In Advance of Her Ohio Theatre Concert, Comedian Paula Poundstone Dissects the Quest for Human Happiness

click to enlarge In Advance of Her Ohio Theatre Concert, Comedian Paula Poundstone Dissects the Quest for Human Happiness
Courtesy of Playhouse Square
Over the course of a career that stretches back nearly 40 years, comedian Paula Poundstone has been a regular guest on several NPR programs and has performed for the likes of Hillary Clinton and Johnny Carson. Poundstone, who published her first book, There Is Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say, in 2006, just put out her second book, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness.

As its title suggests, it provides a humorous look at the never ending quest for happiness. In a recent phone interview, Poundstone, who was busy doing chores at the time of our interview (“I have 14 cats and two German Shepards. I’m like a really unprofitable farmer,” she says. “Nobody’s fur brings in anything. They don’t do tricks. They don’t do anything”), spoke about her book and her upcoming performance at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 20, at the Ohio Theatre.

What it’s like to be a comedian in the current political climate?
You know, honestly, it’s probably the best job in the world. It already is a great job without the current political climate. It’s probably the best way to cope. Other than the 1 percent, we’re the only people who can make anything good come out of what’s happening. I don’t know why nature provides the coping mechanism of laughter but it is a great coping mechanism. Having said that, it’s desperately sad times. When the audiences come out, it’s so clear it’s a night of healing laughter. And sometimes, it feels like raw escapism. I guess I feel pretty lucky. It’s the only job I would want to go to anyway. But to be able to take in the day’s news and still go to work and get to laugh is pretty nice. I don’t know how people get up in the morning anymore. It’s like, “Put one more brick on there.”

What motivated you to initially start doing standup comedy back in 1979?
I wanted to be a comic my whole life. I didn’t know what the path was. I had never been to New York. I grew up in a small town in mass. I didn’t go to nightclubs. My parents had the Bill Cosby albums. It didn’t dawn on me until later when I was an adult that there was the sound of glasses clinking and I realized that he was in a club. I was familiar with comic performers like the great Lily Tomlin and I loved the ones you love. I loved Mary Tyler Moore and Lucy and Gilda [Radner]. I just had zero idea what the path in was. I wanted to be Carol Burnett. I wanted to be a comedic actress and sketch comic, which I missed by a country mile.

Was it particularly difficult because you were a woman?
I really don’t. There were probably as many times where the lunk-headed guys would put together a show of all women. I feel ghettoized at those shows, but I have indeed participated in them. What was hard starting in Boston was that anyone who owned a car was considered a gifted comic. If there was a road job and the bookers got you jobs in Providence and Wooster, you could get there. We got ten bucks a set. If there was a comic that had a car and he could drive the producers out to Providence or Worchester, they didn’t have to worry about that. If you had a car, you had a funny routine. A lot of it was nepotism. If you hung out with those guys, you got work. I didn’t fit in socially. In terms of being a comic, I don’t think so. It was challenging when it was Playboy clubs and strip clubs where comics worked. Those were the people who went before me. I know Jay used to work strip clubs and even Jerry Lewis Dean Martin did. They would tell jokes between the acts. As a woman, that would be harder to do.

You wrote your first book, There Is Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say, in 2006. What was that experience like?
I wish I could tell you that I wrote it in 2006. It took nine years to write that goddamn book. I thought the next one wouldn’t take that long. I don’t know what about my life I had thought had changed. The second one took seven years. It’s not like it’s War and Peace. I don’t have scheduled writing time. Everything I have to do doesn’t stop because I’m writing a book. It’s a weird process. Dorothy Parker’s birthday was not that long ago and I saw one quote said something like “I hate to write but I love to have written.” There is a point where you reach what they call in psychology “flow.” That definitely occurs in writing, and it’s a joyous feeling. So many writers say the book wrote itself. That’s what that is. Once you put the pencil to the page, it feels not so effortful. Fortunately, most of what I do is mindless shit like scrubbing stains off the rug in the front of the house or cleaning litter boxes. I have a lot of time to think creatively. I have that going for me. The part where you’re writing is like the secretarial work.

