Q&A: Paula Poundstone
Familiar to public radio listeners as a regular on syndicated quiz show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, veteran comedian Paula Poundstone currently co-hosts “search for knowledge” podcast Live from the Poundstone Institute and in May released her latest book The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. Poundstone spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen in early December.
The first time I called you it sounded like I connected with a fax machine. Do you communicate with anyone by fax?
Yes, I do. Years ago there was a guy that we always wrote to one another via fax, the guy who owns the Ice House in Pasadena. We spent many years faxing each other, then sadly he just did away with his fax machine. But there’s business reasons. I do not scan. I don’t want to know how to scan. In fact, my interview schedule I prefer to be faxed to me. I don’t want it on a piece of paper. I don’t want it on a computer.
So there’s contracts and agreements, and tax time stuff.
Yeah, yeah. There’s lots of good reasons to have a fax machine. I don’t know why everyone gets so hifalutin that they did away with the critical fax machines.
It’s not quite as weird as we can make it out to be.
No, I didn’t get rid of my VCR either. In fact, I’ve been buying them up in recent years. Been buying VCRs because I have a huge videotape collection. If I don’t have a VCR to play them on, it makes them all obsolete, as Captain Kangaroo taught me.
So how many VCRS do you have?
Five. Maybe six if you count the one in my living room.
OK, this is another thing that could be spun off as eccentric. Or, if you look at it another way, things break down all the time and they’re not manufacturing VCRs anymore, and you can watch your tapes for another 10 years.
Right, exactly. You don’t want to not be able to watch your videotapes. That’s ridiculous, and I don’t want to go out and buy absolutely everything I own in a different format. I know eventually people aren’t going to use things. They’re just going to have it on their computer somehow, but given that I have the things already, I’m happy. Plus, I like the picture on the box. You don’t get that if you’re streaming. I don’t know.
Do you have vinyl albums too?
I do. I’ve had a turntable for a long time but I recently bought my daughter one, and it’s funny, if you haven’t listened to music on a turntable in a long time, if you haven’t listened to an album, you have forgotten how detailed … the sound that is missing when it goes to an iPod, or even a CD, I think. It’s kind of amazing. I hadn’t noticed just when I was listening, when I was listening to other kinds of devices, but when I put on an album for the first time in a long time I was like, “Wow!” It just sounds so different. It’s better.
What albums have you acquired lately?
I bought some stuff for my daughter. I haven’t bought a lot of stuff for me in a long time. I think for Christmas last year she got me Best of Sonny and Cher. I got her some Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. Some of the real deals. She loves it. (Coughs) Sorry, I have allergies and it’s smoky here. I guess we have three fires in the Southern California area, not like where we have to evacuate. But I got up this morning and the house was smoky. At first I thought my daughter burned a candle too far, then someone happened to call me and said something about the fires, and I go, “What fires?!” … “Oh my God, have you looked out the window?”
We’d better get focused. This has been a big year for you. In May you launched a podcast through National Public Radio and you have a pretty heavy touring schedule through the summer. Do you feel you’re on a career high right now?
Well, I’m not a household name but I work a lot. I love to work. It’s been nice. I read a quote one day about writing. It was something to the effect of “Little feels better than writing, and little feels better than having written.” It feels good to have this book out and done, and no more. No editing and discussions, and no more feeling it hanging over my head all day because I’m not working on it enough or whatever. That part. It’s been nice.
Are you satisfied with the results?
There’s not that many projects that one does, that what you envision ahead of time is what you wind up with. And that’s not necessarily bad. Sometimes things wind up going in a better direction. I will say my book … it really is what I was hoping for, so that just plain feels good, regardless of who buys it or who reads it. There’s a feeling of completion there, and the reviews have been great. None of that speaks to who else will buy it but it’s nice to have something come out and have it well regarded.
It has an unorthodox structure. It’s different from the memoir approach comedians usually take.
