Arts & Culture

Comedian Paula Poundstone shares the secret to happiness

Paula Poundstone will perform Saturday at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo.
Paula Poundstone will perform Saturday at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo.

When it comes to crowdwork, standup comedian Paula Poundstone believes in taking her time.

I leave my fishing line out there longer than most people do,” said Poundstone, who’s known for her off-the-cuff interactions with her audience members. “The expectation from people sometimes is you’re going to somehow have explosive laughter three seconds into the conversation. I neither want nor expect that. … Anybody, if you get talking to them for more than a few minutes, is great.”

Poundstone, 59, is so successful at coaxing funny stories out of her fans that concertgoers frequently ask her, “Well, was that a plant?” “A, that would require the e-word, effort,” she replies drolly, “and B, it wouldn’t work if it was a plant. It wouldn’t be fun if it was a plant.”

Poundstone, who brings her standup act to San Luis Obispo’s Fremont Theatre on Saturday, said beginner’s nerves inspired her signature performance style.

“I have such a bad memory and also if I get nervous I can’t remember what I meant to do,” she explained. “When I first started out doing open mike nights, I’d walk out on stage thinking I had this five minutes prepared, and then I would go blank. I really was stuck.”

She had to talk to the crowd, she continued, “I wouldn’t have had anything to say.”

Poundstone’s improvisational skills, coupled with her sharp wit and offbeat sense of humor, have led to a career as an Emmy Award-winning comedian, actress and political pundit. She made show business history as the first woman to win a CableACE Award — for her 1990 HBO special “Cats, Cops and Stuff” — and she became the first woman to host the White House Correspondents’ Dinner solo in 1992.

These days, Poundstone enjoys a faithful fan following as a panelist on the NPR news quiz show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” Listeners can catch her riffing on current events with the likes of Roy Blount Jr., and Tom Bodett.

“It’s a great pairing, me and them,” Poundstone said, describing her first “Wait, Wait” episode as “one of the most joyous moments of my life.”

Her latest comedy album — “North by Northwest: Paula Poundstone Live!” — came out in June 2016.

She’s also about to release the long-awaited follow-up to her 2007 book “There Is Nothing in This Book That I Meant To Say.” In that comedic memoir, she draws unexpected parallels between her struggles with alcoholism and the travails of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Ludwig van Beethoven and Joan of Arc.

“The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness,” which will be published May 9 by Algonquin Books, finds Poundstone carrying out a series of so-called “experiments” in hopes of deciphering the secret to happiness. She tries everything from meditation to taekwondo to tooling around in a convertible Lamborghini.

Reached by phone at the Santa Monica home that she shares with a plethora of pets, Poundstone recently chatted about being happy.

Q: What got you interested in the subject of happiness?

A: Probably just wanting some in my life.

It took me so damn long to write this book because I’m not a writer for a living. I don’t have designated time to do that in my life usually. I fit it in in the cracks. …

The other day I was in the airport and there’s a magazine on the topic of happiness. And there’s that book, “The Happiness Project” (by Gretchen Rubin). I had that idea before all that stuff. They apparently didn’t have three kids and a job and 16 cats and two German Shepherd-mix dogs, and were able to get to it faster.

Q: How did you approach “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness”?

A: In my book, each chapter is an experiment. And the experiments are for real – I did them. The science may be slightly faulty but I conduct the experiments … (and) I have field notes. I like to think that they’re the funniest field notes ever written.

The real question isn’t whether or not I do something and enjoy it. The question is how does that stack up against the slings and arrows of the rest of my life.

If, for example, I went on a Ferris wheel, I could guarantee you, unless something went horribly wrong, that I’d enjoy it. … But the question is, when I come back down, how does that make the challenges of my day any easier?

Q: Talk about a couple of your experiments.

A: I went backpacking with my oldest daughter. We were gone for three nights and four days. I have a bad back; she has cerebral palsy. … I prepared for months. I wish you could see the pile of stuff that was in my room that was waiting to go into the backpack. It was mathematically impossible for that stuff to fit in any container, and there it was in this pack on my back. …

We never saw it, but I’m fairly certain that a bear was snuffling our tent in the middle of the night, because I brought our food into our tent one night not knowing any better. (My daughter) kept saying “Unzip the tent and look out.” I’m like, “No, I’m not unzipping the tent to look out.” (laughs) I could just picture my head going out the flap and directly into the bear’s mouth. … We lived through it, clearly. (chuckles) I think it brought us closer.

The majority of the experiments I did by myself, but I did do one (with my kids) … which was watching movies all day. They were certain that this would be the one, that this would truly bring happiness.

In our house, my kids were never allowed to watch television. … There was no screen in the background when we talked to each other. No kid had a screen device in their room. …

So watching a movie in our house was a sacred activity. The idea that we were going to watch (movies) all day long was the most decadent idea I could have presented to them. They were sure that this was what was screwing up their lives, was that we had never done any such thing before. …

Usually we watch what’s on our shelves. This was years ago so we had gone to Blockbuster and picked out some movies. It just never occurred to me to say, “Well don’t choose anything that’s absolutely (crap).” (laughs) … It was pretty damn funny. We fought and we fought and we fought and we fought. … It ended up being very eye-opening and fun in the end.

Q: What has parenthood taught you about happiness?

A: That it comes in fits and starts. It’s not an all-day-long condition. And maybe it doesn’t even look like what I thought it looked like. …

Normally people in that Facebook-y way pretend that it’s all easy, it’s all hearts and flowers. And it’s so not. You have to be the bad guy over and over again – and guess what? That’s not much fun.

Q: How do you find that balance between being a mom and a professional comedian?

A: The answer is you never do it right. Every time I was working I thought, “Oh my god, I should be with my kids,” and every time I was with my kids, I thought, “Oh geez, if I don’t get this work done …” Every working parent goes through that. …

For the most part, (my kids) never really complained about it. It was just how life was for them. …

One of my favorite moments (was when) I was driving them somewhere in the van, which was where most of our lives were spent. I would usually try to give them a couple of nights’ heads-up when I was going out of town. I said, “Mom’s going on a big plane the day after tomorrow.” My son was like (upset noise) “Ooooh.” And I said, “Honey, I have wracked my brain to think of a job I could do where I didn’t have to travel. But the truth is I don’t know how to do anything.” My daughter Ally said, “Mom, I love it that you’re a comedian. And don’t you love it?” It was such a great moment.

Q: What are three things that make you genuinely happy?

A: So many of my answers about happiness are very unromantic, a little disappointing even. Just physical activity is really helpful. … I have been walking much more than usual; I so hate the idea of doing it and then afterward I really do feel good. I’m lighter. I move better.

I take tap dance (lessons). Every line that I stand in – the TSA check, the ticket counter (at the airport), checking in at the hotel – I’m always doing a little shuffle when I stand there. (laughs) Let me tell you, at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, I’m the only one doing that. A lot of times people kind of stare at me funny. But, you know, if you don’t practice you won’t get good at it.

I also take drum lessons. … I’m never going to be a (professional) drummer. I’m too old to have the time in my life to get to be any good at it. But just the experience of doing it, it fires the brain.

I really do think happiness, as it turns out, is a biochemical exercise.

Paula Poundstone

8 p.m. Saturday

Fremont Theatre, 1035 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo

$26 to $36

888-825-5484 or,