Paula Poundstone discusses her Colorado billboard campaign and headlining Aspen Laugh Fest
IF YOU GO …
Who: Paula Poundstone
Where: Aspen Laugh Festival, Wheeler Opera House
When: Thursday, Feb. 22, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $60
Tickets: Wheeler box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
Comedy legend Paula Poundstone has played Aspen a handful of times over her decades doing stand-up, but no show was as memorable as a 1992 set at the Wheeler Opera House.
This was during the backlash against Amendment 2, the state legislation that sought to prevent laws banning discrimination against gays. Many artists and performers were canceling Colorado shows over the bill, and Barbra Streisand organized a boycott campaign titled “Undo 2.” Poundstone had booked a show at the Wheeler and mulled canceling it in protest.
“If Barbra Streisand boycotts Colorado it means something,” Poundstone, who headlines the Aspen Laugh Festival at the Wheeler on Thursday, said in a recent phone interview, adding with characteristic self-deprecation: “If I do, it doesn’t.”
She decided to go ahead with the gig, based on the fact that Aspen did have long-standing gay rights protections on the books.
“It didn’t make sense to me to screw over the guys that asked me to work there and also to paint Aspen with the same brush as the rest of the state,” she recalled.
But rather than pocket her payment for the show, she spent all of it on billboards in Colorado Springs, where the conservative group Focus on the Family had hatched the anti-gay campaign. Her signs ended up covering much of the Front Range town.
“I didn’t realize how small Colorado Springs was,” Poundstone said with a laugh. “So it was dripping with these Paula Poundstone billboards.”
The comedian’s push back made statewide news and rankled the conservatives pushing the discriminatory legislation. On the day of her Wheeler performance, someone called in a death threat to the historic theater. Poundstone decided to go ahead with the show despite the threat. But then, in the middle of her set, there was a blackout in the Wheeler.
“All the lights in the theater went out and there was a minute when I went, ‘Well, it’s been a good run,’” she recalled.
But it was a simple coincidence. The lights went back on moments later and nobody, it turned out, was trying to harm Poundstone.
As she returns to the Wheeler on Thursday, Poundstone is bringing a show centering around her kids and her pets, with some politics and some Trump sprinkled in, along with a dose of the brilliant crowd work that has become her signature.
“I do it in the time-honored way of ‘What do you do for a living?’” she said. “Little bios of audience members emerge and I use that to set my sails.”
Most nights, Poundstone estimated, about one-third of her set is based on crowd work and completely unique to that night.
While comedy trends have come and gone, Poundstone said she doesn’t think the environments at shows or the reception of crowd work has changed much through the years. The difference for her, she said, is that now she gets to play big theaters with pleasant audiences and can avoid the two-drink-minimum crowds at comedy clubs these days.
“I’m not generally working to drunks,” she said. “So I can have some nice conversations with people as opposed to just ‘It’s her birthday!’”
Last year she published the memoir “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness,” in which Poundstone did experiments with activities believed to cause happiness. Of all the things she tried, Poundstone said, she’s stuck with three: practicing taekwondo, dancing and volunteering at a nursing home.
“For most of the chapters, I did whatever the variable was for that period of time, and then I didn’t do it anymore because I wanted to isolate the variables,” she said. “But with the nursing home I just didn’t feel right saying, ‘Well, I have what I need. Bye!’”
As for dancing, she likes the shock value: “I think I like the look on people’s faces when I say that I tap dance.”
Along with regular touring, Poundstone is a regular panelist on the popular NPR show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” and, until recently, hosted the NPR podcast “Live from the Poundstone Institute” with Adam Felber. NPR pulled the plug on the podcast, but she’s working on launching a new one with a similar mission soon.
Why? As she puts it: “Right now part of what defines a human being is that we have a long gestation period, we don’t eat our young and we have a podcast.”
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The Youth Art Expo will run Feb. 27 through March 14 at the Aspen Art Museum, showcasing work by young artists from Aspen to Rifle.