The other day I was watching a rerun of Major Crimes that a friend of mine, Adam Belanoff, had written. And what I'd forgotten was that it had a very small, funny cameo performance in it by Paula Poundstone playing herself. (Though it was unsurprising since Adam is that rarity of TV writers, with a career that not only covered being on the staff of procedural dramas, but also such sitcoms as Murphy Brown. But I digress...
The good episode aside, It was a treat because I'm a big fan of Paula Poundstone, who these days, among other things, is a fairly regular panelist on the PBS quiz show I post a segment from each week, Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!
For all the things in her work I love, two stand out for me.
The first occurred one year at the Consumer Electronics Show, I was wandering the show floor – and noticed that some vendor had hired her to bring attention to their booth. This is a periodic occurrence at CES, though usually the celebrity stands that the booth and signs autographs. But this was different -- here, she was wandering the area around the booth with a microphone and interacting with show visitors, basically doing a totally ad-libbed comedy act. I had lots of places to go, but couldn’t leave. After all, I had a “free Paula Poundstone show” only 20 feet away – and she was incredibly funny. No script, nothing planned, just talking with all the people who had gathered (and a lot of people had gathered). And it was so funny and consistently so, no lulls. Eventually I did have to leave and actually do my job, but I stayed for about 15-20 minutes. And if I ever needed proof at how good she was, that occasion just wandering around would have done it.
The other was one of the funniest things I’ve seen, an HBO special that Paula Poundstone did at a college. At one point, she was talking with a girl in the audience, and the conversation got around to the girl’s roommate. At which point, Paula got the phone number for her dorm room and called the girl's roommate on a cell phone she bowered from another audience member. And for five minutes, all we heard was her side of the conversation, and the auditorium was in hysterics. What made the phone call so special and a total joy was because it showed her rare craft – after all, it’s one thing to carry on a funny ad-libbed conversation with someone…that's good enough... but to only hear her side of a totally random conversation and be that funny is remarkable. It's as well-structured and paced that it could be a Bob Newhart monologue. But it's just her ad-libbing on the phone.
Over the years, I’ve tried to find it on YouTube to post it here, but I don’t have enough unique information to track it down. I do still look periodically, though.
And after trading emails with Adam about his show and about Paula Poundstone and getting her on the show, it prompted me to try again to find that HBO special – and I found it!!!! It’s takes place at Harvard. And it’s as funny as I remember it.
The passage with her calling is a total joy. But the whole segment is a treat when she first begins talking with the girl in the audience, who is the roommate that leads into the call. Just wonderful. (The girl has the most wonderful laugh, and is clearly having the time of her life chatting. In fact, I suspect that Poundstone saw her laughing so happily the whole show which might be why she called on her.) And I've edited the concert and embedded this 10-minute segment below.
(During the segment, Poundstone periodically turns to a guy in the audience who she'd had an exchange with earlier. They're very funny -- and the audience loves it -- but out of context, the point of the quips will be lost. To make her asides in clear segment clear, and what her jokes relate to is that the fellow designs furniture for correctional facilities)
The whole show is wonderful, and if you want to watch the full thing, you can find it here. And this full segment is a treat. But it's that five minutes on the phone with the roommate that is quintessential Poundstone.
Mainly, though, I’m thrilled to have finally found it. With a thanks for the prompting assist from Adam Belandoff.for having Paula Poundstone in his episode…
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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