PING PONG, POP TARTS, AND PINEAPPLES: Comedian Paula Poundstone on the Rewards of Moving Forward

by David Lefkowitz

(this article was first published in November 2017)

“I have struggled to overcome loneliness, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, alcohol, terrible loss, and both public and private failure, but the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness from not being able to put a film up on Facebook may be insurmountable.”

That quote, from Paula Poundstone’s recently published second book, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, pretty much sums up the veteran comedian’s take on the universe. If life has handed her lemons—particularly ones she grew on her own tree—she now takes a sip, acknowledges the sourness, and then adds just enough sugar for a laugh.

To be sure, few people were laughing at Poundstone in 2001, when she was arrested for being a danger to her three adopted and two foster children. Public acknowledgement of the humorist’s alcohol addiction was one hurdle—a failing not exactly unheard of for celebrities—and she did admit to driving under the influence while her kids were in the car. But the remaining three charges were explosive: performing lewd acts on a child under the age of 14. Those allegations were dropped as part of a deal wherein Poundstone pleaded no contest to one felony (for child abuse) and one misdemeanor (for child injury), while agreeing to do five years probation.

Those years were completed a decade ago, after which followed a long stretch of rebuilding her name, finding concert venues willing to take her back, offering a public mea culpa in her 2006 autobiography, There is Nothing In This Book That I Meant To Say; and, most of all, finding a platform that would prove to a wide audience just how off-the-cuff funny she could still be. Actually, Poundstone was serving as a panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! even before her self-destruction, but recent years have seen the program leap in popularity—in no small part owing to quips delivered by the 57-year-old comedian in her husky, ever-perplexed voice.

In town Dec. 1 for a gig at The Paramount Theater in Huntington, the Alabama-born author owns her past, jokes about her present, and promotes her book, which, as its title suggests, charts numerous attempts to immerse herself in projects that will bring her quantifiable measures of happiness (which she calls “heps”). Whether it be binging on watching movies, studying martial arts, or simply trying to de-hoard her mess of a house, the experiments tend to succeed and fail in equal measure—surely as sensible a metaphor for life as any.

Asked in our phone interview which of her endeavors proved the most fulfilling overall, Poundstone admitted it was “the stuff we were always told”: to exercise and help others. “One day I was walking down the alley carrying trashbags with 30 pounds of cat waste and kitty litter in them, and it dawned on me that I felt really good,” the comedian chuckled. “It had to be the exercising, because I’ve carried litter down the street before, and it never made me feel particularly good. Plus, I’d had a couple of really depressing, sad things happen during that experiment, so had I not been receiving the ongoing `heps’ of happiness, those things would have towed me under like a big wave.” As for the good-samaritan gambit, Poundstone noted, “I volunteer at a nursing home a couple of mornings a week. Again, it’s what we’ve been told: to make yourself feel better, make somebody else feel better.”

Though the Alabama-born comedian still enjoys taking swing classes she started during her “Get Up and Dance” phase, other health regimens have fallen a bit by the wayside. “I had been taking private taekwondo classes four times a week, and I was in pretty good shape then. But now I’m only home so many days a week, and I have all these goddamn cats to take care of. Also, it’s that weird part of the human condition. The things that make me feel best I won’t do on my own. I know vigorous exercise helped me, but when I’m by myself, I get to the point where I think, `Oh, I’m gonna vomit,’ and I stop. Whereas with a trainer, he’d just say, `Keep going.’ I know me pretty well by now, and I would not say that to myself.

“Even volunteering,” Poundstone continues. “I schedule it, I do it, but I don’t leap out of bed and say, `Ooh! Volunteering today!’”

Healthy eating, too, is a goal more appreciated than easily achieved. “My middle daughter is a vegan,” says the humorist, “and she’s influenced me—even though every vegan meal is not necessarily a low-caloric meal or even terribly healthy. But I do swing more towards vegetables and healthy foods than I ever did before in my life. For the longest time, one of the hallmarks of my act was talking about Pop Tarts. Audience members would bring them to me. The Chicago Tribune did a story about Pop Tarts history, and their timeline included a picture of me. But a couple of years ago, when I was doing the experiments, I thought, `My Pop Tart years are over.’”

“It doesn’t help,” Poundstone continued, “that I have a very sedentary life. Half of my week is flying, plus I get up at crazy hours to be driven to the airport. As soon as I’m in the hotel, I order food and fall asleep, so I come home pretty porky. I did buy a desk treadmill, but I forget to turn it on. When I do, I sometimes put on Breaking Bad because I need something compelling to bribe myself to stay on that stupid thing.”

Reminded that it takes discipline to finish a book, Poundstone countered, “This book took me seven years to write; the one before it took nine. In fact, when I went into Human Happiness, I thought, `this couldn’t possibly take as long as the last one.’ I really set a low bar for speed. But it’s the reality of being a single, working mom. As a standup, I have a notebook and a thousand little pieces of paper all over my desk. After all these years, I think I have a certain rhythm of having ideas and then putting them out there. It’s more like breathing than scheduling. I tell myself that if I sat in a room saying, `Now I’m going to think of ideas,’ I wouldn’t be able to. Maybe I would. But ehhh, this is the way I’ve done it.”

