“Sit, Ramona!” Paula Poundstone says to her audience beyond the receiver, and she doesn’t seem to be joking.
It’s noon in Santa Monica, Calif., when I dial up the much-celebrated comedian for an interview from the downtown office of Louisville.com. She’s out with her dog, Ramona, on a sunny, albeit dry, (or so she tells me), day. Here, a slate ceiling of cloud has been weighing down just about everybody; thus, the timing for this call really couldn’t be better. Our light-hearted, laugh-punctured conversation covers kindergarten teachers, short-term memory loss, a German Shepherd with an inferiority complex, lobsters, libraries and refrigerated ants.
I start off asking Paula what I usually ask people who live hundreds of miles away from Louisville:
Paula, have you ever been to Derby?
No, I never have. I used to like to go to the track a long time ago. Last time I went, I took my kids, and then my son had a tantrum and we had to leave, I think, before the horses made it around even once. But I’m sure I’d like to go.
How many pets do you have right now?
Well, we have 13 cats, one dog… 13, yeah. That’s a lot of cats, by the way, no matter how you slice it.
Just one dog to wrangle the cats?
There is only one dog, probably mainly German Shepherd, and she’s really not the pack leader. I mean, for instance, she likes to sit in the chair, too, and sometimes there’ll be cats in the chair, and she will just whine… HarrroooRooRooRoooooo!!! …it’s really not a very dominant sound.
We also have a bearded dragon lizard, and a very large, lop-eared bunny. Off and on we have ant farms.
I’ve always been terrified of those! I would have nightmares that they’re going to break open, and I wake up with ants crawling all over me. Plus, I used to live in Texas— Fire Ant country. It would have been really hazardous.
Well, you actually have to mail away for your ants. You can only get a particular kind, which they send you in a test-tube gizmo. You have to refrigerate them briefly before putting them in the ant farm, ‘cause refrigeration stuns ants. Just something I happen to know. (Walk, Ramona!)
Wow! I never would’ve thought. Maybe I will get an ant farm. Anyway, you’re a big supporter of libraries. Do you have a favorite library?
I was to one in Homestead, Penn., which is just outside of Pittsburgh. It was quite old. The only reason I got a tour of it, (because normally I don’t have time for that sort of thing), was because it was connected to the place where I performed. It was all one building. So you went across the hall from the little theatre, and there was the library! (Walk, Ramona!) It also had a pool underneath the building, because the people who had invented this building a long time ago had this idea of it all being kind of one stop—so you went to the same place for your entertainment as you went for your library as you went to work out. Which I think is brilliant.
Certainly puts a cool twist on “reading in the tub.” What’s your thoughts on the Kindle?
You know I actually like the idea of it. On the other hand, I love the feel of a book cover and flipping through the pages. I do not enjoy looking at a screen for long periods of time. But being a person who brings a big carry-on bag full of books and magazines and the like when I travel, the idea of having a lighter thing with which I could do that is not unpleasant to me.
My problem is I always seem to lose my favorite books or lend them out and then I never see them again. On my bookshelf are mostly things I don’t really like to read.
I think you could lose a Kindle just as easily. You know, I haven’t actually lost many books. One time, though, I was reading this great book about the CIA. It was this thick history and it was fascinating, but I always fall asleep when I reading, and I was on this airplane, (back in the old days when all the seats weren’t taken all the time), so since there was nobody beside me I stretched out and I used the book as a pillow, and when I got off the plane, I didn’t have it anymore. I tried to track it down and was never able to and it just struck me as so funny that one book I lost was the CIA book. My feeling is that somebody took it. Somebody… who shouldn’t have…
Do you think people can learn to be funny?
No. I really don’t. Things like comedy classes make my skin crawl. I think it’s really an internal kind of a thing, and you can learn the outer trappings of doing it, or performing, but I don’t think those things need be taught, anyway. I think at an open mic, you know, where you go on and you do five minutes at the local comedy club, teaches all one needs to know. You go on, you tell your little jokes and if it doesn’t go over, maybe you try another way. I think all those things are kind of instinctive. You can’t teach [humor] any more than you can teach conversation, because that’s kind of what it is: a conversation with the audience.
When did you first realize you could make people laugh?
I have the “Summary Letter” from my kindergarten teacher, written in May of 1955, that says, in the first sentence of the second paragraph, “I have enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments about our activities.” It was written by Mrs. Bump, my kindergarten teacher. I still remember that letter in the drawer in my parents’ house, and I must’ve taken it with me when I left. I have since been in touch with Mrs. Bump. Many times, actually—I saw her the last time I was in New Hampshire.
Yeah. My first grade teacher wrote that I was subject to emotional outbursts and I didn’t have good handwriting. I guess nothing good about me stood out to my first grade teacher. But I think that it was a lot more helpful, probably, to hear from Mrs. Bump about what she did like.
So what’s the hardest part of your job?
I love being in front of audiences. I like thinking of funny things to say and then saying them. I love the sound of laughter. I don’t necessarily love being away from home (although sometimes it has its advantages), and the schedule can be kind of rugged. (Walk, Ramona!)
In terms of the actual performing part, I do not enjoy the five-minute late-night television sets. Its too restrictive, and I’ve never been good at it. I can’t do five minutes to save my life.
Part of the reason is that I have no memory. I step out to do something and I instantly can’t remember what I meant to do, and I’m like that in every walk of life. I drive by my house, and my kids’ll say, “Mom, you turn here!” And I’ll turn to them and say, “Who are you and what’re you doing in my car??”
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve heard this year from an audience member?
Boy, I don’t remember! I did come across a lobster fisherman in San Francisco. That’s what he said he did for a living—he was a lobster fisherman. Well, there aren’t lobsters in northern California. And it seemed like me telling him was the first he’d heard.
Was he lying?
I don’t think so! I think he was just a really unsuccessful lobster fisherman! So it was good, it was almost like he had a little career accomplishment. Because I was able to say to him, “You know, it’s not that you’re not good at it, it’s that we don’t have lobsters in this part of the country.” The whole thing was very eye-opening to him.
In the 30 years she’s been doing stand-up comedy, Paula Poundstone has only made it to Louisville a handful of times—so if you’re in need of career advice, or just a late January laugh, make your way to the Bomhard Theater this Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets ($25, $32) are available online, by calling 502.584.7777, or at the box office (501 W. Main Street).
Bring your ticket stub to Proof on Main after the show and get $2 off one drink (Order a vodka tonic.--Ed.)
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Photo: Courtesy Personal Publicity