It was impossible to interview comedian Paula Poundstone so soon after the death of Robin Williams without offering her my condolences on the loss of her friend.
"Thank you very much," Poundstone replies. "My daughter said that she was looking on social networking last night and that Billy Crystal had tweeted ‘No words.’ And I guess I would have to second that. I’m stunned. I feel like the world is upside down; it just doesn’t make any sense. But there you go, y’know?"
Williams saw Poundstone (who is performing Friday at the One World Theatre) do her act in San Francisco in the early ‘80s and gave her a national television spot on a ninth-season episode of "Saturday Night Live" he was hosting.
"He was nothing but kind and generous to me and the truth is nobody of my — we always called it a ‘graduating class’ in terms of comics — I don’t think any of us would be working if not for Robin, because he made the form exciting again," she says.
"And, boy, it’s so much fun to do."
Poundstone chatted with me from the basement of the Ross’, a family who lived across the street from her childhood home in Sudbury, Mass. (the family has since moved to the Cape). She was out of breath, having just lost a pingpong match with her "oldest friend in the world" who she’s known since they were both 2 years old.
"We have an intense rivalry," Poundstone says. "Apparently I’ll have to come back again next year, because I can’t have this hanging over the family honor."
She explains how her childhood days in her friend’s home informed her comedic style: "We would be down in the Ross’ basement playing as kids, and we would roar with laughter over lord knows what. It didn’t matter. We’d have so much fun."
When she got older and decided to venture into comedy, she wanted the crowd to have the same feeling she and the other children had in the Ross’ basement, "That everybody was an important part of what was happening and that it was like our special gathering and you laugh at stuff that you couldn’t possibly explain to somebody later."
That love of spontaneity has carried over to Poundstone’s act in the form of "crowd work," and she is regarded as one of the best in the business at drawing laughs from conversations with strangers from her audience.
"My manager used to tell people that I knew who to choose, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I have no idea," the comic admits. "The truth is, you grab anybody and you get talking to them for a couple of minutes … and you find out that they’re delightful and mad as a hatter! When I talk to somebody little biographies tend to emerge and I use that from which to set my sails."
An inability to memorize a set and her natural talent for tangents would get Poundstone into trouble as a fledgling standup. Allotted five minutes at a club, she would get off track and go way over time before noticing the angry glares from the comics waiting to go on. Eventually, it dawned on her that the real joy of the whole thing was not having a path.
"It’s the fun part," she says. "I mean, I have jokes. I have 35 years of jokes. I go on wanting to tell certain stories, for sure. They’re sort of in the side of my brain somewhere in a cabinet."
Poundstone credits her longevity to her fans, the fact that she loves her job and the communal experience of nights of live laughter.
"It’s so important for people to be together," she says. "The experience of going out to laugh for the night is a great thing. A lot of people come up to me after the show and say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the hardest I’ve laughed in x amount of time’ and I always say to them, ‘Well, don’t let that much time go by again.’"