An inventive and politically astute comedian, Paula Poundstone adhered to the same sort of observational techniques used by Mort Sahl, George Carlin or Ellen DeGeneres rather than relying on the quick quip or pre-fab jokes. She rose to prominence during the 1980s boom in comedy clubs. Poundstone's wry, improvisatory style and offbeat, off-the-cuff remarks delighted audiences and her popularity allowed her to make the transition from cult figure to TV star.
Born in Huntsville, Alabama but raised in Sudbury, Massachusetts, Poundstone began her career at "open mike" nights in Boston while still in her teens. Eschewing college, the aspiring performer headed to San Francisco and bused tables while waiting for her big break. After nearly a decade of nightclub appearances (many at The Other Cafe), Poundstone was ready for primetime and made her TV performing debut on Showtime's "Just for Laughs" in 1987. That same year, she was tapped to appear on HBO's "Women of the Night." After a stint as a consultant on the Showtime series "Poison" (1988), Poundstone made the first of numerous appearances on the annual "Comic Relief" HBO specials in 1989 and crossed over to basic cable with a guest appearance on "It's Garry Shandling's Show" (Fox).
1990 was the breakthrough year for the comedian, who often departed from her set routine to interact with the audience in a slightly detached manner. ("I have this theory that there's something there if you just ask enough questions," she told TIME OUT NEW YORK in March 1996 by way of explanation.) Headlining the HBO special "Paula Poundstone: Cats, Cops and Stuff," she struck a nerve with viewers and her efforts earned critical praise and a CableACE Award. The network then tapped her to host a comedy/talk show that was short-lived but spawned a cult following. She perhaps reached her widest audience to date in 1992 when she delivered her patented flip and dryly humorous observations on the US Presidential conventions for "The Tonight Show."
Although she made a rare dramatic appearance in a 1993 episode of NBC's "Reasonable Doubts" and was one of the female comics profiled in the documentary "Wisecracks" (1993), Poundstone had more or less found a niche as a commentator. This fact was brought to bear when her highly-touted, semi-improvised self-titled 1993 ABC variety series tanked after only two airings (one in L.A. due to technical difficulties). Audiences did not seem ready to accept her stream-of-conscious approach. (The unconventional series included interviews, sketches, man in the street reports, etc.) She was better served in small doses delivering deadpan comments backstage at the annual telecast of the Emmy Awards in 1993 and on the pre- and post-show programs at the 1994 Academy Awards. Poundstone made regular contributions to the PBS program "Life & Times" and was tapped to be a "roving correspondent" on syndicated "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" in 1997. In between, she executive produced and starred in a second HBO special "Paula Poundstone Goes to Harvard" in 1996.
Switching gears slightly, Poundstone gravitated to acting beginning with a recurring role on "Cybill" during the 1997-98 season. Like many of her contemporaries on the nightclub circuit (i.e., Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne, Brett Butler), she attempted to transplant her quirky persona into a sitcom, but Fox passed on the project. Instead, Poundstone used her experiences as a single mother raising foster children as the basis for an audio book project called "Completely Yours" and the animated series "Home Movies" (UPN, 1998-99) but once again audiences tuned out and the show was retired after only five episodes. Bouncing back, Poundstone next landed a gig as a regular panelist on the syndicated revival of the game show "To Tell the Truth" for the 2000-01 season.
Seemingly at the top of her game, Poundstone, who had adopted three children as well as served as foster parent to several others, saw her world collapse in June 2001 when she was arrested and charged with committing lewd acts on a child and child endangerment. Through her lawyer, she revealed that police in Santa Monica and Los Angeles had launched an investigation with which she was fully cooperating, so the arrest came as something of a surprise. The long-ranging effects on her life and career, of course, remain to be seen.
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Began performing comedy at "open mike" nights at local clubs
Moved to San Francisco (date approximate)
Early TV credit in the Showtime special "Just for Laughs"
Was one of the participants in the HBO comedy special "Women of the Night"
Served as an executive consultant on the Showtime series "Poison"
Made first of multiple appearances at "Comic Relief" (aired on HBO)
Guest starred in an episode of the Fox sitcom "It's Garry Shandling's Show"
Headlined the HBO special "Paula Poundstone: Cats, Cops and Stuff"; also wrote
Was one of the female comedians profiled in the documentary "Wisecracks"; released in the USA in 1993
Hosted HBO's "The Paula Poundstone Show", a comedy/talk program
Served as "official correspondant" for "The Tonight Show" during the US Presidential race
Made dramatic acting debut in an episode of NBC's "Reasonable Doubts"
During the annual telecast of the Emmy Awards, provided backstage commentary
Starred in the short-lived ABC variety series "The Paula Poundstone Show"
Was a commentator in the pre- and post-shows for the Academy Awards
Made contributions to the PBS program "Life & Times"; received L.A. Area Emmy nominations
Executive produced, wrote and starred in the HBO comedy special "Paula Poundstone Goes to Harvard"
Was a roving correspondant for the syndicated "Rosie O'Donnell Show"
Starred in the busted Fox sitcom pilot "Paula", loosely inspired by her life as a foster mom
Wrote episodes and voiced the lead character of a single mother raising two foster children in the animated series "Home Movies" (UPN)
Arrested and charged with committing lewd acts on a child and child endangerment; released on $200,000 bail; pleaded innocent at July 3rd arraignment
Admitted through her attorney that she was battling alcoholism (July)
On September 12, pleaded no contest to child endangerment on Wednesday in return for all sex charges to be dropped; sentenced to five years' probation and 180 days in an alcohol-treatment center in October; returned to court in November for violating probation and was briefly jailed; in December was released from rehab center and allowed to travel to fulfill performance commitments
Resumed performing career with an appearance in Santa Cruz, California (December 14)
Regained full legal custody of her three adopted children she lost last year after pleading no contest to child endangerment,