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.
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 it. But 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.
And TRISHA YEARWOOD.
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.
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.
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.
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: