Paula Goes to Harvard, Her Neurosis Follows
Paula Goes to Harvard by Paula Poundstone at Sanders Theatre October 23 Tickets $18
Paula Poundstone is brusque and freckled, with a crunchy Massachusetts accent. And she doesn't seem terribly eager to talk about her self.
Monday night, hundreds of students will pack into a flood-lit, camera-filled Sanders Theatre to hear her reveal her foibles. Poundstone is filming an HBO comedy special, "Paula Poundstone Goes to Harvard."
Poundstone's comedy career has run the gambit. She has appeared on The Tonight Show and Sesame Street, entertained audiences at the Oscars and the White House and written for publications ranging from Mother Jones to Glamour. Armed with this formidable resume and a selfdescribed desire "to be completely in charge," Poundstone should fit right in at Harvard.
In an interview with The Crimson from her Los Angeles home, however, Poundstone demurred at the thought.
"I don't identify with Harvard, which is why I jumped at the chance to do a special here. That's why this is fun, because I thought to myself, There's no way on earth I'll fit into a place like that.' I didn't even finish high school.... I like to read and I like to think, but I'm not really an academic," she says, "[It's] strange because I have khakis and a knapsack. I look like I should be a scholar but I'm not. It's sort of a new age nerdism look."
While looking forward to the event itself, Poundstone admits that she balks at the intrusion of cameras.
"I think it will be fun, but televised comedy's not really my thing. The place I feel greatest comfort is in front of a live audience. I get nervous with cameras everywhere. You've got directors telling you to look at this camera, look at this other camera... there are so many areas where you could screw up. There's so much pressure."
"I like it when I'm the producer, the director, the writer and the star. I guess I like it when I'm completely in charge.... We're fine, when it's just me and the audience, and we have an understanding. It's when you have to deal with all these other executive approvals and opinions that there's trouble."
After the comedy bust in the late '80s, only an elite of televised comedians survived. Poundstone is among that elite and endures the downside--five-minute spots on Letterman and failed sitcom pilots.
In this age of high-stakes televised stand-up, the moments that she craves--the uninterrupted contact between the audience and her--are few and far between. Working without the camera is no longer an option for a serious comedian. So Poundstone says she looks for ways to subvert the limitations of television.
"It has to do with the format," she chuckles. "With the Oscars and with Jay Leno, I was working within more parameters, but still, when things are live, it's the nature of the beast--they can't control me."
That's why she likes working with HBO.
"There's less pressure with an HBO special--it's not like not like a five-minute spot, it's not with a host. I feel like with HBO's format, I can be most like me. They won't make me do anything I don't want."
Still, Poundstone says she loves a live audience best. "It's a bit of a treasure--something happens that is just ours. I'm not going to go to another audience and say the same thing, because I can't. Half my act is based on big mistakes, and I just go from there. I don't think I could remember a tight script if I had it."
Poundstone is feisty, opinionated and spontaneous. But for someone who makes a career out of capitalizing upon unexpected mishaps, she is astonishingly directed. She knows where she is going, and where she wants to go--and has known this for a long time.
"I decided I wanted to be a standup comic when I was really little. I didn't know what a stand-up comic was, but I was familiar with the term comedian. Adults would always say things like 'You're such a comedian,' and I wanted to be who I was when they said that."
She had a rocky academic career at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High, and moved almost immediately to the comic arena, hitting the open mike at 19 and "doing things here and there" by 23. She didn't receive much parental support for her career move.
"My parents were very embarrassed at first," says Poundstone tightly. "I don't much know what they think of my work--I haven't talked to them in years. They gave me the message that it was one thing to be a failure privately, but to bring it to the public eye was unacceptable."
So Poundstone looked elsewhere for confirmation. She says the desire for validation is one thing that drives her, and recalls her first experience with The Tonight Show as evidence.
"I swear I almost had a breakdown. Johnny Carson is sitting a little behind you when you're up there performing. So while another performer is on, you can see the host getting his thoughts together. For some odd reason, I got up there and I was doing my act, working really hard, and then this little corner section of mind piped up and I started thinking, 'I wonder if Johnny likes me.' It just goes to show what kind of a bonehead I am. It will probably take years of therapy to get over it."
Poundstone is very firm about her work, and says that no one-neither audience nor executives--determines what goes into her work.
"In terms of my work," she says, "my opinion is most important."