When asked if computers have made it easier to organize material and promote her work  now than when she started more than three decades ago, Poundstone railed against the evils of our wired-up age. “So many of our kids are going down the horrible rabbit hole of gaming and texting,” she said. “It’s to the degree that they can’t look one another in the eye because they don’t know how to communicate.” Granting that a friend’s son, who suffered from severe cerebral palsy, was helped by digital technology, Poundstone also admitted that one of her own children suffered from electronic addiction: “When my son was little, we couldn’t get help for him or even admit that such a thing existed—which was mind boggling to me because it so clearly fell into the category of addiction. Now there’s a lot of literature on it. No real solution, but at least identifying the problem and warning new parents: no screens in front of little kids! None, zero. I’ve seen strollers that have a hook for the iPhone so that it hangs down in front of the baby’s face. Maybe 75 percent of the women I see walk by with kids in strollers are either on the device themselves, or, worst-case scenario, the kids are on one, too. Kids can be amused by everything in the world around them; they don’t need a screen to look at! It’s a really weird world we live in.”

No stranger to addiction herself, Poundstone has been sober for a decade and a half, but you won’t find her attending any AA meetings. “Oh God no,” she laughed. “I was court-ordered to meetings for five years, but that ended ten years ago.” The comedian noted that her atheism conflicts with the modus operandi of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is very “God-based.” She added that when she was in rehab and kept complaining about AA’s religious nature, “they made a faux effort to find me a different group. My counselor showed me a flier at one point, and I said, `Great!’ So I was driven to this address on this flyer, and no one was there. Maybe it was so secretive, you had to know the special knock.”

Poundstone certainly gives AA credit for being accessible and for grouping her with other addicts who offered encouragement and helpful ideas, but she worries that the government’s reliance on AA as the go-to organization for sobriety has slowed down research into more scientific treatments of addictions. “In fact,” she added, “AA would not call what I do `sobriety.’ They’d say I’m `white knuckling’ because they consider sobriety only going to their meetings and doing their steps.

“I remember several years ago,” she continued, “when Robin Williams relapsed after not drinking for 20 years. He came out of rehab, and my manager saw him on some daytime talk show. The host asked him, `Why would you drink?’ And he said, `I thought I could.’ I don’t know why my manager told me that, but I often think to myself, `I am an admirer of Robin’s. And if he couldn’t do it, then who the fuck am I?’ He was the canary in the cage for me.”

Because children were involved in Poundstone’s darkest actions, she realizes there are corporate gigs she will never get and people who will never forgive her. “There’s nothing I can do about that,” she stated. “I get up every day and try my best to make the world a better place. I will live the rest of my life with some strong percentage of regret and guilt for the mistakes I’ve made. I deserve that. But that doesn’t move anything forward. I can’t go back over my life with a giant eraser.

“The devil drink—or any kind of addiction,” she explained, “shuts down the judgment part of your brain. The frontal lobe is where planning, decision making, understanding consequences, and self-control are. So I made decisions that were the polar opposite of the kind of person that I hope to be. The idea that I endangered my children—I writhe in hell over that. But that doesn’t help them. So I do my best to sally forth, get my act together, and be the best parent I can be. And if there are people who don’t forgive me, okay, they don’t forgive me. We’re probably not gonna be in one another’s orbits, anyway. They’re not gonna come to my ping-pong parties.”

Poundstone isn’t being facetious. She’s been hosting table-tennis get-togethers since her twenties—a social outlet for a woman who doesn’t date and has openly declared herself asexual. Having visited people in the nursing home who are “totally alone,” the comedian doesn’t completely dismiss the idea of finding a partner much later in life, but for now, “the audience is my best friend. I tell my daughter that someday I may experiment and go out with someone. I’m not a monk. I haven’t made an oath. It’s just that on the list of things to do, it’s pretty far down there. I mean, to go in my bedroom and see someone there with whom I have to have an activity? It’s just upsetting to me. Plus, I’m tired all the time, and to my knowledge, I don’t have a sex drive. So for now, I like to play ping pong.”

And to appear on Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!. The comical Q&A program allows Poundstone to mock current events—almost always from a left-wing perspective—though she avoids political hard sell in her stand-up. “I do talk about politics in my act,” she said, “but I’m not an analyst, and I’m not a historian or an expert. I’m open to the possibility that I’m sometimes wrong. But politics is part of my life, and my act is largely autobiographical. People can get mad because they disagree with me, but I respond that we all have far more in common than we have differences. It’s just that it’s my turn with the microphone.”

In fact, Poundstone’s favorite Wait Wait moment to date was both political and universal. “One time we were in Berkeley,” she recalled, “and there was a sign-language interpreter onstage. [Writer and satirist] Adam Felber was on the program with me, and we were watching the signer. Peter Sagal [the host] asked a question that included a quote from Ronald Reagan about passing the budget. And he said something to the effect of doing that was like trying to crap a pineapple. Well, when he said that, both Adam and I looked over at the signer because we were both fascinated by how they were gonna sign this. We roared with laughter over the hand signals.

“Since this was radio,” continued Poundstone, “there was no way of communicating the situation to the home audience—only to the audience in the theater. So then, Adam and I started purposely saying things that would be compromising to sign—most of them having to do with crapping. I believe we culminated in Adam saying that Reagan had said, `It was as hard as crapping a live, wiggling ferret.’ We only did it so we could watch this woman sign it. Of course, all of that was cut from the final show. Still, if you contact Wait Wait, I’ll bet one of those audio nerds could still find it for ya—high-minded NPR people that we are.”



