Though it's been years since she last visited, Paula Poundstone remembers two things about Colorado Springs: "that the Yellow Pages had eight pages of churches," and that it was covered with billboards. Her billboards.
These weren't advertisements for Poundstone's comedy show. Instead they were part of a campaign against Amendment 2, 1992's Springs-born legislation that had prevented any laws banning discrimination against gays.
After it passed, Barbra Streisand energized the "Undo 2" movement by calling for all performers to boycott Colorado. At the time, Poundstone had a gig scheduled at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen for someone she'd worked for in the past.
"I didn't want to burn this guy. On the other hand, I didn't necessarily want to profit from it," she says, noting that Aspen was one of three Colorado cities whose charters had provided protections the state law stripped away. "So what I decided to do was take the money and buy billboards that spoke in support of protecting people's civil rights based on sexual orientation."
She called up an ad agency and said, "Here's the money. Make as many as I can get."
Back then, $10,000 went a long way.
"Colorado Springs was saturated with my billboards," Poundstone says, laughing. "It was sort of funny because it's not a huge place, but I hadn't realized how much it would be.
"I remember a newspaper had a political cartoon," she continues, referring to what was then called the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph. "I think it was not necessarily derogatory toward me, but I think part of it was that [a billboard] was right outside their window, and I do think there was just a certain element of saturation."
Meanwhile, she took a lot of flak from gay and lesbian journalists who were angry she didn't just cancel her show. But Poundstone says if she had to do it over again, she'd do it exactly the same way.
"You know, look, if Barbra Streisand doesn't go do a gig, it's a big political statement," she says. "If I don't do a gig, then just the guy who hired me loses money. It's not a big political statement. I'm not a big enough deal for it to be a political statement."
That said, Poundstone, who turns 50 this December, actually is a pretty big deal. The Santa Monica, Calif., resident is a regular panelist on National Public Radio's weekly quiz show, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me, which she says getting on was one of the luckiest breaks of her life. ("I do a job where I go sit in a chair surrounded by really wonderful, lovely people, the smartest people I've ever met, and laugh and answer questions. And I'm allowed to say whatever I want. It's pretty great.")
Random House published her first book, There's Nothing in This Book I Meant to Say, in 2007, and this year she released her first CD, I Heart Jokes: Paula Tells Them in Maine.
She's certainly in a different place than she was seven years ago, when she was arrested for driving drunk and child endangerment (her children were in the car). She temporarily lost custody of her children and spent time in rehab for alcoholism.
The experiences are discussed openly in her book, and the single mother of three also refers to them in her stand-up acts. Notably, she says, it was rehab that brought a bearded dragon lizard into her house.
"On family day ... somebody's teenage kid caught a lizard and gave it to my kids," she remembers. "It was a very sweet gesture. Of course, the poor thing died in like two weeks."
Her kids were heartbroken. And given that the family was "in the midst of a fair amount of heartbreaking stuff to begin with," she offered to get a new lizard.
The lizard's just one small component of the Poundstone animal kingdom; during this interview she admits her house is home to 13 cats, a German shepherd mix and two bunnies. But she thinks pretty highly of her scaly companion.
"I feel we commune, and I look to her as my life coach — him, come to think of it. He spends a lot of his time — bearded dragons are called so because they have what looks like a beard and they puff it out when they're sexually aroused ... [He] spends a lot of time banging his face on his reflection in his tank, puffing up his beard. Somebody who can look at themselves and go, 'Hey, now that's a good-looking lizard ...'
"I look at myself in the mirror and get nauseated," she continues, with the true conviction of a comedian. "I do. I admire him."