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Paula Poundstone, Unscripted

Paula Poundstone performs at CFCC's Wilson Center October 7, 2016.

Paula Poundstone is at her best when she is unscripted.  As a panelist on the NPR news quiz show Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me, she writes only two sections in advance:  Bluff the Listener – in which contestants try to identify the real news story – and the last joke of the show. 

Poundstone also performs her stand-up act across the country.  Last spring, she sold out Thalian Hall. This Friday, she returns to Wilmington at Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center.

RLH:  You published a book ten years ago called There’s Nothing In This Book I Meant to Say.  There’s word on the street now that there’s another book set to come out soon, and I have conflicting facts about when that’s going to come out…

PP:  Well, there’s been conflicting facts about when that will come out.  MAY.  It’s coming out in May.  And if it doesn’t come out in May I’m having a Caesarean.  I don’t know how anybody writes for a living.  Honestly, I don’t.  What a horrible, awful, terrible job. 

RLH:  What is the book about?

PP:  My book is – it’s called The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness.   It’s a series of experiments in the things that I or other people thought would make me happy.  I’ve written them as experiments.  But the field notes are doing the thing – whatever the thing was. 

In one of them, for example, I rent a Lamborghini and so I tell about that.  You know, because the question isn’t, I think, and I really kind of figured this out in the course of writing the book, the question isn’t whether the thing you’re doing you enjoy. 

For example, I really love a Ferris wheel.  I can go up in a Ferris wheel and really enjoy myself, but when I come back down I have no lasting happiness as a result. 

RLH:  Right.

PP:  So, you know, the truth is I enjoyed that Ferris wheel.  I can’t say that the Ferris wheel made me happy. There’s an important difference there.  The truth is that the book really is a well-disguised memoir of about a 7-year period.  And my first book was also a well-disguised memoir.  And the truth is, until I die, I get to keep writing memoirs, if I want.   

RLH:  And so driving the Lamborghini didn’t make you happy.  It was an enjoyable experience, but it doesn’t – it’s not the source of happiness. 

PP:  Yeah.  I got to say… I only had it for 24 hours, and when I looked out the following day at the big dented van in front of my house, it maybe even made me a little bit sad.  I was like, wait, now where did my Lamborghini go? 

Yeah, it definitely didn’t do any such thing, and in fact, there were a lot of complications emotionally to renting that Lamborghini.  It was very eye-opening.  It really was.

I sent it out to a variety of people to get what they call blurbs.  I mean the blurb process is also agonizing.  I don’t think Charles Dickens had to do itBut I felt heartened that I sent it and got wonderful responses from Dick Cavett, Carl Reiner, Garrison Keillor, Roy Blount, Jr., P.J. O’Rourke, Peter Sagal, my boss, Pete Docter, who wrote [the films] Inside Out and Up…

RLH:  You voiced a character in that film [Inside Out].

PP:  I did.  I was really lucky. 


RLH:  Wow.  Is Trisha Yearwood a personal friend of yours?  Or – how did that—

PP:   You know what?  We met through Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me.  She came on.  She was what we call a Not My Job guest.  They have a section of the show where they ask questions of someone who’s famous for something, but they ask them questions on a topic they’re not likely to know the answers to. 

But she came on the show, and she was so damn funny. 

And I wrote her a note asking if she’d like to play ping pong because we have ping pong parties in our backyard – used to be several times a year -- and she wrote me back and said she did! 

And anyway, I just thought she was so funny so I wrote to her and I said, look, I know this is kind of weird, but would you be willing to read my book and if you feel so moved, write a blurb for it?  And, by golly, she did!

RLH:  I get that it’s a memoir and it’s mostly supposed to be funny, but you’re making a pretty profound distinction between things that you enjoy and the source of happiness.  So, what is the source of happiness for you?  And I guess that’s not funny, but…

PP:  Sadly, it’s a little bit like dissecting a frog, I guess.  You know?  Sadly, I think much of it is just plain biochemical.

RLH:  Really?

PP:  Yeah.  I mean, I think there are things we can do that are the low-hanging fruit of mental health and balance.  Exercising is so important and having said that, I gotta tell you – I don’t often do it.

I did for the sake of the book. I did.  I worked out with a Tae Kwon Do guy – like, several times a week. 

RLH:  That was part of your unscientific experiment.

PP:  It was. And I have to say, I felt pretty damn good. Here’s the problem: I didn’t feel good when I was doing it.  So unlike the Ferris wheel – where the whole time you’re up on the Ferris wheel you feel fantastic – the whole time I’d be working out, I felt horrible.  I mean, for the hour, that is. 

You know, I could do back then 500 jump ropes.   And while I was doing those 500 jump ropes -- with ankle weights -- I was on the verge of vomiting.  But, when I went back to my regular life – during that period when I did that experiment, one of my best friends died.  My dog died.  That’s two different deaths, by the way. 

RLH:  Right.

PP: My best friend was not my dog.

RLH:  I’m so sorry about that…

PP:  I did like him.

But during that period, during the period where I was doing those exercises, both those things happened.  And I think had I been doing anything else during that time, I would not have weathered that storm in the way that I did. 

Which doesn’t mean I didn’t feel sad.  I felt very sad. 

RLH:  yeah. 

PP:  But I didn’t feel unable to function.  I didn’t feel like, oh my gosh, I can’t go on.  Or, oh my gosh, I can’t get up in the morning.  Never had that feeling at all. 

And there’s been other times – like if I just relied on the Ferris wheel – I think I would have offed myself by now.


Paula Poundstone performs Friday, October 7, 2016 at the Wilson Center at Cape Fear Community College. 

For tickets and information, follow this link: 


Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.