NPR Mainstay Paula Poundstone Is the Queen of Comedy
The renowned jokester opens up in advance of her Tarrytown standup show.
Photo By Michael Schwartz
Paula Poundstone just can’t stop. After more than a decade cracking wise on the hit NPR show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, nearly constant standup performances, popular podcasts, and even a novel in the works, the renowned comedian is doing anything but slowing down. According to Poundstone, this enduring success is more about maintaining a mindset than a mastery of certain tricks.
“I feel there is a way of thinking every writer must have — I call it a Roomba inside my head — that is just going around no matter what I am doing, looking for stuff that could be useful later onstage or in a book,” she shares. “I do think you develop this over time, since I don’t do it consciously.”
With a spot on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Standups of All Time and an American Comedy Award for Best Female Standup Comic, it seems Poundstone’s mental vacuum is in tip-top shape. On June 1, the comic will be bringing her act to the Tarrytown Music Hall. Among many asides, local audiences can expect a few exploits from Poundstone’s bestselling 2017 book, A Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness.
“My book is a series of experiments, doing things that other people thought would make me happy,” says Poundstone. “For me, it wasn’t a question of what would I enjoy doing. It was a question of, what could I do that would give me that biochemical boost so that when I would turn to my regular life, I felt good?”
With this mission at hand, Poundstone started a fitness regimen, took dancing lessons, camped out, and — most affectingly — volunteered at a retirement facility. “I was afraid of old people, but I don’t really feel afraid of them anymore, not the ones I know anyway,” says Poundstone. “We don’t really do end-of-life very well in this country. But I found, much to my surprise, that even though it was massively depressing on some level, it was also really fun. It’s been a couple years, and I’m still [volunteering] there — I still enjoy it.”
This doesn’t mean that her Tarrytown show will be one long discussion of her book. “I talk about writing the book some onstage, but I wouldn’t call it the A Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness Tour by any stretch. The show is just plain fun — and paying the rent doesn’t hurt either,” she adds with a laugh.
While comedy is commanding the bulk of Poundstone’s time, she also has another major project in the works: her first novel. The subject is one eminently close to the comedian’s heart. “My son suffers from very severe electronic addiction and, as I say that, pretty much anybody who uses this crap suffers from some degree of it,” says Poundstone. “I find myself looking at my numbers on Twitter as if they mean anything at all. I get caught up in it myself, and that is part of the design.”
Poundstone, who has two adopted daughters and a son, adds that after her child suffered a particularly long bout of addiction, she had a difficult time finding help. “I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me — his teachers, his pediatrician, anybody. And now, just about two months ago, the World Health Organization said video-game addiction is real, and it is a mental-health disorder. The day that news came, I told my sister: ‘I will now just sit by my phone and wait for the phone calls of apology to come in,’” she adds with a chuckle.
All jokes aside, Poundstone is passionate about her book, which she says is still in the mental stages. “I am a little terrified by the prospect [of writing] it,” she says, “but at the same time, I so badly want to tell this story.”
Today, Poundstone is still telling plenty of stories onstage and off. “I am lucky enough to still be on Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, and soon my new podcast, Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone, will be available,” she says. According to the comic, her wildly popular podcast Live From the Poundstone Institute had to end due to issues with the program’s endowment.
When asked why she doesn’t simply rest on her laurels, Poundstone is characteristically humble and hilarious. “Nah, I don’t have any laurels to rest on,” she quips. “It’s interesting that I should write a book about happiness experiments, because in truth, my job makes me feel happy. Not every aspect of it — travel can be a little grinding, and sometimes I miss my children and other activities — but having said that, it’s the greatest job in the world, and I’m the luckiest performer on the face of the planet. I have such wonderful audiences that no matter what state of mind I’m in when I arrive at the theater, in a couple of hours, I’m just flying.”