What’s currently on your bookshelf?

I’m reading The Nazi Officer’s Wife [by Edith Hahn Beer]. I’ve started reading the New York Times, but I read so goddamn slowly that I just take it with me in my carry-on bag. It’s a big stack, even after I’ve stripped it of everything but Section A.

Do you have a favorite meal?

I have peanut butter and jelly on raisin bread every day that I’m home. But one time we went to this restaurant on Christmas, and I had the most spectacular butternut squash ravioli. But they were really skimpy with the ravioli pillows—only four on the plate! Still, I dream of it every day. They hooked me. It’s like heroin: they give you a taste…

What about your music?
I listen to lots of swing-type music. When I first started volunteering at the nursing home, they had two cds: one disco, the other mandolin. It seemed like an easy fix, so I started buying big bands and stuff they grew up with. It’s so much fun! Now they have easily 100 cds. My favorite may be the best of Louis Prima. And I’ve moved a little forward timewise: The Carpenters and some Van Morrison. Whether he’s part of your era or not, he’s just so great.

Who were your biggest influences in comedy?

I loved Laugh In. I wanted to be Lily Tomlin and Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett—and I missed it all by a country mile! But I love them all still. In high school, I got turned on to Bob and Ray. My gosh, they were funny.

So if you hadn’t made it in comedy yourself, you’d be a…?

I have no idea. I used to bus tables in a restaurant, and I was damn good at it. At IHOP, I waited tables…I wasn’t good at that. I have OCD—as does everyone, actually; I was just diagnosed—but that makes me a fantastic table busser. I have a gift!

What’s your favorite place to vacation?

I go to the same spot every year: Manchester, Massachusetts to visit the family I used to live with. We go to Singing Beach and get Captain Dusty’s Ice Cream. Last year, my son was in a program in Virginia, and I took him to Lake Anna in the fall. The water temperature was perfect! It’s my dream to go back there two years from now.

Well, that should be an easy dream to make come true.

(laughs) You’d be amazed how many of my dreams don’t!



David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. His comedy, Blind Date, was recently staged in Chennai, India.


IT’S A WONDER-FUL LIFE: Lynda Carter on Music, Money, and That Role

by David Lefkowitz

(Note: this article was first published in October 2017)

When Gal Gadot was born in spring 1985, the American television series Wonder Woman had already been off the air for six years. By the time the Israeli actress hit the big screen in this summer’s Wonder Woman movie, the original TV program had already settled into media history as a nostalgic wedge of 1970s cheese: silly, campy, and can’t-look-away-colorful. Another reason eyes were glued to the small screen was its gorgeous star, Lynda Carter, five foot nine niches of glamour packed into a costume that accentuated her…well, everything.

That Carter, at 66, has effortlessly held onto her iconic glamour is of more interest to fans and new WW converts than to the lady herself, who was taught early on that good looks could be helpful but had better not be the only commodity you have to offer. In our mid-summer phone conversation, Carter, at work on her fourth studio album, talked freely about her music, her early years, her attitudes and addictions, and the responsibility of being the woman behind the bare shoulders and bracelets.

LONG ISLAND WOMAN: Your last two albums mixed American standards with more contemporary songs by people like James Taylor and The Eagles. Are you planning something similar with the next one?
LINDA CARTER: I guess some are standards, though it’s hard to call them that because they come from such a wide variety of music: country, jazz, old rock and roll, Motown. I have a hard time trying to box in what I do. For example, we’re working on everything from a Chris Isaak cover of “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” to a country song I wrote called “After All These Years.” Also, “You’ve Changed,” the Billie Holiday song; “Take Me to the River,” ZZ Ward’s “Put the Gun Down,” “Lonely Boy” by The Black Keys, a couple of Everly Brothers songs, Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” and a completely re-thought version of “Stop in the Name of Love.”

LIW: How do you go about selecting the songs?
LC: They’re largely what I have chosen over the previous years to go in my live show. Throughout the year, I’m listening to the radio or Spotify, or my husband and son are always playing music. Or one day “Stop in the Name of Love” just came into my head, and I looked at the lyrics online, and I thought, “This is a great, great lyric.” But the way the original was approached, you don’t even listen to the lyrics. So I slowed it way down. You probably won’t even know what the song is until you hear the chorus.

LIW: So you have to connect to the songs in order to put them over?
LC: Everything I do is pretty much a story. A song has to mean something to me—even if it just makes me laugh. I’ll usually have the guitar player do a quick reference demo just to write down the chord charts and how I want to approach it—be it a completely new arrangement or the song itself is obscure. I’m not usually picking a Top 10 record going down the Grammy list. It’s some indie band or something I really want to sing because I love it. For example, I really pared down Eric Clapton’s “If I Could Change the World.” It’s a love song but also a message song about how I really feel about the present condition of the world. If we could just change the world, just change it.

