhaled.”

Her new book The Totally Unscientific Study Of The Search For Human Happiness(Algonquin Books) “is a series of experiments doing things that either I or other people thought would make me happy,” she said.

“Every chapter is written as an experiment with the conditions, the hypothesis, the qualitative and quantitative observations, the variable, et cetera. The real question for me wasn’t what I would enjoy because I know what I enjoy, but what can I do that will leave me with a bounce so that when I return to my regular life I have some reserve. My regular life being raising a handful of kids and animals and being a standup comic and being stuck being me 24 hours a day.

“In the analysis part of each chapter I check in with my regular life to see how things are going. it’s the story of raising my kids and by the end of the book they’re all out of the house.”

It took her seven years to write.

“It’s number one job is to be funny and I think it achieves that, But mercifully any number of reviewers noted it was more than that and that’s certainly satisfying..The audio version was one of five nominees for audio book of the year at the Audis last year, although it didn’t win. But it was up against A Hand Maid’s Tale, so I didn’t feel that bad about not winning. It’s pretty good company. You could do a lot worse.

“Now it’s a semifinalist in the James Thurber Prize for American Humor (competition).”

Fame is a relative thing and Poundstone’s content where she falls on the spectrum.

“I’m not a household name except in my house – where I insist on it. Nobody has to close a store for me to go shopping.”

“Crazy-making” is what she calls the social media expectations placed on creatives these days. “Now when your agent sells you to a promoter or a theater they want to know how many followers you have and what social media you do. All of that’s considered part of the package, which is too bad.”

She’s recently discovered the bliss of going unplugged.

“I’ve started doing this thing where I sometimes don’t have any devices on so I can just think. It’s a scary leap.

I can’t say I always like it. But I do find myself being a little bit more productive.”

She prefers authentic human connections. As Dick Cavett notes, she’s adept at improvising with audiences.

“In the beginning I thought I shouldn’t be doing that. But fairly early on I realized the heart of the show was in these unique things that weren’t going to happen in the other show – it’s just unique to that night and to that audience. Sometimes I kind of put my line out there. I’ll start talking to somebody and then I leave it and come back to it later. You just sort of weigh in little pieces of information that eventually connect and fill the show.

“It took awhile to recognize it is a very valuable thing to be doing and to get pretty good at.”

Her Omaha show starts at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit, ticketomaha.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

FROM 2012

In 2012, I also interviewed Paula Poundstone and Dick Cavett – that time on the everof their appearing at the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Nebraska. I refer to that event, which honors Johnny Carson, in the 2018 story featured above. Poundstone and Cavett both had Carson in common: she was a guest on the Tonight Show with the King of Late Night present and Cavett first wrote for Carson (before that, for Jack Paar) and then competed against him with his own talk-show, though they were always the friendliest of rivals.

 

One-liners and nonsequiturs will fly at the June 13-17 Viareo Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., where the late comic great Johnny Carson grew up.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in a 2012 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

This annual celebration of the funny side is equal parts competition, workshop and roast.

Its home base is the Johnny Carson Theatre at Norfolk Senior High, where the legendary Tonight Show host graduated. The event welcomes professional stand-ups from around the nation vying for cash prizes. Paula Poundstone is the headliner. Jimmie “JJ” Walker is the “legend” recipient. Past Legend honoree Dick Cavett hosts a comedy magic show.

New this year is a June 14-15 Omaha showcase at the Holland Performing Arts Center featuring the fest’s standup contestants in 7:30 p.m. shows.

Poundstone and Cavett, long ago paid their comedy dues. They represent different generations in the craft but well identify with the vagaries of starting out.

She broke in during “the comedy renaissance” that saw clubs sprout in her native Boston and everywhere in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Open mic nights became her proving ground.

“They were just coming into being. I just lucked out in terms of time and place,” she says. “They had shows with guys who had no experience and they were awful but because there was no one else around nobody knew they were awful, and I got in on the awful train – when you could suck and it didn’t really matter. Now I think it’s a lot harder to get stage time.”

She was only 19 when she took the first of two cross-country Greyhound bus trips  on an Ameripass, stopping to perform at open mics in places like Denver, living out of a backpack and catching zs on the road between gigs.

“Odd but genius. It was pretty bold. I mean, I look back on it now and think, Whoa, boy, that could have gone bad. It was my nineteeness that saved me. You think you’re invincible…That helped a lot.”

She knew she belonged as a stand-up when she got to the west coast.

