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Four years into her comeback, comedian Paula Poundstone recalls her early North Carolina days

Poundstone returns 

Four years into her comeback, comedian Paula Poundstone recalls her early North Carolina days

Whenever Paula Poundstone visits the region, those Earl Owensby flashbacks can never be very far behind. Owensby, the man who single-handedly brought Southern-fried B-grade filmmaking to Shelby, N.C. in the 1970s (Buckstone County Prison, Wolfman and Rottweiler: Dogs of Hell), enlisted Poundstone and Chris Elliott in a 1984 Star Wars spoof called Hyperspace.

It was at the beginning of their careers, and as she recalls, Hyperspace was one of the drive-in auteur's higher-concept works: "It was one of the few movies that Earl didn't star in that got made there," Poundstone reminisced ruefully when we spoke last week. "He starred in the Elvis story (Living Legend), I know that. So, yeah, I made a movie there. Not many of us can say that. It was actually really fun, as I recall."

Poundstone's Friday date at Durham's Carolina Theatre marks her first regional appearance since a 2001 drinking and driving incident threatened her custody of three adopted children and endangered a 20-year career in stand-up comedy. One particular irony of that legal and media gauntlet involved the degree to which gentle, humorous stories about the everyday stuff of domestic life has always figured into her work on stage. It still does.

Four years later, she's moved on; rebuilding her career, playing bigger houses, getting on with life. The children--Toshia, 13, Allison, 10 and Thomas E., 6--are fine. The rest of the menagerie in her Los Angeles home includes a "big, stupid dog," a bearded dragon lizard, an aging bunny and nine cats--including Hep Cat, who regularly answers readers' e-mail at the comedian's Web site (www.paulapoundstone.com).

We talked about the show she's bringing to Durham, how she regularly interviews the audience, and the changes she's noticed in audiences since the November elections....

Poundstone: Audiences seem a lot more at ease. Before the election, people were a little touchy, mostly on the Republican side.

But first of all, Democrats are used to losing. I have a lot of friends who talked about how depressed they were after the election. We're used to that, though. We're used to being depressed and we handle it very well--better than the Republicans would.

And the Republicans, now that they've won, they're laughing all the way to the bank. They don't care what jokes you make now.

Independent: What topics are you thinking about these days? What are you bringing to Durham?

Poundstone: My act in the main is autobiographical, so it sort of changes as I age I suppose. I talk about Abraham Lincoln. Raising my children. Being the world's absolute worst licensed driver...

Abraham Lincoln?

I'm an admirer. I wanted to look for people I could compare myself to well. Yeah, I think it's mostly just the beard, but ... I talk about schooling children, which is a big, huge, unfathomable pain in the butt. I've worked harder at my kids' education than I ever did at my own--but I will say my math skills are improving.

I know interviewing the audience is an important part of your work...

It's usually the best part of the show.

...and I'm wondering how you got started doing it.

I could have started doing it because I couldn't remember my act more than anything else. I would get on stage with my five minutes when I first started, and promptly forget my five minutes. I was kind of stuck saying "Where do you live? What do you do for a living?"

I don't know, I got pretty good at it. Because I like to do it, it's a little like conducting sometimes. There's all sorts of great stuff out in the audience, and it's just a matter of bringing up the strings at the right moment. I start with one person, and weave in and out from my regular stuff to that. It kind of ties it up in a little bow sometimes--not always.

It's interesting. One of the shows Spalding Gray used to do involved interviewing the audience--and nothing more. That was the whole evening.

I think if I didn't have to get laughs, man, that would be great, because everybody certainly has things of interest to say.

Unfortunately, I'm stuck with just the one--generally speaking, when you're a comic, there's only one response that's considered of any value at all. It's an area where I really envy folk singers.

I'm probably not as "rat-a-tat" as some comedians, but believe me, it's my goal to be funny. I have a more sort of loping pace than some...

That's a marvelous way of putting that...

Well it is kind of loping. And when I'm talking with the audience, first of all, I don't want to make everybody into some sort of--I don't know--cackling joke. When I do talk to the audience, the difference between me and other actors is I'm just willing to leave the line out there longer than other people.

I dunno. I generally find something.

You're working on a book. Oops--you've been working on a book, right?

For an embarrassingly long time. Since M*A*S*H first began taping. I'm embarrassed to say my son wasn't even born when I started.

Really, in his lifetime he'll just think that people are always working on a book. It's no wonder he doesn't like to do homework: He doesn't understand that you're ever actually supposed to complete it.

I always say it's because I'm writing it in real-time--in between the leaky roof and walking the dog and buying someone a new backpack and taking the kids to gymnastics.

It's the same thing with writing my act. Sometimes I have a new crop of ideas and thoughts and it seems to flow very easily, and other times it's "Man, it's been a long time since I've been struck by anything."

But I tend to be more prolific when I'm working.

Poundstone brings her Big Picture tour to the Carolina Theatre on Friday, March 4. Tickets are $21-$24; call 560-3040 or visit www.carolinatheatre.org to get tickets.

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