Paula Poundstone looks for happiness in her new book and on the road as her tour brings her to Florida

By : Jeremy Williams
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Paula Poundstone is what one would call an old-school standup comedian. She got her start at 19 doing open mic nights in Boston, then hopped on a bus and went city to city, examining the different comedy scenes in different regions of the country. Now after almost 40 years in the business, she is comedy royalty (she was named one of the top 100 comics of all time by Comedy Central), an accomplished writer (her new book, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, comes out May 9) and extremely intelligent (she’s on NPR!).

Poundstone brings her witty, smart and hilarious standup to Florida with stops at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater March 10 and the Plaza Live in Orlando March 11; but before hitting the Sunshine State, Poundstone took a few minutes to talk with us about comedy, happiness and why she has so many cats.

Watermark: How did you get started doing standup?

Paula Poundstone: The first sentence of the last paragraph of the summary letter written by my kindergarten teacher in May of 1965 says, “I have enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments about our activities.” Mrs. Bump got me off to a good start.

Your first positive review.

Yes, unfortunately they wouldn’t all be that positive. I happened to be busing tables for a living in Boston when I was 19, and this open mic circuit sort of started up there, so I joined in. I got together five minutes of material. I went and performed. Once you’ve tasted the elixir, there’s no going back. But, I had always wanted to be a comic performer of some sort. Honestly, I wanted to be Lily Tomlin or Gilda Radner or Mary Tyler Moore or Lucille Ball, and I missed it by a country mile, but I enjoy what I do.

Were you terrified getting up there the first time you did an open mic?

Yeah, I was living in a rooming house and the bathroom was down the hall, so you’d bring your belongings into the bathroom, just like in a college dorm. I go to leave — this was two days before I did my first standup – I showered that morning and when I went to leave and I had put my underwear on the outside of my pants. I was distracted for a couple of days ahead of time. I know that if you looked carefully at me while I was busing tables, one would’ve seen my lips moving because I was trying to memorize my big five minutes.

Paula Poundstone 3rd cd cover

Photo by Michael Schwartz.

You have been in the business now for many years. I know early off in your career you got some career assistance from Robin Williams. What did he do to help you?

Yeah, I started in Boston, but I took a Greyhound bus around the country to see what clubs were like in different cities and I ended up staying in San Francisco because they had the greatest standup comedy scene there. The audiences were adventurous and they liked the idea of getting in on the ground floor of somebody. I really felt welcomed by those crowds, so I stayed there and Robin lived there. He used to come out to the clubs. He came and he saw me and he ended up introducing me to his management in Los Angeles and eventually I moved down here and started with those managers. When Robin was a guest host on Saturday Night Live, he brought me on to do standup comedy.

That led into you getting into some comedy specials with HBO, which was rare for female comedians in that network’s early days. How did you get started with HBO?

My managers had a relationship with them and the first “Women of the Night” special was produced by my managers and was sold to HBO. And then I worked my way up. Even before that I did their “Goofy Young Comedians Special.” At a certain point, I did a little talk show for them, which they never picked up, but it was fun.

I did an interview last year with Suzanne Westenhoefer and we talked about why it is harder for women to be accepted in comedy more so than men. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know if that’s true; I just think there are not as many women performing. Percentage-wise, my guess is that it’s the same since we came out of the cave. People talk to me all the time about how there’s so many more women performing comedy nowadays, which is true, but there’s also so many more men. You just really can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a standup comic these days. And yet the percentage of women doing comedy is smaller. I’ve never known why.

Speaking of swinging cats, you have 14 cats. I have to ask how does one come to get 14 cats?

I can tell you exactly how I got 14 cats. I had 16 and two died. My daughter used to volunteer at the animal shelter in Santa Monica and I would go over there with great frequency and many times I came home with another kitten.

I understand that and I used to work at a bagel shop and everyday I’d leave with a bag of bagels so I guess it’s the same kind of thing.

True; it’s very similar, but you don’t boil them in water. Other than that, it’s the same.

Tell me how you got started with Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! because you’re absolutely hilarious on it.

Truly in the most boring of ways, they called me up and asked me. I mean, I had never heard of the show. They sent me an audio cassette of it – which tells you how long ago it was – and I put it on the island in my kitchen, which I always knew would gather junk… and it did. So the tape was laying there for a bit and I had a nanny at the time who saw it and said, ‘Oh, I love that show. You have to do that show.’ So that’s why I did it.

Are you an NPR fan?

Of course, I was an NPR fan before I was on it; I just had never heard that show. The time of day it was on, I guess I wasn’t in front of the radio. I listen to Morning Edition as often as I can. I trust them. I believe that their style of journalism is old school where you double-check your sources and it’s nothing that there’s a law about, but there is a journalistic ethics there that I believe NPR honors. Nowadays, especially, with the Russians afoot, that’s very important.

Speaking of the Russians, I wanted to speak to you a little bit about the political climate we’re in. It’s a very scary time for a lot of people, particularly in America with Donald Trump, but some of the best fights I’m noticing are from the entertainment world, from performers who address these issues. As you’re touring, are you increasing the amount of political commentary in your standup?

I think I do, probably because it’s around us everywhere. It’s important to speak truth to power. People say to me all the time, ‘Isn’t comedy easy with Trump in office?’ And it is true that he’s like a product that comes fully assembled. He provides the jokes so handily that one needn’t really be a clever writer. I don’t think there’s a comic worth their salt that wouldn’t say, ‘We’d be happy to make jokes on any number of topics, and we don’t really need the government to be corrupt in order to make jokes.’ I don’t feel like it’s some blessing to my job that we have someone with, I think, severe mental health problems, that somehow got himself elected. I don’t really think that brightens the world of entertainment in any way.

I really worry about sources shut down. There’s gonna come a point, because of his ego, that I wouldn’t be surprised if they defunded public radio. I started getting the New York Times. I’m happy to read as much as I can and support them because I feel like his attacks on the New York Times are really an attack on our democracy. I wish I read faster, honestly. I don’t even pretend that I’m going to get to section B or C. I always hear about people who read two newspapers a day — do they have a job and kids and do they eat?

paula-poundstone-unscientific-coverI imagine there’s not a whole lot of time in your day to read. With NPR, family, you’re out touring — you’re coming to Clearwater and Orlando. You also have a new book coming out, your second, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness out May 9.

The book is the totally unscientific study of the search for human happiness. Every chapter is written as an experiment and I experiment doing things that I or other people believe will make me happy. But the most important part of the book is the analysis which is the part where I return to my regular life to tell whether this happiness holds up, when I’m back to raising three kids and a house full of animals and doing my job and being stuck being me. It’s not just a matter of doing something that makes you happy in the moment, the question is: How does that hold up against one’s regular life?

Did you find the secret to happiness?

I think I found out a lot about it. I think it’s less romantic than we might think. I think it’s a biochemical function, sadly. It has a lot more to do with biochemistry than it does balloons or smiley faces.

Was there one experiment you went into thinking, ‘This is going to make me happy,’ and it was the complete opposite?

Yes! For one thing, I included my kids in some of the things, and I told them we were going to spend a day just watching movies and they were delighted with this idea. We really all believed this was going to be this great thing. For the most part it was a horrible day. Trying to decide what to watch and who gets to pick. Toward the very end, we kind of rallied and figured it out a little bit. But, the majority of the day was just not fun. It makes a really funny chapter in the book, actually. The dialogue of my son alone would make every mother of a boy’s heart soar to know they’re not the only ones.

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