There's something calming and familiar about her voice. Perhaps it's from having heard her regularly on NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me, or from having listened to her stand-up albums on repeat so many times over the years. More likely, though, it's just the ease and tone of how she speaks. The nervousness I feel when I dial her number dissipates nearly immediately as I hear her say, "Hey, this is Paula Poundstone."
Poundstone isn't a stranger to the North Coast. She's performed at Center Arts before and when I ask if she enjoys spending time in Humboldt County, she's quick to reply, "I keep coming back, so I must," with a laugh. "If I didn't, then I would get off stage and call my people and say, 'OK, don't ever do that again.'" Despite her repeat visits, Poundstone hasn't had much of a chance to do any sightseeing while she's been here. She definitely recalls our uniquely tiny airport, though. "Yeah, flying out of Humboldt is a hassle." She rarely gets to spend much time at any of the stops on her comedy tours, a testament to how hard she works. There's no time to lounge when you've gotta head out the next gig so quickly. "I wouldn't say it's a grindstone," she says with a chuckle, adding, "I'm hoping somebody invents an electric plane soon."
It's easy to understand that the pandemic took its toll on Poundstone's work ethic. Her current tour has been going since February, but for the first 15 months of COVID-19 she was stuck at home, like the rest of us. She recounts flying home from the first canceled show, right at the dawn of the pandemic, describing the confusion and unease of everyone on the plane. "Everybody looked so scared, sort of mistrustful of one another," she says. Not to be deterred, though, Poundstone joined the ranks of so many other performers who were turning to social media as an outlet for creativity. She began to make funny videos and focus on her podcast "Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone." You've gotta work to make money and that's what she did for as long as she could. In the summer of 2021, as things slowly started opening back up again, Poundstone hit the road again. And, then came the Omicron variant and everything stopped once again.
Poundstone's comedic style is unique. She has an ability to riff and improvise with the crowd that not many other comedians are able to pull off. But 15 months of not being in front of an audience is an incredibly long time for someone who has thrived on it for as long as she has. She described it like a muscle gone weak from disuse. "It's like playing a sport, you have to keep it up ... you can get a little rusty," she says.
It's hard to talk about the state of comedy and a global pandemic without veering slightly into the world of politics. "We should be using this time to combat the world's problems," she says, a tinge of frustration in her voice. It's a tone similar to the one she used when discussing the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, a tone that comes with a bit of fear and some angst. Poundstone very clearly wants to make the world a happier place to be and humor is one step in the right direction in terms of happiness. "I want to stay connected, to cheer people up."
Poundstone won a CableACE award for her 1990 HBO special Cats, Cops and Stuff and now she is bringing the show on a U.S. tour. With Poundstone's style, it's rare for her to do the exact same material from show to show. The version you can see at Center Arts is likely to be an extemporaneous take on older material, bringing it to the modern era.
You can check out Paula Poundstone's Cats, Cops and Stuff at the John Van Duzer Theater on the Cal Poly Humboldt campus July 30 at 8 p.m. General Admission tickets are $45. All attendees 12 and older need to have proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative test for admission.
Henry Ellis (he/him) has been a freelancer with the Journal since 2011; he has never made a deadline.