Talk about what it was like to write Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness.
I don’t know. It just occurred to me one day. I had an open door to write another book at Random House. It started there and then the person I was working with left and the next person dumped me and I went to Algonquin Books, which was probably better anyway. It’s always better where you’re wanted. In the back of my head, I was figuring out a way to do that. I thought it would be fun to find out what makes you happy and that would be a fun journey. And depending on what I was doing, I thought it would be a great playground for jokes.

Did you really rent a Lamborghini?
I did rent the Lamborghini. My original plan was for a week. When I was online and I saw those numbers that appeared to be serial numbers with lots of zeroes. The guy on the phone said those were the prices. I said, “My God.” It was just for the day. I was like “Sonofabitch.” In retrospect, I wouldn’t have wanted that stupid thing for longer than a day. It was fun but it’s the sharper mind of lots that’s wrong. Frankly, that hadn’t even occurred to me. I just thought it would be fun. I would put that into the category of what other people thought would make them happy. It’s a standard American idea of wouldn’t that be great. I am not sure I ever thought that. If I could drive a stick then what would be great would be to drive the Scooby Doo Mystery Mobile, but I settled for the Lamborghini. It unearthed all sorts of things. To drive around in it for more than a day would have gotten creepy. I’m a terrible driver. I even got a student driver sticker for the back of my car. I just don’t want anyone driving near me. It’s better if they stay away. The other irony is that you’re in this fast car but you don’t go fast because the traffic is miserable. There was one stretch on Wilshire Blvd. late at night that was cool to drive it. That was it.

You also tried to watch movies with your kids for a day. Why didn’t that work out?
It didn’t for the most part. Eventually, it did, but it took hours of abuse before it got to be fun. Certainly, it’s not the right message anyway. We just didn’t do it right. I wouldn’t try the Lamborghini again. I might try watching movies again. I finally went back when I was editing the book with the editor who often didn’t understand much of the book but she made some great edits. She kept saying to me when we were working on the Get Fit chapter that readers won’t understand why you stopped doing it. It was an experiment. You can’t continue doing the thing. Just a couple of months ago, I went back to the Taekwondo guy. The truth is, it does feel good to be in better shape.

There’s the endorphins.
Science already told us that. Our parents told us that. Nobody talked about a gym when I was growing up. When I started the book, I hoped all that science about the benefits wasn’t true.

Talk about what the show here in Cleveland will be like.
It will be fun. I talk about raising a house full of kids and animals and trying to pay attention to the news well enough to cast a halfway decent vote, which we all know is not an easy trick. My favorite part is talking to the audience. I do the time-honored, “What do you do for a living.” There are two factors working. One is that I have no memory. Because I talk to the audience, no two shows are the same. If someone says they’re a software designer, which is an answer I get more often than I would like, I don’t have software designer material so I ask them questions and go from them. That might steer me into computer stories that I do have. There’s nothing that’s structured beyond that I sometimes like to get the characters introduced early on and tell stories about my kids early on so when I make references to them later people know who I’m talking about. On a good night — and I like to think there are some — about a third of the night is unique.

Have you gotten better at coming up with things on the spot?
Yes. Partly because I put myself in my position as often as I can. And it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, though I don’t think I have 10,000 hours yet. He debunks the myth of talent and uses examples of people born into the world geniuses in every practice whether it’s a tailor or musician or rice grower, and he has these stories of how they got that good at that thing. It’s the Beatles and Mozart. What he comes up is that it takes 10,000 hours. I’m not sure how he’s measuring those hours. Do the house where I think about material count. I don’t know what the practicing is. I have been doing this for 38 years, and I purposely put myself in that position where I’m out there with no net as often as I can. It is a muscle. People come up afterward and say that I’m so fast. It’s a laughable notion. In truth, we have conversations all day that are unscripted. You say something sad or funny or communicate love. You manage to set to do whatever you do in that conversation without a script. In truth, it’s the other way around that’s astounding. I don’t know how people who do the same thing every night and get the same reaction. I know lots of people who do the same thing and do it brilliantly. I just can’t.