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Paula Poundstone

by Kathryn Boughton

When comic Paula Poundstone entered school, her kindergarten teacher became her first fan. “Her name was Mrs. Bump,” Poundstone said recently in a telephone interview from her home in California. “Isn’t that the most perfect name? If they had had kindergartens back when Dickens was writing he would have called her Mrs. Bump.

“She wrote a letter that said, ‘I have enjoyed many of Paula’s humorous comments on our activities,’” Poundstone continued. “I still have that letter—a blown-up framed copy used to be on the door at my show.”

Poundstone’s humor has not dimmed in the decades since, although she now feels her comedy is played to a “world in an emotional crisis.” Her humor is manifest in venues such as her new book, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness (Algonquin Books), her regular appearances on NPR’s weekly comedy news quiz show, Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me, and in her own new podcast, Live from the Poundstone Institute.

She will bring her razor-sharp wit back to the Berkshires September 16th when she makes her third appearance at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. “I’m looking forward to going back to the Berkshires,” she said. “It’s always fun to see everyone.”

She said her performance in Great Barrington will have the same elements as many she gives before live audiences. The single mother said she will talk “about raising a houseful of people and animals, but the best part is talking to the people. I use that to set sail. On a good night, a third of the show is unique to that crowd. That’s the fun part.”

She said she is energized by the audience in front of her, calling it a symbiotic relationship.

Poundstone is the adopted mother of three grown children and is an inveterate adopter of shelter animals. “I have two German shepherd mixes and 14 cats,” she said.

The animals are adopted from everywhere, even when she is working. “In San Diego, I was promoting a job I had and I had little press circuit I had to do. One appearance was on Good Morning San Diego and one the things they did was to have someone from animal shelters come in with a couple of kittens that were up for adoption. I saw the kittens and it was like, ‘Hey.’ They didn’t even need to find homes for those kittens.”

She rues her busy schedule, which often takes her away from home, worrying that her pets “got more attention at the shelters.”

“When I’m home, I try walking in a crouch so my hand at least brushes across their heads,” she quipped.

That soupçon of guilt does not slow her down, however. On her new weekly podcast—launched July 8—Poundstone takes on improbable research topics. She ascribes inspiration for the program to her Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me boss, Peter Sagel, who is prone to making unprovable assertions.

“Peter Sagal cites studies with questionable conclusions like, ‘Cats are the only animals who don't forgive,” she said. “Naturally, I ask him to go back and explain. I always want to know who does these studies? How can you tell if a rhino has forgiven you? Peter never seems to know.”

She is joined on the podcast by her chief of research and fellow Wait Wait panelist, Adam Felber. The podcast is produced in front of a live audience and in association with NPR station KPCC. It is distributed by NPR.

She undertook another dubious research project in her new book about human happiness, which zoomed to #1 in the Amazon Best Sellers List for Humor CDs on the day of its release and landed in the top-10 on Humor lists on Hardcover, Kindle, Audible and others sites.

Poundstone said her intent was to do experiments to discern “what I could do that would leave me with some bounce when I returned to my ordinary life of children, animals, being a stand-up comic and being stuck being me 24-hours a day.”

Her original goal was to have her publisher pay for her happiness experiments. “Of course, that didn’t happen,” she said, “but I figured it would be a fun playground—you have a question, a hypothesis, conditions and hopefully the funniest field notes every written.”

“The first chapter is the ‘get fit experiment,’” she said. “I took as many Tai Kwan Do classes as I could fit into each week over two months. It was just grueling, and not particularly fun—although the guy teaching me was funny. It was the after-effect that was best. One day I was carrying a 30-pound bag kitty litter and felt pretty good even though it was of used kitty litter. During the course of that particular experiment, some pretty bad things happened and I still felt some buoyancy.”

Another experiment had more glamour attached to it, but less staying power. “I rented a Lamborghini and I can tell you, that’s not the one. There's a difference between enjoying something and something making you happy.”

Then she tried to assuage the guilt of not being with her animals enough in her “Purry Experiment,” spending an entire day with them. Another day she hunkered down for the entire day to watch movies with her children, who were not allowed to watch television while growing up. “We argued and argued,” she reported, “plus my tailbone began to hurt.”

Toward the end of her experiments, she volunteered at a nursing home, taking her dogs with her. “I really am afraid of old people—but given that I’m heading in that direction myself, I felt should jump in,” she said. “People don’t seem to understand the value of human connections. I’m still volunteering. It’s not like I leap up and say, ‘Hey, today I get to go to a nursing home,’ but it’s more of a lasting feeing. I have a sense of giving.”

She concluded that happiness is “sprinkled” into our days, meant to be recognized and savored as it flits by.

Fairview Hospital is thrilled to bring Paula Poundstone to Great Barrington. Her performance is part of Fairview Hospital’s annual Gala with Gala Packages available for a full evening of dinner and post show. For more information please contact Lauren Smith at 413.854.9611.

Her September 16th Mahaiwe performance will be at 8 PM. Tickets are $53 and can be reserved by calling 413-528-0100 or by clicking on the link below. The Mahaiwe PAC is located at 14 Castle Street in Great Barrington.