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Center Stage

Random acts of inspiration

6/18/2014

Paula Poundstone will perform at Hoyt Sherman Place on Saturday, June 21, 8 p.m.

Paula Poundstone will perform at Hoyt Sherman Place on Saturday, June 21, 8 p.m.

Imagine you’re a teenager with dreams of being a comedian. The local club has an open mic night, but you’ve only got five minutes to make ’em laugh. You spend all day rehearsing, preparing your routine as you bus tables, and when that moment comes to step up to the mic — your mind goes blank.

Some might consider this a nightmare scenario. But for comedian Paula Poundstone, these moments of amnesia were the keys to her career, she said in a phone interview last week.

“When I got up there, I’d forget,” she admits. “So I just started using what I saw around me. Something I heard in line or noticed out in the audience. You could hear them sharpening their knives.”

This was back in the early 1980s in her hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. Time and time again, Poundstone had to improvise at the mic. After a while, she noticed the people who ran the club were letting her stay longer than five minutes.

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“Finally it occurred to me that this was the joy of the night,” she said.

So Poundstone hit on what’s become her signature as a comedian — the off-the-cuff reaction. Her ad-libs light up National Public Radio (NPR) every week on “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” a show she “practically hipchecks” other panelists out of the way in order get off a good quip, she says. She is likewise spontaneous in her work for “The Tonight Show.” Since the presidential election of 1992, Poundstone has served as that show’s “correspondent” at the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

“I bring the everyman perspective,” she says of such reporting. “I mean, I was shocked to learn that it was all Phoneyville. I actually believed that those placards everyone’s waving, that those were made at home, out of personal convictions.”

These eye-opening moments have gotten Poundstone labeled a political or feminist comic who is dedicated to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) causes. Yet she insists that what she’ll bring to the stage at Hoyt Sherman on June 21 “is just my act; it’s just comedy.”

An act that relies more on preparation than ad-libbing.

“I’ll actually come in with something from my book as a guidepost,” she said.

Poundstone has always respected literary culture — she’s a spokesperson for the American Library Association — and she’s pulling together a follow-up to her 2006 best-seller, “There’s Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say.” Onstage, she’ll use some of the work in progress, even trying out bits that don’t seem to get much response.

“Comics do that,” she says. “We come back to favorites, even when we’re not hearing a lot of laughter out there.”

But that’s Paula Poundstone — seizing on random inspiration and taking it out of bounds.

Overheard in the Lobby: Up in Ankeny and Ames, they’re featuring musical theater, and down in Winterset the Hitchcock spoof, “39 Steps.” CV   

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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