LIW: Well, your world changed after you won the Miss World USA title. Your family had been struggling beforehand.
LC: My mom and dad divorced when I was ten or eleven, and we were scraping by. I worked in one of my uncle’s restaurants and wasn’t really good at that. But I earned enough money to buy school clothes and help my mom. I also worked weekends at a little office doing mimeographing for extra money. At 14, the summer before I went into high school, I joined a band, and that was great, because on a weekend, you could make $75—that was a fortune in 1965. At first, I couldn’t even drive myself to the venues. But at 15, if you had a learner’s permit in Arizona, you could drive, so I did.

When I look at it now, it’s absolutely ridiculous that I was that independent. But I just told my mom what I was doing, and she’d say, “Okay, that’s great.” My brother was off putting himself through college, and my sister was doing what she was doing, so my mom had her hands full. But I always got straight A’s, I never got in any trouble, I didn’t do drugs, and I didn’t date boys. Mom knew she could trust me and that I was a good girl.

LIW: Even though you were touring in a band?
LC: Eventually, I quit the road because I’d spent two and a half years with several different bands, and I knew at a young age I wasn’t going anywhere with that. The guys were men and a lot older than me. You’re living in these crappy motels, and you’re a road band, and you’re a girl singer going from one place to another, and no one’s gonna discover you. It was a dead end, and I knew that. So just quit and moved back to Arizona.

LIW: With no job prospects?
LC: (laughs) Thank God I never had to earn a real living at a real day job. I walked into a modeling agency in Scottsdale Arizona to see if I could get any modeling work, and they were putting on the Phoenix portion of the Miss Arizona pageant. My mom and my sister said, “You gotta do it! You’ll be too old if you don’t do it now.” And I did. I won Miss Phoenix, Miss Arizona, and Miss World USA in about a three-week period of time. It was really quick.

LIW: But not the game-changer you’d hoped it would be?
LC: There was no talent in this contest. It was a bogus kind of thing that wasn’t about anything, and not something I ever aspired to. You feel like a piece of meat as they’re parading you around with a crown and a banner. You’ve got a lot of people around you, and a lot of attention, but you’re opening grocery stores and cutting little ribbons in little towns. There’s no substance. They make you have a chaperone, and you’re not making any money. Whatever they’re charging these people, they’re ripping you off. If they’re making $100, they’re giving you $30 and keeping the rest of it. I mean, yes, it was a little exciting, but I wanted to move to L.A. and study acting and move on with my career.

LIW: At which point you got the role of a lifetime. Once Wonder Woman took off, did you have a level of creative control over Diana Prince?
Yes and no. I think you are restricted by what the words are on a paper. However, I fought tooth and nail for my own interpretation of how she needed to be. Thank goodness the director of the pilot episode was really in sync with me about Diana’s level of discovery in the new world. How she was very naïve and had a great sense of wonder and a fish-out-of-water feeling. Also, her goodness and sweetness. She wasn’t a jaded person; she was a feminist. It was important to me that her loving nature, as well as her fierceness defending what she believed in, was conveyed. I think I was able to do that.

LIW: Well, scheduling problems kept you from having a role in the new Wonder Woman movie. But you did see it, and . . . ?
LC: The director, Patty Jenkins, and I talked very early on, and I think she really understood who that character is. She gave these characters a sense of humor, depth, and inner life. She took the cartoon out of the character, you know? The truth is that every character off of a page is a cartoon. If I sometimes get blowback that Wonder Woman isn’t real, well, no character is real! Most of the politicians you see aren’t real. People you see in magazines—they’re not real; they’re all doctored up. Models aren’t that perfect; it’s an impossible standard to live up to. When you see people on the red carpet, you’re not seeing them in real life. It’s like Cary Grant’s famous line: “I’d like to be Cary Grant, too.”

LIW: But that’s the paradox. Beautiful people get opportunities plain people don’t, but then they complain that they’re judged mainly on their looks. Did you always find your reflection in the mirror a blessing and a curse?
LC: Hey, I appreciated it. Nobody ever feels sorry for you because you’re pretty (laughs). But we’ve all met people who take themselves too seriously because they’re rich or pretty. They’re boring, dull people who are not fun to be around. What helped me was having a very close relationship with my mother. I went through some teenage awkward years, and then I started singing and had a lot of people telling me that I was very pretty. But in my family, I have to say, I was unimpressed by that. My mother was very, very beautiful, and my father was very, very handsome. My brother’s very handsome, and my sister’s very pretty. But the emphasis in my family was about ethics, accomplishment, beauty being skin deep, exercise, education, good grades. So beauty was never something I put a lot of stock or effort into it. My thing was trying to be a creative, smart person, and to be about something.

LIW: You did have your burdens, though. Which led to an alcohol problem.
LC: I didn’t even drink until my mid-20s. My mother and father didn’t drink, but it is a genetic pre-disposition that existed on my mother’s side. So even though my mother did not have it, I got the gene. In the 80s, when I started using alcohol to avoid dealing with a bad marriage, and to escape and avoid dealing with my emotions, is when I got myself in trouble. You find it in the military and a lot of places, but alcohol is so insidious. It’s like opioid addiction running amok in the heartland now, while they’re cutting medical insurance for addiction. For years, Big Pharma made a ton of money off it, but no one’s talking about that part . . .

