NORFOLK, Neb. — Paula Poundstone has a great Johnny Carson/ZZ Top story.
The stand-up comedian will get a chance to hang out in Carson’s old stomping grounds when she visits Norfolk to host the Viaero Great American Comedy Festival competition finals on Saturday.
Poundstone, a resident of Santa Monica, Calif., said she was a guest several times on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and, later, with Jay Leno. Her most memorable “Tonight Show” moment, she said, was the first time she was invited to do her stand-up act.
“I went on and I told my jokes, and it was very exciting and it was almost traumatic, because I had thought about this and looked forward to this for so long and I was very, very nervous,” Poundstone said.
She was not “paneled” (a hierarchy system that determined who got to sit on stage with Carson), so Poundstone headed directly to her dressing room after finishing her act. ZZ Top was the musical guest directly following Poundstone, and she came back out to the stage after the band performed, when the show was over.
“And one of the (ZZ Top) guys comes up to me and he has the hat, and the beard and the glasses . . . and he says, ‘Hey, you did a good job.’ And I said, ‘Thanks, you guys were good, too,’ ” Poundstone said.
Unfortunately, because she had gone straight to her dressing room, she didn’t see that Carson had dressed up like a band member after coming back from commercial.
“And he looks at me really funny, and he goes, ‘No, it’s me.’ And I had no idea who ‘me’ was. . . . And he takes off the hat, takes off the glasses and he desperately tried to peel off the beard and mustache — which had been put on pretty well — and it was Carson. . . . The look on his face and the look on my face must’ve been so great. I think it had been quite a few years since nobody recognized Johnny Carson,” Poundstone said.
Carson helped Poundstone to be the stand-up comic she is today, she said.
“Johnny Carson was for years and years and years the sole place to see stand-up comedy on television,” Poundstone said. “And so as I grew up, when I was very little, my parents didn’t really enjoy my company well enough to have me up that late. But by the time I was in middle school probably, I started watching ‘The Tonight Show,’ and it’s part of the reason why I’m a stand-up comic.
“It was, for my generation of comics, it was the brass ring to be on ‘The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson.’ ”
Norfolk’s comedy festival is something Poundstone said she’s looking forward to. She has experience with this type of venue, as she recently performed at the Lucy Fest in Jamestown, N.Y.
“It was very, very fun. The whole community really invested in and showed pride in (Lucille Ball) being from there. ... I love telling my little jokes, and I love comedy, and I think having a comedy festival is just the best thing to do. I’m very proud to be a member of the endorphin production industry,” Poundstone said.