Paula Poundstone is perhaps best known in public radio circles for her role as a panelist on NPR’s "Wait… Wait… Don’t Tell Me!," but her humorous take on life has been in public view for nearly 40 years. Comedy Central considers her among the top 100 comedians of all time, and she’s authored two books. Her latest, “The Totally Unscientific Study Of The Search For Human Happiness,” documents her personal search for bliss.
KGOU’s Jim Johnson spoke with Paula Poundstone by phone about this quasi-scientific quest for happiness.
Paula Poundstone: Every chapter is written as an experiment with the conditions, hypothesis and the variables, but the analysis part of each chapter is where I check back in and see how my regular life is going. And so the book went in directions that even I didn't even anticipate.
Jim Johnson: As you point out, by the end of each experiment we've seen your field notes, your observations and analysis. And, along the way, readers also learn a lot about you and some underlying, perhaps more personal motivations for each quest. There are some very frank and honest reveals, and persistent on among them is the challenge of being a parent. Can you elaborate on that and introduce us, perhaps, to your now adult children/
Poundstone: They are now adult children… and I had no idea how long it was going to take to write this book. It ended up taking seven years. And so, inadvertently (and) not by design… by any stretch, it is the story of raising my children: my oldest daughter Tosha, my daughter Allie (is) my middle daughter, and my son Thomas E. And in the course of the book, Tosha moves out, Allie goes to college and Thomas E. kicks my ass right up over my head. He was a challenging kid. …Not literally but figuratively. Yeah! You know how the Peace Corps used to say, “the hardest job you'll ever love?” I'm sure the Peace Corps is challenging. (But) parenting! Oh, my heavens! I mean, I'm not suggesting people not do it. Well, that would end the species.
Johnson: Now, some of your related observations in this book that parents will no doubt be able to relate to are the state of education and of our pervasive use of technology - particularly technology in kids hands - to which again you have some clear thoughts and observations that you relay.
Poundstone: Well, you know… a couple of things happened in this book that I had not anticipated. One of them was everyone kept saying to me, because I had written another book… and everyone kept saying, “Oh, if you if you had a computer you could do it so much faster… you'd like it so much better.” People just insisted that this computer was going to change my life in a positive way. And by the way, my first book… and then three math work workbooks, additionally, I wrote by hand. And it wasn't all that hard. But, anyway, so I decided that this would be a good impetus for an experiment. I began learning how to use a computer. What's interesting about it is when I looked back. When I went to do a rewrite. Years later, even, the editor she sends back, you know with her notes on my manuscript, and she's circled where I overused words a lot. And the words that I over used during the “Get Wired” experiment were, “lonely,” “tired,” “frustrated.” It was really a great experiment in that way. I'm like, “Oh, this causes these things! That was the sort of the microcosm of the story, but the macrocosm of the story is that my children were becoming more and more involved with computers. Certainly, long before I had. And my son got caught in the trap of electronics addiction. And there was no avoiding the machine because of the schools… the PowerPoint presentation and things that were unnecessary to be done on a computer, and not even good for brain development. And at the time when I was writing that book, and even when the book first came out, the average person knew nothing about the dangers of screen devices and the developing brain. And so, in a way it's kind of… it's a little bit cutting edge because no one talked about that back then. So a lot of that is told in the book.
Johnson: I really want to thank you for sucking me into your experiments the way you did in this book. Congratulations.
Poundstone: Thanks very much. You know it was it was challenging and fun at the same time and I'm really happy when I hear comments like yours.
Johnson: Well, as a comedian you've seen repeatedly, firsthand… and have even been a purveyor of happiness and I'm wondering how comedy first kind of played a role in lifting you up? Can you even recall when the notion of being a comedian and humorist first kind of entered your realm of possibilities.
Poundstone: Absolutely, I do. 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.” And I mean I was so taken that an adult appreciated something that I did… And I can remember people saying to me when I was very little that, you know, “You should be a comedian.” So yeah, I mean that idea was put in my head very young, actually.
Johnson: Well our listeners are greeted with your voice and wry quips weekly through your role as a panelist on the humor filled news quiz, Wait… Wait… Don't Tell Me!. Can you give us a little background on how this gig came to be?
Poundstone: Oh, in the most boring of ways…They called me up and asked me. I had never heard of it. At the time they sent me this will tell you how long ago it was they sent me an audio cassette tape. I put the cassette tape on the island in my kitchen. I used to own a house and when I looked out with the realtor in the beginning there was this big thing in the middle of the kitchen and I said to the realtor I said you know can we get that thing out of the kitchen. She goes oh no that's your island. You are going to love your island. And she's right because me and the kids vacationed on that island summer after summer. What happened with the island is exactly what I thought would happen which is junk piled up on it. So, one day my nanny happened to be sort of milling about the island and he noticed this cassette tape from Wait… Wait… Don't Tell Me. And he said, “Oh I love that show, you have to do it.” So I did. I took the advice from my nanny. He's now my manager. Not really.
Johnson: Tell us how this particular role kind of factors into your overall quest for happiness.
Poundstone: Oh, well Wait.. Wait.. Don't Tell Me has been a joyful experience backwards and forwards. I've been a stand-up comic for… it'll be 40 years in a couple of months. So there are people who come to see me work my regular show - my standup show - and they don't understand why I'm not answering questions about the week's news. And then there's other people who come to my stand up show that have never heard of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. But they seem to get along. These two groups. So it's been a joyous experience. But the other thing is one of the really smart things about the way that show is made - Wait… Wait… Don't Tell Me. Probably, my strength as a performer is just jumping in and saying stuff that's unscripted and in a lot of settings. If you go to television or radio or something where there's a lot of suits involved telling you what to do. All of a sudden they don't want you to do that. But I remember from the very first day I ever did Wait... Wait... Don't Tell Me. You know you have the headset on and the director can talk in your ear. They don't usually, but they can sometimes. I was a little bit shy because I didn't quite know when to say what. And the director kept coming on my headset, “Go on and jump in, any time." "Say whatever you want.” And I cannot tell you how rare that is in this business. And they didn't say it to just me. They say it to all the people involved. What they do is they hire people and then they let them do what they're good at! Crazy!
Johnson: ... A novel concept. Well, congratulations again on all of your successes... and the upcoming 40 year anniversary of your stand-up career. That's fantastic!
Poundstone: Yeah I think I'm going to have a Butterfinger to celebrate.
Johnson: Is there something that you would like for people to take away from your body of work in particular… other than laughter.
Poundstone: You know, I have considered myself - for a long time - a proud member of the endorphin production industry and one of the things that I find is that you can tell your weirdest thing on stage, and trust me, at least half of the crowd is going to go, “oh, I have that.” And if you tell it in a totally comedic way, just that “shared-experience laughter” is one of my favorite things in the whole world. And people need to put down their flat things, take their headset off and go talk to one another. Go out for a night of laughter. But honestly you don't have to. You don't you don't have to go to a theater or a comedy club to experience that you have to just be with other people and allow that interaction. It makes you feel better. I guarantee it!
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