Anyway, as far as my own alcoholism, it took awhile. I would drink, and then I wouldn’t, and then I would. It was a slow process. But when I finally decided I really needed help, I went to rehab. Now I’m coming up on 20 years sober. I haven’t been to meetings in a long while, but I am very involved in recovery. I’m on the board of Ashley Treatment, which is a recovery center in Maryland, and it’s a very important aspect of my life. I am extremely careful about being mindful.

LIW: Speaking of mindfulness, I imagine most of our readers want to hear that you must spend twelve hours a day in the gym with trainers to keep looking the way you do.
LC: No, I just try to do a little something every day: pushups, walking, biking on the river. I try to be active watch what I eat. Just quantity, really. If I’m gaining a little—like, I think I’m probably a little bit over now—I’ll start to keep an eye on what I’m eating and go down a bit, and not let it get out of hand. Some people can just eat whatever they want…I’m not one of `em. I keep on keepin’ on, but mainly for health reasons.

LIW: Which also leads to the inevitable whispered question, “How much work do you think she’s had done?”
LC: It’s really funny. I’ll do Botox or Restylane, occasionally, if I’m gonna be doing a big photo shoot or something. I try to get rid of that middle frown line because it makes me look mad. But I don’t want to have a frozen face. I don’t want big lips. I am what I am. I’m not saying I’d never have plastic surgery, but I don’t think I will. I just don’t see myself having any cutting on my face because everyone that I’ve seen cut, they look entirely different. I’m kinda terrified. I know people who can afford the best surgeons in the entire world and still…I dunnoooooo. (laughs) Besides, my mom didn’t have any wrinkles when she died, and she was almost 90!

LIW: So much of who you are does seem to keep circling back to your mom.
LC: My mother was a remarkable woman. Even for the music I do . . . She used to play these juke-joint records. She had a collection of these old, scratchy 78s all about pain and suffering (laughs). “You done me wrong.” Sassy blues records from the South with these amazing singers. She also loved country music and rhumbas and things like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Judy Garland, and torch singers. So that is what’s inside my bones and what I lean toward in my musical taste.

LIW: You mentioned before we started that some of the information about you on the web is wrong. Such as?
LC: There’s no “Córdova” in my name. I don’t know how that ever got started. It’s my mother’s maiden name, but it’s not on my birth certificate. And I did not go to Arizona State University. I got a scholarship that I turned down to go on the road. I did change “Lynda” from an “i” to a “y” before going into high school. There were a lot of people named Linda with an “i,” so I wanted to change it.

LIW: What about nearly having a featured role in Apocalypse Now?
LC: That’s true. I was in the jungle for three weeks, and we got typhooned out. They shut down for a couple of months, and by the time they were ready, I was doing Wonder Woman, so they had to replace me. But I was there with Charlie Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, and Frances Ford Coppola, and I’ve got a great picture at home of all of us to prove it!

LIW: Considering the film’s iconic status, was that a big career regret?
LC: No, it was an amazing experience being there with all of them. It didn’t work out, but I don’t regret it. You just move on.



Favorite Songs of Your Own?
The song I wrote for my son, “Jamie’s Song (You’ll Change Just a Little),” and one I wrote for my husband, “After All These Years.”

Favorite Vacation Spot?
Maybe on a boat in the ocean, but really it’s anywhere my family is.

Favorite Website?
The Library of Congress: loc.gov. You can look up anything. It even has Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Favorite Episode of Wonder Woman?
The pilot. It was that new experience, that wondrous, amazing feeling that dreams come true.

What Have You Been Reading?
One of my favorite books was The Human Genome [by John Quackenbush]. Also, Jon Krakauer’s book about the Mormons, Under the Banner of Heaven. I like anything David McCullough writes.

What Have You Been Watching?
Bloodline with Sissy Spacek, Earth 2, and, of course, everybody loves House of Cards. Mostly, I’m wild about any and all documentaries. I love Vice, from Bill Maher’s production company. The stuff they cover is just amazingly great. And Nanking, about the Japanese invasion of China. It’s shocking and unbelievable.

Besides Wonder Woman, Which Other Roles Have Made You Most Proud?
I don’t really watch myself, but it would have to be my TV specials.


David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. His comedy, Blind Date, was recently staged in Chennai, India.

Click the links for David Lefkowitz’s oeuvre, which he hopes you’ll loeuvre.



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Psyched: Cheryl Hines on Acting, Reacting, and the Kennedy Blessing

by David Lefkowitz

(This article was first published in Sept. 2017)

So you’re a talented, attractive young girl growing up in Florida with ambitions to move to California and be a professional actress. We can guess how that scenario plays out 98 percent of the time: part-time jobs, near misses, small parts, and giving up when it’s time to start a family or settle on a fallback career. Then there’s the one percent who make a decent living thanks to union benefits, commercials and voice overs, and the occasional widely seen role. That leaves a last one percent for the few who hit the big time of red carpets, fortune, and fame.

Sliver off a fraction of that last percent, and you have Cheryl Hines, who didn’t start racking up IMDB credits until her late twenties yet now is famous, not only for playing Cheryl David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but for marrying into American royalty. In 2014, the tanned and toned 52-year-old, who knew she wanted to be a professional actress even before she spent her high school years submerged in theater, married Robert F. Kennedy, son of the late Senator Bobby Kennedy and nephew of America’s 35th president, JFK.

