By Owen Bryant
It goes without saying, Reno has earned a decent—albeit humble—standing in pop culture over the years. We’ve made it into hit movies like “Sister Act” and “The Muppets.” We even had our own TV show, accurately depicting the real-life encounters of the local police force on “Reno 911.” So, it should come as no surprise that when a comic comes to town, they’ll have no lack of material at their disposal.
Comedy veteran Paula Poundstone rolled through last weekend, performing at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts. She certainly relied on Reno’s endearing charm to get herself through her set. Surprisingly, she did it in a most loving way, which was welcome to a city that’s usually the butt of a lot of jokes.
Poundstone, a regular guest on NPR’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!,” welcomed the crowd dressed in a flashy red and white candy stripe three-piece suit, with just a stool and a can of soda to keep her company. Long, messy hair in her face, she didn’t put a lot of work into her look, but that only added to her awkward-yet-sharp-as-a-tack persona.
Indeed, the comedienne came across as extremely awkward. She had a Jeff Goldblum-ish stutter and a habit of starting sentences and never actually finishing them. She also speaks with a vaguely Northeastern cadence despite her upbringing in the Deep South.
She didn’t pack the house, but it’s apparent that there are plenty of Renoites who know and love her dearly. And she loves her audience right back. In fact, that’s her specialty. A lot of Poundstone’s schtick is audience interaction, and it was refreshing to see someone improvise most of her set by interacting with her fans, instead of a well-rehearsed train of jokes.
Paula chose an easy opening with a slew of jokes about COVID and politics. But she quickly directed her attention to the people in front of her. She would stop and address individuals in the crowd, asking who they were and what they did, and etc.
One man who shared his career at North Valleys High School became the impetus for an entire night of jokes. If Reno has North Valleys, then certainly there are South Valleys, right? We all know that’s not true, but Poundstone took that and ran with it. The South Valleys immediately became the punchline to many jokes and the audience loved it.
She also didn’t fail to mention Reno’s classy adult revue scene, referencing how she passed Fantasy Girls earlier that day, which immediately elicited the question from an audience member: “What were you doing on Fourth Street?”
“Looking for a job…” she replied, all too innocently.
Apparently being a comedienne during COVID hasn’t been paying the bills. She gave us her best audition as a pole dancer, unenthusiastically grabbing her mic stand, walking a circle, and licking her lips in a way no one wants to see. But it was funny! For a self-professed asexual, Poundstone surely knows how to capitalize on sexual humor.
While her crowd work is something to admire (that kind of improv is difficult to master) there were some jokes that fell flat. It seemed sometimes she tried to squeeze in some punchlines that seemed too rehearsed. I can’t think of any right now, and that’s probably telling. Poundstone’s best material were the unrehearsed bits.
Poundstone is a master at working her audience. Also a queer icon, it was so funny when she addressed a man in the front row who happened to be in the middle of five brothers, three of whom are gay, including himself. And their mother owned a yogurt company called Flying Fruit Fantasy. She handled that with just enough grace and comedy to make everyone howl. Just in time for Pride season.
Poundstone may not be a household name, and her brand of humor certainly isn’t for everyone. Her awkward, queer, stuttering character isn’t anything new, but it is genuine.
I went into the show not knowing anything about her aside from remembering her name and face from some past appearances. But I came away feeling like I had a conversation with someone who really wanted to connect with her audience. And that she did.