Yeah, when I was working on it in the beginning, and I’ve been working on it for seven years, my original idea was that I’d do scientific experiments with other people and that would make me happy. And I knew that I would check back in with my regular life. That was part of it, was the way that you could tell. Not just if I enjoyed doing something, how does that happiness hold up in the battlefield of real life? I knew that already going into it. That was part of the premise of the book from the start. So it started out doing experiments. The first one was in fact “The Get Fit Experiment,” and I did it for several months. I’d come home and take notes on what I’d done and how life was going at home. And then eventually when that chapter was over I wrote it up, but I wrote it up just as a regular chapter. I had gotten maybe two or three chapters in before I started saying to the editor I that I was working with at the time, “There’s something missing. It’s something about the layout of the book.” I was even going to meet with a graphic artist to see if there was something they could think of in terms of the layout of the book that was this sort of missing element. And then one day in a real bolt of lightning it occurred to me that it needed to be written as an experiment. What was great was once I started looking up these scientific terms, the terms themselves lent themselves to jokes so there would become this whole other level of jokes. Then when I went to do the audiobook, that was the answer. That there was no other answer, that was the answer. Then when I went to do the audiobook we were thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be reading the words ‘field notes’ so many times, and will that break up the flow of what I’m doing.” So we considered laying it out differently for the audiobook, and I thought, “Nah, I think it’s such a part of what it is that let me try it with those field notes analyses. Let me try to read it as it is.” If you take that away, it loses some of its humor, some of the charm.
You’re revealing yourself as really science minded between this and your podcast, Live from the Poundstone Institute.
It’s so funny because I am the polar opposite. I respect science. I value science. However, I have not cultivated in myself a scientific mind in any way, so it’s sort of a funny coincidence that those two things came out at the same time. I’m horrified to hear that America’s scientists have to hide their data from the government because there’s so many people in powerful places that want to deny truths, and there’s a possibility that hard-earned scientific facts could get taken away in order to tell a story that people in power want to tell. That’s a horrifying idea, and the fact that we’re at that place makes me just revere scientists.
Science and comedy are different ways of getting at truths. As a comedian, right now you’re feeling a responsibility for defending them.
It’s a hard line to walk sometimes. The truth is … I think one thing that makes me a little bit different sometimes is I’m well aware that I’m not a political analyst. I’m not even sure I understand the electoral college, honest to God. I’m also open to the possibility that I’m wrong. I don’t insist that everything I think is the truth. I just insist that I think it. … My act is largely autobiographical, and these are thoughts that I’m having at this point in my life. If someone knows more than I know feel free to inform me. I don’t mean shouting out rudely at my shows. That’s not my point.
I think that comes across in your approach and delivery, that you’re open to rethinking what you believe.
I feel like kind of a student of life. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. You make mistakes and you realize then that there is a possibility you will make further mistakes, and that there is no fence around the area that you will make mistakes in. Parenting alone, oh my God. Just being a parent is a daily swim in a sea of self-doubt. … I’m a working-day comic.
You’re a working-day comic who got Lily Tomlin to write the foreword to your latest book, and Mary Tyler Moore wrote the foreword for your last one.
That’s true, but that’s who I know, not what I am. But I’m so grateful for both of those. It’s a dream come true.
Mary Tyler Moore seemed to hold you in pretty high regard. She wrote some nice things about you.
Yeah, she did. She was a nice friend and it was a terrible loss. I wish, by the way, that they had done … I was really happy to hear they were doing a Carol Burnett tribute while Carol Burnett is still alive, still looks good, still could participate and feel the genuine love that so many people have for her. I wish they had done that for Mary Tyler Moore. This idea that you wait until people die and then you do a tribute to them, who is that for again? It doesn’t make any sense, because Mary Tyler Moore changed television.
What did Lily Tomlin mean to you when you were growing up?
Oh my God, I wanted to be her. I missed by a country mile, but I was in like the 5th Grade when Laugh-In came out. … Laugh-In was a very, very popular show, and Lily Tomlin was the star of it. There were lots of funny things on Laugh-In, but Lily was a cut above everything there. What’s interesting about her is there’s a lot of people don’t know about the things she did before. She was a guest on my podcast, kindly, and when the guys went to write an introduction for her they didn’t even know everything she had done, because she had done so many things. The introduction would go on far too long if you listed them all. She has the eclectic array of abilities, and the genius stuff she did on Laugh-In was just the beginning.