Not bad for a woman whose first credit was Swamp Thing (not the movie, the TV series), and whose big break emerged from watching faux husband Larry David create impossible situations and then shovel himself in deeper. When we spoke by phone in early summer, Hines had recently wrapped the ninth season of Curb, as well as the movie sequel, A Bad Moms Christmas (due out Nov. 3). Not surprising for someone who is now ensconced in a political family, Hines answered most questions in a slow, measured cadence as if weighing every phrase. And yet, her laughter punctuated the responses, and the overall impression was of a woman who appreciates her good fortune while understanding that staying lucky takes just as much effort as struggling.

LI WOMAN: Did performing in high school theater bring you to the next level in terms of your acting ambitions?

CHERYL HINES: When I played a student in The Children’s Hour, I learned so much from that experience. Even though I was still in high school, I was working with some of the Florida State University students, and they were so good. Everybody was very professional, and the director was great. He made us show up in character—so I don’t even think he knew my name! But he taught us that you have to show up and know your lines, and come in character, and know how your character looks and walks and talks and reacts to different things, and think about your character when you’re not onstage. It was a great experience for me.


And yet, almost conversely to all that preparation, you ended up as a member of the Groundlings improvisation and sketch troupe.

Sure, but the fundamental idea of improv is listening to your scene partner. Because there’s no script, all you can do is listen and respond. That idea carries through in any type of acting because it’s really about you, as a character, comprehending what the other person just said and reacting to it. I think a lot of acting classes stress the text and writing of a scene, which is understandable and important. As an actor, you really have to multi-task: your lines, your blocking, where you’re gonna stand or sit, how you’re gonna use props. But you shouldn’t lose the spontaneity of a moment that could be created. If you’re thinking too much about your next line, are you really listening to what that other person is saying?


That approach must have been helpful when you auditioned for Curb. I assume you didn’t get “sides.”

CH: Right, there was no script; it was all improvisation. I had never met Larry or Jeff Garlin or any of the gang before that moment. So that was an experience, and I was auditioning for an HBO project, which was exciting. But at the time, it was only a one-hour special, so I didn’t think it would change my life. I thought it would be great to get that job, but it didn’t feel like testing for a network TV show. So I felt relaxed about it. I just started improvising with Larry, and we really clicked.


Did he give you any cues about your character?

I was told that Cheryl has heard it all from him and that she doesn’t take any of his shit! That was all I got. It was just one audition, and my agent called me later that day and told me I got the job. Which never happens in this business!


Speaking of jobs, your pre-success labors included waitressing and being a phone operator, but also an enviable personal-assistant gig.

Yes, for Rob Reiner and his wife, Michele. And I had a really good time doing that. It was still stressful, don’t get me wrong (laughs). But they were very supportive of my career. At the time, I was still going through the Groundlings school, and [the Reiners] would come to all of my shows. So I had a really great relationship with them. Even though I was doing seemingly mindless errands—like picking up dry cleaning—they understood that I was working to become an actress. And that meant a lot to me.


Rob Reiner has produced and directed his share of movies and TV shows. How did you stop yourself from saying, “Um, can you throw me a bone, please?”

(laughs) The temptation is great. But I also knew when I took the job that that was not going to be part of the dynamic. Everyone in Los Angeles is an actor or writer, so in order to have a job where you’re working with somebody who is already established in the business, you must understand the boundaries, or you’ll always be frustrated. With any job, if you do it with integrity, the people around you will see who you are and what your character is made of.

These days, I’m friends with Rob and Michele, and we go out to dinner. We’ve become more like peers.


And if you hadn’t made it as an actress, you might have been . . .?

A psychologist. I really am interested in people and how they think and adjust to the complications of life.


You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that a psychology course you took in high school really affected you—especially in terms of ruminating on human mortality.

Part of the course was a death-and-dying seminar. It struck me then that death is so much a normal part of our existence and our journey, but for some reason, our society doesn’t seem to be open about it. I thought that was very interesting. It sounds dramatic to say but, of course, we are all gonna die. Yet it always seems shocking when someone we know passes. I thought, at the time, maybe there’s a better way for us to approach all this—but it was never in a goth kind of way or “life is so hard and I’m a tortured soul.” It’s more that this is part of life and everyone’s journey, so why don’t we explore it?


Did that attitude help your grieving process when your father died a few years ago?

I think it did. I tried to focus on the gift that I got to experience with my father in his life and the idea that I was fortunate to have him for fifty years. This was instead of focusing on him not being here anymore. Now, it’s certainly easier to say that than to make yourself feel that way—but I do try to think of life and death that way. We are lucky to have each other, and we don’t know how long we’re gonna have them in our life, so be grateful that they were here and sad because you lose them.


Well, after that loss and the divorce from your ex, producer Paul Young, you certainly gained a family—including a husband and six stepchildren to go with your own daughter. What does it mean to be a Kennedy?

Ummm . . . being a Kennedy is . . . (laughs) It’s normal and it’s extraordinary at the same time. It’s normal in that I married a great guy who has an amazing family and, at the same time, everybody has their struggles. (long pause)


I guess you have to weigh your words carefully.

I do, I really do! When it comes to the Kennedys, sometimes it’s all larger than life. A lot of people know who they are.


Aren’t you used to recognition yourself?

