Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Paula Poundstone does New Year's Eve


Paula Poundstone s new book takes on that most inalienable of rights, the pursuit of happiness. Photo: Michael Schwartz
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2017 has been a great year for comic Paula Poundstone, whose new book repeatedly hit the Amazon bestseller list, and whose concerts often have been selling out. But when the B.A.R. called Poundstone at her Santa Monica home to discuss her New Year's Eve concert in San Francisco at the Nourse Theater, the 57-year-old comic spun a self-deprecating tale about all her recent successes.

"Yes, I was on and off various" Amazon bestseller lists, said Poundstone, a straight ally. The book, "The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness," published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, had particularly strong sales when it was first published. "But this book is not going to be another 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" she quipped. Al Franken's book, which was published on the same day, "has kicked our ass right and left."

When asked about the news reports that a number of her recent stand-up concerts sold out, Poundstone said, "Well, yeah, but [the venues] are not exactly stadiums."

The show, said Poundstone, is different in every city, in part because about one-third of it is a riff with the audience. "Of course I love coming to San Francisco," said Poundstone, admitting that she won't get to see much of the city. "When I'm done with a performance, I go right back to the hotel and crash."

But before she leaves the concert, Poundstone always spends time at a meet-and-greet with the audience. Although she sells CDs and other merchandise, "I always make sure the audience knows they are not required to buy anything to come up and say hello or take a picture."

The book took seven years to research and write, she said. "I don't write for a living," she explained. But her previous book, "There's Nothing in This Book I Meant to Say," published in 2007, took nine years, "so maybe the next one will only take five."

Her book takes on "that most inalienable of rights, the pursuit of happiness," Poundstone wrote in the book jacket. She offers herself up as a human guinea pig, she explained, in a "series of thoroughly unscientific experiments, trying out a different get-happy hypothesis in each chapter."

Poundstone tried 13 approaches that she hypothesized could make her happy, including getting in shape with taekwondo, driving a Lamborghini, communing with nature while camping with her daughter, committing to getting her house organized, learning swing-dancing, meditating, and volunteering. The book concludes with a simple suggestion for happiness. "Get some exercise," writes Poundstone. She also advises people to "avoid letting stuff pile up," conceding that her personal experience organizing her home "turned out to be incredibly painful." It was, she said, "an oddly emotional experience. Going through my stuff was grueling, especially the toys my [now-grown] kids are no longer playing with. There was something about the process [of organizing] that was just heinous."

After she finished the book, Poundstone continued with a few of the activities she sampled for her research. She still volunteers twice a week at the nursing home, she said. "I know for sure that makes me happy. Besides, the idea that I'd volunteer for my research and then when I'm done, say, 'OK, goodbye, I got what I needed' would just feel so wrong."

Poundstone is happy about the book's success because it is "one of the things" that enables her "to keep my career going. I am so grateful to have work that I love. This is going to sound really weird, but I consider the people in the audience to be my best friends."

The best part of the performance for her "is knowing that the crowds go away happy and I get to keep working." Recently an audience member told Poundstone she's seen her perform in four different states, then introduced her neighbor who saw Poundstone for the first time. "I loved that," she said.

This year's show consists of all-new material, said Poundstone, much of it based on topics in the news. While she wouldn't give any clues about what she's likely to tackle in San Francisco, she brought up a few of the things on her mind, such as the onslaught of accusations about sexual harassment.

"I don't really know what to make of" all the charges, she said, noting that she herself has not been a victim, nor has she observed it during her career. When Senator Al Franken was pressured to resign, she said, "There was no due process. He was tried in the court of public opinion. That's an unfairness I don't support.

"There's a mob mentality that's bothering me," she said. "I recently heard someone suggest that we establish a commission to look into the problem [of harassment] in Hollywood. It's not a Hollywood problem, it's a problem in life."

Poundstone turned all of my questions into wisecracking responses, but she turned serious when asked about her three children.

"My older daughter is living in LA in an apartment, is taking classes here and there, and she seems happy enough. My younger daughter is a devoted vegan and is interning at a farm, where she is enjoying the work very much. But my son is AWOL, and he is kicking the shit out of his mother's life."


Tickets for the Paula Poundstone New Year's Eve concert at the Nourse Theatre ($49.50-$59.50) are available at


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