Paula Poundstone loves to play ping pong, even though she admittedly sucks at it. The comedienne recently spent an entire day playing ping pong with a revolving roster of competitors. If someone missed their scheduled time slot, she was ready to go head-to-head with an automated ball machine but thankfully, there was more than enough players to fill the nine-hour experiment in joy.
“We used to have parties where we’d invite maybe 50 people or so and do a doubles tournament and pull names out of a hat. But I’m always so busy that I hardly get to play at all, plus I suck so I get eliminated pretty early,” she says. “I decided I was going to play all ping pong all day from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and I scheduled one person or one group per hour to make sure I was covered. It was so much damn fun.”
That’s just the type thing one would expect from Poundstone. As a master craftsman in observational humor, she strings together the slivers of ridiculousness shining through the cracks of everyday life, manipulating the particles of truth into a shape we all identify with on a molecular level.
Poundstone performs Feb 16 at The Florida Theatre (www.floridatheatre.com). EU had the chance to speak with the comic, author and ping pong enthusiast about what keeps her going, what she could do without and her unscientific, unpredictable and often uncomfortable pursuit of happiness.
“One of my goals, and it’s a lofty one, is that I want to outlive my debt, so I consider myself really, really lucky to be able to stand in front of people and tell jokes,” she says. “It’s really healing for me, too. I’m not saying you have to come see me, but laughter is really good for people on an emotional level. I certainly didn’t invent this by any means. There is a long history of comics putting things into perspective. I want my show to feel like a little oasis, but I don’t want it to be the opiate of the masses. I’d like to be trail mix. People are still hiking, still moving forward and need a little snack along the way.”
Besides flexing her quick wit and improvisational skills on the stand-up stage, Poundstone demonstrates her knowledge of current events on the NPR trivia show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” She is well-versed in the state of the union and doesn’t mince words when describing the antics of the current administration.
“I don’t consider myself a political comic. Most of my comedy is autobiographical and that is part of my autobiography. I pay attention. This is what I saw, this is what I heard and here’s my reaction. I’m not a political analyst. I’m just a person trying to figure things out and sometimes I find things that are funny in the course of that pursuit,” she said. “We really are in over our heads. Even as a comic, you can’t keep up. I don’t have any more room to put his stupid stuff. Anyone remember poor Howard Dean? One “woo” and people were like ‘he can’t be president if he says ‘woo’. [Trump] has normalized strange.
“There is a long history of comics putting things into perspective. I want my show to feel like a little oasis, but I don’t want it to be the opiate of the masses. I’d like to be trail mix. People are still hiking, still moving forward and need a little snack along the way.”
Tyrannical and complicit leadership in Hollywood is also generating turmoil within the entertainment community. When asked if she could create her own hashtag to end an objectionable offense similar to the #MeToo initiative, Poundstone says she would target the pushers at technology conglomerates.
“#ican’tputthisdown. These technology companies need to be held responsible. We’re all addicts now, and our children’s brains aren’t developing correctly. This is not an accident. The biggest currency is your attention,” says Poundstone. “It’s so irresponsible to have the attitude that there’s nothing we can do about it. We do something about things that aren’t good all the time. Maybe not to the best effect but we don’t just throw our hands up.”
Poundstone has also authored two books “There is Nothing in This Book I Meant to Say” and her most recent offering, “The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness,” a personal exercise in finding joy. It’s a relatable quest, delivered with humor and the requisite amount of absurdity. But beneath the musings about camping with a teenage daughter, learning Taekwondo and volunteering at a nursing home is a deep well of humility and grace.
The “experiments” took Poundstone over seven years to complete. And while there was a certain degree of self-inflicted pain involved, she reluctantly admits that she achieved growth and happiness. She even returned to Taekwondo after the book was published.
“I figured it would be a playground for jokes. What I didn’t know is how long it would take. I’m not a writer so I had to slip it into the cracks of my life. The first one was the “Get Fit” exercise so I took Taekwondo lessons. It took months and I went as often as I could. You do feel better but I can’t say even once that I ever looked forward to it. It did help me to weather the storms of my regular life better and as I vaguely suspected, I lost 12 pounds. But once I stopped, I had a bad feeling those pounds would come back and bring their friends. And they did,” she says.
“I continue to volunteer at a nursing home. I never quit because I felt like too big of an asshole to say ‘okay, guys. I’ve got enough’. It’s like the Taekwondo. If I were more of a Buddhist or one of the meditate-y people, I’d be better off. Once I’m there and I’m doing it, it hits the spot.”