Paula Poundstone still funny? We were the Ferst to know.


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(Photo George Lange Photograph)

If anyone was wondering — or didn’t listen to my podcast interview with her in this week’s issue — Paula Poundstone is still funny (and a bit crazy) after all these years. I’ve become fascinated with how the public perceives comedians like Poundstone, who became a very big deal in the 1980s, scored critically acclaimed comedy-gig specials on HBO and then … what? Faded off into the sunset? Became a victim of fickle tastes or substance abuse?

For Poundstone, it could have been a little bit of the two latter effects; there’s such a glut of comics these days, ever since cable opened the floodgates in the mid-1990s, really, that it’s very hard to find and appreciate those who actually apply a certain craft to it all. Plus, Poundstone became a little too in love with the bottle, and her 2001 arrest was related to alcohol abuse, which she has since dealt with.

But while she’ll perhaps never equal the success of her 1980s and ’90s period, Poundstone still retains a remarkable gift for observational humor that almost rivals the master of the form, Jerry Seinfeld, as she proved Saturday night at the Ferst Center for the Arts.

But first, about the Ferst …

It’s a lovely theater nestled in the campus of Georgia Tech, but dag, they really need to get their concessions act together. What a mess. In one room, there are two “stations,” one focusing on drinks and snacks, the other on coffee. Neither one features folks who care about keeping customers in any kind of orderly “line”; it’s all done in a bizarre Zen fashion that has customers apologizing to each other cuz they’re not sure if they’re butting in front of them or not. The selection is limited; I kept praying to whatever deity to keep the one remaining chocolate chip cookie for me. Prayer answered. But no wine? What gives? I believe it’s a campus policy, and if so it’s one that sucks. I don’t NEED booze to laugh at a comedian, but I welcome the instigator. And the same guy who botched my order last time around (at the Urban Nutcracker show) is the same guy who served up a pre-packaged round of decaf that filled up about two-thirds of my 12-oz. cup. Sweet!

Enough whining. It took about 15 minutes to allow the late-arriving (and sold-out) audience members to find their seats. The crowd seemed of the same generation of the 48-year-old Poundstone, with lots of same-sex couples of either gender, and a smattering of Georgia Tech grad student types. Poundstone walked out in classic androgyny: black tuxedo slacks, black blazer, and a red-and-white print tie that almost looked patriotic, her gray hair washed out to a fine brunet.

“Thank you for coming to the tornado shelter!” she said by way of greeting to the audience, which was immediately taken. She proceeded to joke about how a native had informed her beforehand that tornadoes don’t usually come downtown, as if a tornado had such discriminating tastes, thinking to itself, “I want to avoid the Payless Shoe stores!” CNN proved a perfect next target, including Lou Dobb’s rampant xenophobia: “I heard that at the border they’re just putting up big, inflatable Lou Dobbs thingies along the border to stop those Canadians from coming across — and apparently it’s working.”

Other highlights …

* On the Democratic presidential primary, the choice of which she said was “like picking between two kittens, and having to leave the other in the basket, and it won’t have a home.”

* On Al Gore: “He’s all having fun with his Nobel Peace Prize, and at the Academy Awards with this movie, and he’s all on C-Span and testifying before Congress, and he’s smiling and having a good time … Why the fuck didn’t you do that when you were running for president?!” And with that, she conceded, “But to be honest, we Democrats tend to get our candidates from Gepetto’s workshop.”

* The audience: Poundstone found seemingly perfect foils in two audience members in different sections near the front toward the stage: a Georgia Tech student and a professor, both of whom (as luck would have it) were both in the “industrial engineering” field — one a student, one a teacher of the major. It’s all “you had to be there” stuff, but the way Poundstone politely mocked the idea of industrial engineering to both of them — the student clearly growing more annoyed as the joke caught fire — became a solid 20-minute routine that only got tired toward the end.

* Her self-deprecation: Just to let her audience targets know she’s in on the joke, Poundstone poked fun at her own quirks, most notably her admission of having obsessive-compulsive disorder (which was on full display during our podcast interview), confessing, “My show has been reviewed as a hostage crisis.”

Not quite, but if so, it was nice to be a prisoner for awhile.


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