These are trying times for all our souls, as a highly divided nation strives to maintain its sanity while living under a controversial leader. But comedian Paula Poundstone is here to save us all, leading us to happiness through both her latest bestselling book The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness and her frequent appearances on the hit NPR game show Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me, and through her frequent live comedy shows nationwide.
A longtime resident of Santa Monica, where she stays busy as a single mom to several adopted children and numerous pets, the 58-year-old Poundstone is delighted to be staying close to home this weekend while playing to a packed house. She will perform at the Fred Kavli Theatre of the Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. on Saturday, and she took time to speak with VCReporter to share her highly opinionated views on numerous issues both personal and world-related.
VCReporter: These are some unique times we’re living in, as the #MeToo movement has turned male-female relations upside down in a good way. Any thoughts on the movement?
POUNDSTONE: I think there must have been some really lousy office Christmas parties this year. I sort of picture guys with their hands raised where everyone can see them, moving around the perimeter of the room towards the bar.
But I have mixed feelings about #MeToo. Overall it’s a good thing. Women shouldn’t have to put up with as much as they do, particularly in the workplace. But sometimes it’s an awfully wide broom. I’m not sure every incident falls into the same category. It’s not all Harvey Weinstein, and there’s no due process and that worries me. When you’re tried in the court of public opinion, you’re screwed. Not everyone’s rules are the same and, honestly, guys are dunderheads. Part of me feels bad for really stupid guys.
How do you feel about the Age of Trump?
I watch it in horror. I am not an expert even on constitutional law and history, but I am right now reading a book on Mussolini because I have a real gap in my body of knowledge, and on the rise and fall of the Third Reich because I want to be aware of what the early symptoms are of tyranny and dictatorship because I’m sure the people in Germany didn’t think it could happen to them either. On the road I put on MSNBC, and it’s not healthy to watch that all day. It gives you a stomachache, and that’s the truth, because look at all the medicine ads. All day long they tell you, “We’re about to tell you what you want to hear.” It’s like putting a toy in front of a cat on a string, it reaches for what it wants and they pull it away.
How did you decide to embark on your study of happiness?
I think it would be a great playground for writing jokes, doing different things I wasn’t used to, since my No. 1 job is to be funny. I thought it would be fun, and I had this fantasy that the publisher would pay for me to do these things. It was quite a fantasy; the publisher did not pay for anything. It’s yet another memoir, which I get to keep writing because I’m not dead yet.
My question was not whether I would enjoy doing certain things, but what would give me a bounce so when I returned to my regular life raising a houseful of kids and doing standup, I’d still have some gas in the tank. The analysis part of each chapter is the story of my regular life. Because it took seven years, in the end, it is the story of raising my kids.
It took seven years to write that book. I didn’t know it would take that long, but I did know, the heart of that book would be in my family life, and I knew it would be a fun playground for jokes. The book turned into a lot more than I expected it to. The No. 1 job is to be funny but it ends up telling the story of my kids growing up, basically. By the time I was done, I’m the only one in the house anymore.
In one chapter, you explore whether driving fast cars can make you happy. Can they?
The fast car was a Lamborghini and was fun, but it’s not the answer, for sure. The answers are, sadly, so unromantic, so much what our parents always told us, which is go outside, get some exercise. I think rigorous exercise, the first chapter is the get-fit experiment and that alone took several months.
At one point while doing that experiment, I was carrying a trash bag, about 30 pounds of animal waste, down the alley to the trash can and as I’m wandering down the alley in a route I’ve taken many, many times, yet it felt good. It can’t be the animal waste and it can’t be the experience of throwing away kitty litter and waste. It has to be getting fit. Being able to move more freely with less weight as a result of working out just makes you feel so much more capable. I feel like I’m not waiting for life to just act on me as when I’m not in good shape.
Then there’s the get up and dance chapter.
I decided to take swing dance because I saw people do it on the Santa Monica Promenade and it looked like so much fun. I love that style of ’40s music and it’s generally happy, though my dance teacher says the songs are all about being in love or eating. It involves social life, and you’re moving. That trifecta of good things for one’s brain and emotional well-being.
I signed up for group classes with a wonderful teacher, but I eventually jettisoned to private classes for a while. I did the Charleston to the blues classic “Fire and Rain,” and it looked like tai chi. I went to as many classes as I could each week around my schedule, my kids and the road. I put many years into learning before I went to my first social dance and it was harrowing. The music was too fast and everything I thought I knew would fall out of my head.
The first thing with a stranger, I let the guy walk me out to right in front of the band. I think I was screwing up the sax player because it was such a spectacle, he was watching and lost control of his spit valve.
The end chapter of the book finds you looking for quiet.
The last experiment in my book is with meditation. And it’s not something that I have been born into the world to do. Not only do I talk a lot but I have obsessive compulsive disorder. Everyone has it but it’s only diagnosed to the degree it interrupts your life.
For me, one of the things that happened is that every thought is connected to another thought. It’s like when that magician pulls a scarf out of a sleeve and one is tied to the other and to the other. Someone else, even the audience, thinks that I jump around. But in my mind the thoughts are all connected and I feel the need to say them out loud.
So meditating is counterintuitive to everything in how I function. But I did try and I don’t know if you can call it success, and there’s times where I came away and I did feel more creative and more motivated creatively. And that sort of a conduit, I felt it affected my work, and since I love my job, that did make me happy.
It’s admirable how much you have helped kids, adopting three and fostering two. What inspired you to get involved like that?
There are so many issues to be dealt with in the world, I feel like it’s we have this big party and there’s spilled beer and pizza crusts and paper plates and broken plastic cups and tipped-over furniture all over the place. All you have to do is get up and just start picking stuff up. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, whether you’re an activist or volunteer with the environment, the homeless, or running for office. It doesn’t matter, there’s plenty to do.
I guess when I was a young adult, I decided I wanted to make sure I was doing something to help others and benefit the whole because I have a tendency to be selfish. Sometimes I do better than others, and I’m not perfect. I share this with the kids and I hope someday it rubs off, but maybe I’ve just created misanthropes with them since kids tend to do the opposite. But just greet people walking down the street. Depression is at epic levels and electronics have stolen our souls to some degree. We don’t look each other in the eye and make enough real contact, and its’ collectively affecting our well-being.
Paula Poundstone performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday at the Fred Kavli Theatre of the Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Tickets are $46. Call 800-745-3000 or visit ticketmaster.com. To hear the complete audio of this interview, visit https://bit.ly/2HfIMMX