“I kept getting day jobs of necessity for a while. At one point on my second Greyhound bus trip I ended up in San Francisco. It was such a great place to be. It was perfect for my age and my personality and for the type of stand-up comic I am.

The audiences were willing to allow the comic to experiment in a way I found nowhere else in the country.

“It was there I gave up my day job.”

The Other Comedy Club near the Haight Ashbury District became her favorite venue.

“A bizarrely unassuming place. I found the best audiences there. Also, the people that ran the place liked me and gave me opportunities. One of the best things I ever did was host the weekly open mic night. Your job is to introduce people but also to kind of keep the crowd, so you’ve got to do a little bit in between. I would run out of material and I got to think on my feet and interact with the crowd and do all the stuff that’s really the good stuff.

“I had some raggedy nights where it just didn’t work or the crowd was horrible. I have better odds now.”

She describes the high that is stand-up as “addictive,” adding, “otherwise why would you?” (subject yourself to it).

Meeting fans after shows holds its own high, especially when this adoptive mother of three finds she’s struck a chord with parents over one of her favorite topics – the impossibility of child-rearing. “When those moments occur it really makes me feel worthwhile,” says Poundstone, whose concerts, HBO specials, books and recurring panelist role on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me keep her busy.

Not surprisingly, Cavett admires Poundstone, who guested on one of his shows. “She may be one of four-five guests in all the years I did those shows who sent a thank-you note. It was a lovely, nice, handwritten note and it gave me a softer spot for her even than I already had. I was on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me a couple weeks ago but I was sorry she wasn’t there that day so I could thank her again.”

Now he gets the chance to tell her in person. She may share her admiration for an impromptu bit he once did with Benny Goodman. Noticing the jazz great’s fly was down and sensing a rare chance to both prevent embarrassment and score laughs, Cavett instructed Goodman “to do exactly as I do.” As Cavett stood up with his back to the audience, Goodman did the same. The gestures that followed were unmistakable and funny, yet gracefully didn’t reveal whose fly was undone.

“I can’t imagine thinking of that,” says Poundstone. “It’s brilliant, just brilliant.”

Unlike Poundstone, Cavett made his bones in the business writing for others. After graduating Yale he worked as a New York Times copy boy when he audaciously wrote a monologue on spec for Jack Paar and personally delivered it to the Tonight Show host at the RCA building. He lived the dream of seeing some of his jokes used that very night on air. He soon became a staff writer for Jack, then Johnny. On the side he did stand-up in clubs. He doesn’t exactly miss it.

“Thank God I’m not doing that anymore. Some nights were awful, some were exhilarating and made you think this is what I’ve always wanted. When you would top a heckler you’d get a big thrill out of that.”

Once he got his own ABC talk show he delivered a monologue every night.

“It’s a horrible burden for anybody doing a talk show.”

The closest he’s come to stand-up in recent years is narrating the Broadway production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“I treated it as a stand-up appearance, so I did stuff I had thought up that day or had worked the night before. I ad-libbed with the audience. I had a great time doing it. But those years at the Bitter End and the Village Gate and The Gaslight and Mr Kelly’s and The Hungry Eye all helped bring that about.”

His advice to aspiring comics is “get the best material you can, work as often as you can.”

Having Carson in his corner helped him survive the stand-up gauntlet.

“I would go back to work the next day for Johnny and he would ask me how it went the night before and we would laugh particularly hard when it went badly. He would be very helpful with joke wording. He’d say, ‘You’ve got a good premise there but you don’t go far enough with it.’ A lot of good advice.”

Cavett’s still touched by the affection Carson showed him and that he reciprocated.

They’re forever linked by their small town Nebraska roots (Cavett was born in Gibbon and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln) and similar career trajectories. They both performed magic as youths.

“We met over magic in the Westminster Church in Lincoln. As kids in junior high three of us went to see the magician and radio personality Johnny Carson from Omaha.”

That each went on to host his own network talk show still amazes Cavett. “Isn’t that funny – two magicians from Nebraska?” He promises to perform “my genius” rope trick at the comedy fest. Cavett, who pens a Times column and occasional books, regularly gets back here, He hopes to get in some time in his beloved Sand Hills.

Keenly aware he’ll be on Carson’s home turf, at an event paying homage to its most famous native son, his rope trick will be one more link in their shared legacy.

For schedule and ticket info, call 402-370-8004 or visit www2.greatamericancomedyfestival.com. Omaha Showcase details are at http://www.omahaperformingarts.org.

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