It was probably easier for me to adjust to being in the spotlight than someone who had never been recognized out in public before. Still, in a normal week, I’m playing Trivial Pursuit with my family, and the answer is: my husband’s uncle. So that gets weird! Every week there is something surreal.


So despite the obvious, what made Robert F. Kennedy Jr. the man you wanted to marry?

Bobby is one of the smartest, most intelligent people I’ve ever met. He’s funny—although I don’t think his public persona shows that because he talks about serious subjects a lot. I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about why you fall in love with someone. I have a good time with him, and he inspires me to be a better person. I always joke that my biggest fear is that we’ll be traveling in a Third World country, my appendix will burst, and he will remove it—because he’s very good at survival-type skills.


So did you learn anything about real marriage from your David marriage?

That’s a good question! I think the big idea of marriage is to pick and choose your battles. So, yes, I probably have learned to be more tolerant in my real marriage from being married to Larry David on screen. (giggles)


Do you foresee any of the kids going into politics?

I wouldn’t rule it out. It’s difficult to know now how they’re all going to shape into adults and what their aspirations may be. But they’re all very intelligent, and, certainly, politics is a part of their lifestyle. Almost all of our kids have volunteered in humanitarian ways, and they’re aware of civil justice and the fight for it. I think most kids aren’t really exposed to that sort of thing when they’re 13, 15, 18, so that gives ours a different awareness of the inner workings of policies maybe. Probably. But will they be passionate about it as adults? I don’t know.


Do you see your celebrity and family status as a platform to espouse your own political views? That’s a pretty formidable soapbox.

I’m definitely more aware of how my political views might be interpreted because I, personally, am in the public eye. Most of the time, though, I really don’t want to mix my political feelings with my acting career. They’re separate for me.


Okay, but say something you believed in was being threatened under the current administration. For example, Planned Parenthood?

I am pro-Planned Parenthood. And I would feel inspired to fight just as a citizen, as a mom, as a person who gets to vote in the United States. Yes, it’s an advantage if more people pay attention because I have a different platform. But at the same time, I understand that everyone has the choice to listen to the person they want to listen to and make their own decision.


Speaking of politics, this morning, President Trump inflamed women—and everyone, really—with his mockery of MSNBC personality Mika Brzezinski for having a facelift. For actresses, plastic surgery can be an especially fraught topic. As someone who works out three times a week and is also active in yoga and outdoor activities, where do you stand on nipping and tucking?

I’m not here to judge what someone does to make herself feel or look better. I know people who say, “Don’t do it! I would never do it!” And those people are 25! Meanwhile, the Kardashians have changed the world of plastic surgery to where they’ve made it almost chic. That’s strange, and I don’t know how much I like that trend. But I don’t care. I’m not gonna worry about it. People should do whatever they want.


No question, Curb is your best-known credit, alongside the sweet movie Waitress, and three seasons of the network sitcom Suburgatory. Is there a project you’re proud of that hasn’t gotten similar attention but you wish viewers would seek out?

There’s a quirky film called Bart Got a Room. William H. Macy plays my ex-husband in it, and it’s such an interesting, funny movie. We look ridiculous in it but we’re playing versions of real people.


Speaking of interesting and funny, you also got to work with the late Robin Williams on the 2006 comedy, RV. Any memories?

Robin was a very intelligent, creative, magnetic soul. And he really appreciated people. When he’d walk down the street and somebody would come up to him, he would act like that was the first time anybody had asked him for his autograph. He was kind to them because he knew that it was important to them at that moment. That’s who Robin was. He appreciated people and was just a very generous soul.



Recent books you’ve read?

This circles back to death and dying again, but Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey (Marie Mutsuki Mockett). Also, I just started re-reading Nick Hornby’s How to be Good. It’s one of my favorite books.

What’s on your iPod?

I listen to a lot of hip-hop—just to work out to, and my daughter likes it. I like Beyoncé—who doesn’t? Also, Chance the Rapper because it’s my daughter’s type of music, and we do a lot together.

Favorite vacation spot?

I really liked the Turks and Caicos when I went there. The water was so beautiful, warm, and clear. I’d like to go back there.

Favorite actor?

Mary Tyler Moore really influenced me. She was always so funny and authentic. That really inspired me to want to be like her.

TV shows you watch for fun?
Ray Donovan, Veep, and, well, I don’t like to talk about it openly, but I really love Dancing with the Stars. My daughter laughs at me because I cry at every episode because they’re trying so hard.

Would you ever be on it?

That’s a good question. It certainly sounds fun to me. But my acting career might get in the way.

Favorite Meal?

On the perfect night, I would have a California roll and a spicy edamame. Not exciting, but it’s the truth. I’m on the verge of being a vegetarian, but I still like bacon. So if I’m having a salad, I like bacon bits. I don’t know what that says about me, my dedication, or my personality, but I’m sure it’s not good!



David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. To read bunches of his plays, articles, and songs, visit https://davelefkowitzwriting.wordpress.com/

A Band, A Butterfly, and a Bob: Broadway Greets the Autumn

by david lefkowitz

(This article is scheduled for publication in Long Island Pulse, Sept. 2017)


Last spring, as Tony voters for best musical pitted Come from Away vs. Dear Evan Hansen, most voters for off-Broadway awards had a simpler time of it: they chose The Band’s Visit. A small-scale tuner that debuted for two months at the Atlantic Theater Company, The Band’s Visit racked up best musical plaudits from the Outer Critics Circle, OBIEs, Lortels, and New York Drama Critics Circle.

