Paula Poundstone drew one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen in a while at the Garde Arts Center, with more than a thousand fans packed in.
Introducing the comic Friday, Garde Executive Director Steve Sigel noted that the theater’s next show is “Elvis Lives,” and he said of Poundstone, “Right now, she has sold more tickets than Elvis.”
Yes, Poundstone is on a roll, thanks, in part, to wider exposure via NPR’s news quiz show “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!” She’s always been hilarious, but there’s nothing like a national platform to remind everyone of that.
Poundstone was dressed to kill in a zoot suit — whose fabric consisted of electric-blue and black stripes. Her outfit might have been outrageous, but her onstage persona wasn’t. Poundstone was unassuming and, when interacting with the crowd, entertainingly bemused.
Her ability to improvise is legendary, and that was where she really shone Friday. Clearly, theatergoers know she likes to interact with the audience, because a few folks were already yelling out to her at the top of the show. One woman bellowed, “Librarians love you, Paula!” That set Poundstone off on a riff about librarians’ pitched battles over the Dewey Decimal system.
Yes, this is a comic who can find the funny in virtually any topic.
Unlike, say, Steven Wright, whose jokes are often compact one-liners, Poundstone works with humor that spins off into different directions and, in unexpected ways, builds on itself. She turned a man’s reveal that he was retired from Northeast Utilities into a recurring gag throughout the evening — which only got funnier each time she managed to weave in the NU/storm-power-outage references in fresh new ways.
She quizzed that audience member about what he did with his time now that he’s retired and heard how he liked to buy and sell things on eBay. What has he sold recently? A radio part. What has he bought? A part for his 3-D printer. Poundstone furrowed her brow, looked quizzical, and asked in a kindly way, “You ever get anything whole? Just an idea. You don’t have to.”
Her material galloped among all sorts of subjects — her three kids, her 16 cats, Drake-versus-Hostess snack cakes, and her ability to turn talk about historical figures into something about herself (if Martin Luther King Jr. showed up one night and told her he had a dream, she’d respond, “I had one, too, only in mine ...”).
She even dealt with religion, saying she’s an athiest but wouldn’t turn up on anyone’s doorstep to try to convert them. After all, she said, what would she do, ask them to look at a blank book?
Poundstone even managed to mine comedy from the very unlikely subject of Ginnie Wade, the only civilian killed during the Battle of Gettysburg. Wade was apparently baking bread at the time. Poundstone isn’t usually big on physical comedy, but her imitation of Wade kneading and rolling dough as a battle raged outside was genius.
The show ran close to an hour and three-quarters, and there were times where things lagged a bit. But that’s probably inevitable.
Toward the end of the performance, Poundstone did a variation on the old “thanks for being a great crowd” send-off a couple of times but then added, comically, “I’m going to miss you.”
Based on the audience reaction, the feeling was mutual.