Comedian Paula Poundstone

The comedian discusses her book The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness.

One of the great humorists of our time, Paula Poundstone was the first woman to win the cable ACE for best stand-up comedy special and the first woman to perform stand-up at the prestigious White House Correspondents dinner. She is ranked in Comedy Central’s Top 100 Comics of All Time, has had numerous HBO specials, and has won an Emmy Award. She’s a panelist on NPR’s weekly comedy quiz show “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” and tours regularly throughout the country as a stand-up comic. Her latest book is, “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness.”

Follow @PaulaPoundstone on Twitter.

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Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, first a conversation with Paula Poundstone. She’s perhaps best known for being a fixture on the comedy scene for nearly four decades now, but she’s also an accomplished author. Her latest is called “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness”.

Then we’ll talk to the man at the center of the Starz drama, “American Gods”, actor Ricky Whittle.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Paula Poundstone and Ricky Whittle coming up in just a moment.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome comedian Paul Poundstone to this program. The self-proclaimed doubting Thomas was determined to find the secret to lasting happiness and tried a series of experiments in that quest. She shares her findings in a new book. It’s titled “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness”. I am delighted to have Paula Poundstone on this program. How are you, my friend?

Paula Poundstone: Good. Thanks so much for having me.

Tavis: It’s good to see you again. Why a self-proclaimed doubting Thomas?

Poundstone: I’ll tell you. My book is a series of experiments, as you say, doing things that I or other people thought would make me happy. Every chapter is written as an experiment with the hypothesis and the conditions and the variables and, hopefully, the funniest field notes ever written.

But the question for me wasn’t whether I would enjoy doing something. The question was what could I do that would give me, you know, a little lasting something. You know what I mean? Like when I finished doing it, I would have an umbrella, so to speak, for the inevitable rains of one’s daily life [laugh].

So the analysis of each chapter is the story of raising a houseful of kids and animals and being a standup comic for a living, which I am, and just being stuck being me 24 hours a day. I tried many things and I think I came to discover one thing, which is there’s a difference between happiness and enjoying something.

You know, if I were to go on a Ferris Wheel with my son, for example, I’m sure that I would enjoy it because I like Ferris Wheels. But I can guarantee you, by the time I got down, we’d already be in an argument. That would be something that I enjoyed, which is not the same as something that gives you lasting happiness.

Tavis: And what did you discover or have you discovered what happiness is for you?

Poundstone: Well, I think, sadly, it’s more biochemical than it is romantic. I think it has to do — and I wish this wasn’t true — but I think it has to do with getting exercise and human interaction, by the way, very important, which I think we skip over a lot nowadays because of everybody staring at their flat thing, which steals words like friends and connected. But in fact, electronics is to happiness and relationships what Doritos are to nutrition [laugh]. It’s not good for you.

Tavis: Did you figure out the secret to — how might I put this — sustained happiness rather than just periodic happiness?

Poundstone: I’m not sure there is such a thing as really long — I mean, I think it’s sprinkled in. I think it’s an ingredient. As I say in the book, if for me happiness can be the back beat to the score of my life, I’m good, you know, because the other emotions have a place to play.

In the very first chapter is a Get Fit experiment. During that experiment, my dog died and one of my best friends died. And I firmly believed that, had I been doing anything else other than working out grueling workouts, not every day, by the way, but three or four times a week, I think I probably would have been sort of towed under by those sad things. But instead, it’s not that I wasn’t sad — you know what I mean — it didn’t overpower me.

Tavis: As I read the book, it seems to me that after all the very…

Poundstone: I love it that you read the book. That makes me so happy.

Tavis: Yeah. That’s our job around here.

Poundstone: But do you read fast?

Tavis: No. I’m not a fast reader.

Poundstone: I just said to a friend of mine on the phone today. I go, “I’m 57. I got maybe three more books to read.” So I’m gonna choose very carefully. I’m auditioning authors right now [laugh].

Tavis: As I go through the text, it seems to me that after all the experiments that you tried — and you correct me if I’m wrong here — that what you ultimately came to in terms of a conclusion was that there’s some pretty basic things in life that bring us happiness.

Poundstone: Yeah, I think that’s true.

Tavis: My point is you can try a lot of different things, but there are some basic things that are pretty reliable.

Poundstone: And, by the way, it’s the stuff we were always told, you know.

Tavis: Exactly.

Poundstone: It really is like I don’t do an experiment with having good sleep hygiene, as they call it, where you go to bed at a regular hour and get up at a regular hour. I don’t do an experiment in that, but what I do in one of them, the Get Wired experiment, it took me seven years to write the book for a variety of reasons. But I came to computers later than a lot of people did, but it was several years ago when we had the big kind in my house, but I didn’t know how to use it.

My kids used it and my assistant used it. But I decided — everybody kept telling me, you know, oh, if you used a computer, everything would be so much better somehow. So I went out and bought a laptop because that you can bring door to door and beg for help [laugh], whereas…

Tavis: [Laugh] The mainframe.

Poundstone: The big kind, you got to lure someone into your house and, let’s face it, Jeffrey Dahmer ruined that for everyone [laugh].

So I bought the laptop thing and what’s interesting about the Get Wired chapter is that, because I started on a blank slate in terms of electronics, you actually see my steady decline into the addiction of compulsion of staring at your flat thing, whether it’s a Smartphone or a computer. And it is addictive. There’s no question in my mind.

Tavis: Do you regret having tried that experiment?

Poundstone: No, I don’t. I mean, it’s not that I mind every aspect of it, but I definitely — my son, and it’s a story that I tell in the course of the book. My son suffers from very severe electronics addiction. He seems to be doing well now, actually, I think. But it was years and years of — I put him in front of a computer when he was three because I didn’t know any better. It’s terrible for the developing brain.