Based on a gentle 2007 film about a group of Egyptian musicians accidentally stranded amongst wary Israelis in the Negev desert, Visit would seem to be an odd choice for musical adaptation—especially by the composer of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty. But David Yazbek and playwright Itamar Moses apparently found the perfect tone for a tuner that Hollywood Reporter theater critic Frank Scheck called a “delicately wistful and poignant chamber piece” that “could easily find receptive audiences in a smaller Broadway house.” Producers listened—The Band’s Visit, directed by David Cromer, will open Nov. 9 at the not-so-small Barrymore Theater. With stars Katrina Lenk and “Monk” maestro Tony Shalhoub expected to reprise their roles, Visit is the most strongly anticipated show of a relatively quiet fall Broadway season, but that doesn’t mean it’s alone.

Playgoers have to be curious about the upcoming revival of David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning M. Butterfly (opening Oct. 7) because it’ll be staged by Julie Taymor in her first rialto assignment since Spider-Man—and third since a little show called The Lion King. No doubt the design will be captivating, as it promises to be in Farinelli and the King, an English drama that will bring Oscar and Tony-winner Mark Rylance back to Broadway in December. Like 2014’s celebrated Richard III and Twelfth Night, this new play—by Rylance’s wife, Claire van Kampen—will feature mostly natural lighting and music played on period instruments. The plot? Rylance plays an insomniac king who can fall asleep only when sung to by his favorite castrato. I think we can all relate to that.

Speaking of singing, one of the lovelier musicals of the 1990s was Ahrens and Flaherty’s Once on this Island, a bittersweet Caribbean fairytale that gets its first Broadway revival Dec. 3 at Circle in the Square. Michael Arden, who staged Deaf West Theater’s stunning Spring Awakening two years ago, will helm this tuner by the composers of Ragtime and Anastasia.

Shows coming in more under the radar include an English import, The Children, about nuclear engineers; Junk, about nasty capitalists; and J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways, about an American family on the downslide. So while next spring promises such mega-events as Harry Potter and Frozen, autumn won’t be entirely without wow factors. After all, Dec. 4 marks the Broadway debut of a certain porous ocean dweller who lives in a pineapple under the sea. Let’s see Bette Midler do that.


David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio, co-publishes Performing Arts Insider, and founded TotalTheater.com. His comedy, Blind Date, recently played in Chennai, India.


– 30 –





FISH IN THE DARK (Broadway, July 2015):

THE GIN GAME (Broadway, Dec. 2015):

HAND TO GOD (Broadway, July 2015):


THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG (Broadway, July 2017):

THAT PHYSICS SHOW (off-Broadway, July 2016):

 REVIEWED: The Play that Goes Wrong, Lyceum Theater, Broadway, 2017.

Wrong Turn

Imagine popping a dvd into your player on movie night, skipping the film entirely, and going straight to the blooper reel. Now imagine that the collection of groaners and gaffes runs longer than the actual movie they’re from. Finally, imagine that the gag reel’s vignettes repeat variations on the same mistake a dozen times over. The result would be about 15 minutes of fun, half an hour of mild amusement, and then a dvd swap for something with an actual story, interesting characters, and more to it than self-congratulatory zaniness.

Such is the fate of The Play that Goes Wrong, a farcical English import now cavorting at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. Winner of London’s 2015 Olivier Award for best new comedy, the show has been compared to the redoubtable Noises Off in that both works follow the travails of desperate actors muddling through a performance despite every possible mishap befalling them. In the latter, more complex play, we watch calamities occurring both onstage and behind the scenes and from dress rehearsal through near-closing night. In The Play that Goes Wrong, we follow a single performance, by the “Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society,” in which missed cues and mispronounced words are the least of the poor thespians’ problems.

Cute laughs occur even before the start of the play proper, as an audience member is drafted to hold up a continually dropping piece of the set. Then out come lead actor Chris (Henry Shields, who is blessed with a vocal similarity to John Cleese) to introduce the “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” Some of the night’s best laughs occur during his monologue, as he admits that the theater company’s poverty has forced the group to scale down its productions of “Cat” and “The Lion and the Wardrobe.”

So far so good, and it is initially fun to see these youthful Brits scampering about playing amateurs trying to cope with mislaid props, a distracted sound designer (Rob Falconer), and virtually everything and everyone being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To be sure, cleverness is abundant here, but long before the end of its two hours’ traffic, Play’s pleasures diminish, even though the best sightgag—an upstairs floor tilting inexorably towards collapse (with kudos to set designer Nigel Hook)—is saved for the second act.

I may well be in the minority in dismissing the piece; many audience members have a howling good time, and critics both in New York and across the pond have found much to love in Mischief Theatre Company’s mischief. Nevertheless, I tired of the repetitiveness, the pointless intrigues, the screeching. Perhaps I’ve just seen too many real plays go wrong, but after awhile, I just wanted to be the Dave that Goes Home.



This review was published in the July-August 2017 issue of Long Island Pulse magazine: http://lipulse.com/2017/07/06/the-play-that-goes-wrong-review/