Stand-up comic Paula Poundstone reflects on memorable 1992 Aspen performance
Editor’s Note: The Thursday night Paul Poundstone show at the Wheeler Opera House has been canceled.
The stand-up comedy mainstay Paula Poundstone has played Aspen regularly over her decades doing stand-up — as far back as the 1980s and as recent as her Aspen Laugh Fest spot in 2018.
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 Wheeler on March 12, said during her last stop in town. “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 recalled with a laugh. “So it was dripping with these Paula Poundstone billboards.”
The comedian’s pushback 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.
In 2017 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 host of the “Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone” podcast with Adam Felber.
“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.”
Poundstone was scheduled to return to the Wheeler this week with new material and the brilliant crowd work that has become her signature, riffing with audience members. Most nights, Poundstone estimated, about one-third of her set is based on crowd work and completely unique to that night.
Her Aspen show was canceled Thursday afternoon, according to a tweet from Poundstone.
“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.”
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While the rest of the festival’s performance program was announced in the spring, the opening concert by the Festival Orchestra had remained blank.