"That's life, that's what all the people say/You're riding high in April/Shot down in May/But I know I'm gonna change that tune/When I'm back on top, back on top in June.'
If anyone embodies the spirit of that old Frank Sinatra chestnut, it's standup comic Paula Poundstone, even if she's a month or two off.
Watch Paula Poundstone's video introducing herself to Canada.
Back in April of 2001, Poundstone was sitting pretty. She'd been in the comedy game for 22 years, with numerous television specials, awards, and talk-show appearances to her credit. She had even branched out and become a weekly columnist for Mother Jones magazine.
Then, in June of that year, Poundstone was arrested on a felony warrant for three counts of committing a lewd act on an unidentified girl under the age of 14. She was also charged with endangering four other children by driving while intoxicated. When the dust settled, Poundstone accepted a plea agreement. The three charges of lewd conduct were dropped and she pled no contest to child endangerment.
Career suicide for the autobiographical comic, no? For others, maybe, but not Poundstone. Four hours in jail, 180 days in rehab, and five years on probation isn't enough to keep her down.
"I consider myself truly the luckiest person in the world,' she says on the phone from her home in Los Angeles, sounding like the spokesperson for agathism.
She's talking about the fact that she still has a career when so many of the comedians she started out with have long since faded away. But even through the bad times, she didn't fear losing the thing she does best: making people laugh.
"Things were altered for sure,' she says. "A lot of people decided that they didn't like me. But you know what? A lot of people didn't.'
She credits her three adopted children—who spent 18 months in foster care throughout the ordeal and for whom she says she'd "walk through fire'—and a "big wild, nutty dog' that demanded walks every day as her saviours. While she was out on her daily doggy duties, people would approach her and want to talk.
"I was walking one day and a lady actually pulled over and got out of her car and said, ”˜Can I give you a hug?' And you know what? I said yes. It was a really interesting time. And no, I never thought that my core audience would dump me. And I was right.'
One unfortunate side effect of our media-driven society, though, is that once a rumour or charge is out there, it ain't going away. So to this day, there are people who only know the juicy headlines.
"I understand that a lot of times when people plea-bargain that it's sort of the best that the D.A. can do, and they're letting them get away with some things in order to just nail them on other things,' says Poundstone. "So I think one of the things that happened was people assumed, ”˜Oh, there must have been more.' But in truth, with Paula Poundstone, to some degree, I think, what you see is what you get. So I pled to what I did and nothing more. And that's why they dropped the other charges”¦ I didn't ”˜get away' with a bloody fucking thing. I paid the price for the mistakes that I made. And I deeply regret those mistakes.
"You know,' she says before a long pause, "I screwed up badly. I have sort of paid the price that one is sentenced to pay; I did every last thing they told me that I had to do.”¦And what was really great—because some of this shit went on for a really long time—was that I had this audience that came to see me. I told my jokes. I told jokes about that experience and”¦ I don't know. Everything was kind of back in place and you build and you do. Hence the Facebook, hence the Twitter.'
And hence YouTube. Poundstone says that after she took the gig at the River Rock Show Theatre next Thursday (April 16), her manager told her that nobody in Vancouver knows her, and that she should make a home movie to introduce herself to Canadians. Her representation may be stressing out unnecessarily, but Poundstone got to work, producing a clip just for us, which she posted to the video-sharing Web site. In it, she dresses in a goalie mask because of our love of hockey, and starts to disrobe because of our love of bare-naked ladies.
It's a good effort, but nothing beats her idiosyncratic comedy routine, in which she weaves comedic gold from audience interaction as well as literally lying down on the job and doing some foot-puppet theatre. She's not on Comedy Central's list of the top 100 standup comics of all time for nothing. (Number 88 with a bullet, beating out the likes of Kevin James, Louis CK, and Janeane Garofalo.)
Her quirky sense of humour never dissipated, even through the public humiliation, which she felt shouldn't have been so public. It's what's kept her both sane and on top of her game.
"I think that that's my general reaction to most things,' she says. "That's another reason to consider myself very lucky. When I was dealing with all that, I would talk to people and get laughing so hard we couldn't breathe anymore. And it was one of those things where it was a better approach than anything else, I guess.'
Like the never-say-die character Sinatra portrays in "That's Life', Poundstone's "been up and down and over and out'. Today, though, she's back in the race.