Tavis: What’s your advice to parents about that?

Poundstone: None, zero. That’s my advice. We got to get them out of our schools. You know, fine. In high school, you want to have a tech class? Great. It’s behind a door, right? We learned to type. We didn’t carry the typewriter around all day. You put it in a classroom and they have a class for it.

Tavis: It was a little heavier, though, yeah, yeah.

Poundstone: Well, there were some…

Tavis: There were some constraints, yeah.

Poundstone: Yeah, there were some constraints. You know, kids need — and by the way, it’s one of the things in the book. People need to make eye contact. People need to shake hands. People need to give hugs. People need to put the occasional hand on the shoulder. These are very important.

I was just in New York and I was struck by — as I was walking down these, you know, wonderfully streets, streets crowded with people that live there, work there or are vacationing there. No exaggeration, 90% of them were either staring at their flat thing or they had a headset in.

So here they’ve gone to the trouble of moving or visiting this place whose one of their virtues is it’s full of people. and they’re doing their very best to avoid those people. That relationship with strangers is so important to us. We end up feeling isolated. I think we should live every day like the opening scene of “Beauty and the Beast”. You know, “Bon jour! Bon jour!” That’s how we’re supposed to be.

Tavis: When I got this book, when it came across my desk, one of the first things I thought other than how much I loved the funny…

Poundstone: You shoved your volume of Shakespeare away and began reading this.

Tavis: Yeah, exactly. I started reading this, yeah. I love the funny title, but I was struck by your phrase, The Search for Human Happiness”. It made me wonder whether or not you think other creatures find happiness — you know where I’m going with this, right?

Poundstone: No.

Tavis: Do other creatures find happiness more easily than we do?

Poundstone: Well, we are really lucky that we have — I mean, I’m the luckiest performer in the world because I get to go onstage and say things that I think might be funny in front of a group of people who’ve come out to laugh for the night.

And particularly now, where I feel that the entire world is in the midst of a mental health crisis, it is an absolute joyful job to be a part of this thing that’s really good for people, which is laughing as a group. I think raccoons have it [laugh].

I can’t swear to it, but I tell you, I’ve seen raccoons like with one another and they looked to me like they were amusing each other. I suspect that, you know, primates, but I don’t know. Cats not so much.

Tavis: See, the fact that you say raccoons kind of gives me the chills because…

Poundstone: Why?

Tavis: I’ll tell you why. A funny story, but not so funny to me. I literally just had all the fences around my house completely redone because there was a family of raccoons that were making their way under my fences and just having a field day in my back yard.

Poundstone: What were they doing?

Tavis: Swimming in my pool, in my Jacuzzi, laying on my lounge chairs. They just completely took over the back yard. And every night about three in the morning, they would just be out there having a field day. I had nothing against the raccoons, but I just kind of got tired of the raccoons taking over my back yard every…

Poundstone: Then I am absolutely sure of my earlier premise! Yes! Thank you…

Tavis: They were very happy in my Jacuzzi every night [laugh].

Poundstone: Raccoons do seek happiness and, apparently, they find it in Tavis Smiley’s back yard.

Tavis: In my back yard, yeah.

Poundstone: I love it!

Tavis: Yeah, well, we fixed that problem [laugh].

Poundstone: Were you serving like little umbrella drinks? Because that’s part of your mistake. We had raccoons in my mulch pile, which is the closest I can come to having a pool and a Jacuzzi [laugh]. A couple of summers ago, we were having just a blazing hot summer. One night, I see my cats like staring out the window at something, and I realize there’s raccoons in the mulch pile.

So I go out and I take my son’s super soaker gun and I shoot water at these raccoons. They come out and it’s like a clown car. One after the other after the other. The next night, they were out there again! This time, I go out with water balloons and I pelt them with water balloons. Same thing.

Now there’s even more. The first night, there were seven. Now it was like 10. I realized it’s roasting hot and I’m throwing water at them. I think they went back to their friends and go, you know, tomorrow night she’s gonna have a Slip and Slide [laugh]. Just every night with the water games, me and the raccoons.

Tavis: You gave them exactly what they wanted. Let me close — who knew? Only on PBS, a conversation about raccoons with Paula Poundstone.

Poundstone: I love that.

Tavis: Here’s my exit question. I was moved — all jokes aside, even though he’s a very funny guy — I was moved when I saw your dedication in this book.

Poundstone: Oh, thank you. Robin Williams was — you know, Robin Williams was a mentor to lots of comics. That  frenetic excitement and energy that he had, he was the Tasmanian Devil of standup comedy and people went out to clubs because they thought they might see Robin. And they saw the rest of us and they liked that too, but he was the draw.

Tavis: Yeah. I tried to interview him one time and I just gave up.

Poundstone: Yes.

Tavis: I mean, there was no interviewing Robin Williams. It’s like I can’t do it. Take over.

Poundstone: He had a little of the raccoon in him [laugh]. In fact, in earlier years, you may have found him floating in your pool and your Jacuzzi if you didn’t have the right fencing [laugh].

Tavis: On that note [laugh], the book is called “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness” by Paula Poundstone, endorsed by every funny comedian living these days. A lot of great endorsements on there.

Poundstone: I got Carl Reiner.

Tavis: You got Carl Reiner…

Poundstone: I got Carl Reiner. I said, you know what…

Tavis: You got Dick Van Dyke…

Poundstone: I got Dick Van Dyke.

Tavis: You got Dick Cavett. You got — oh, my God. You got Lily Tomlin.

Poundstone: And I got Lily Tomlin.

Tavis: I love it. Good to have you on, Paula.

Poundstone: Thank you so much. It was great being here.

Tavis: My pleasure. Up next, actor Ricky Whittle. Stay with us.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: August 7, 2017 at 3:24 pm