Paula Poundstone is getting old — but her act isn’t. Widely considered to be a modern master of improvisation, she is a workhorse who has been touring basically constantly for nearly 40 years. Here is a comedian who can do two acts per night with nary a repeated line between them. Her audience engagement is astounding. Poundstone can carry an interesting, hilarious conversation with one stranger in the seventh row for 15 minutes before moving on to the next eager victim. There are bits laced throughout, but her transitions are so apt that you hardly know she’s springing one from the can until she’s already finished it and the audience is applauding.
Indeed, Poundstone’s mind is a steel trap of synthesis, but it’s her memory that ices the cake. Poundstone is queen of the callback, where she consistently demonstrates the ability to wrap around to a previous punchline and tie up every show so that audiences can feel that cathartic moment of conclusiveness.
As a live wire, she is an undisputed champion. Despite her stage successes and a growing repertoire of radio work, the columns she’s written are few and far between. Her first and only book, There Is Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say, wasn’t published until 2007. Perhaps there a general agreement even among her fans that the things Poundstone does best simply can’t be done in print. Finally, a decade later, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness will vanquish any detractors because it highlights the versatility of her content in a different form. Poundstone is a gifted impromptu speaker due to her ability to remain attentive to the moment at hand, but the book is proof that such mindfulness is a part of her every waking moment, not simply a way of talking while on stage.
Despite the fact that her act relies heavily on interrogating members of her audience, the audience never feels intimidated. This is due in large part to Poundstone’s general vibe of perplexity, which is conveyed equally easily on the page. When she asks big questions of strangers or contemplates her own daily life, there’s an earnest air of inquiry there that deflects any defensiveness on the part of her subjects.
Her attention to detail runs parallel to that other veteran of observational comedy, Jerry Seinfeld, except Poundstone tends to self-deprecate where Seinfeld prefers to pass judgment. Poundstone has mainly spent her career passing judgment on only herself, and on the page, she succeeds in seeming if not normal, then at least ordinary in the most colorful possible way.
So this unscientific approach to improving her own happiness is really the perfect thread for her to put her act in print. She readily concedes she is no expert and her problems are like everyone else’s. She’s wrangling three kids, plus a gaggle of cats and dogs, as a single parent renting a house in Santa Monica. She has obsessive-compulsive interests in cleaning her cats’ bottomless litter boxes and shoring up her bottomless supply of Diet Pepsi.
Approaching 60 now, with comedic chops that are more accurately classified as killer instincts than skill sets at this point in her long career, Poundstone is ripe for the ultimate self-reflexive comedic conceit: trying various ways of improving upon her own happiness. It’s a collection of self-help fails.
Her previous self-help fail is well known; Poundstone faced some scandal 20 years ago over her alcoholism and a child endangerment charge. It’s no secret either that comedians usually don’t have a very healthy self-image or adequate coping mechanisms. Poundstone long ago took accountability for her poor choices and now she’s attempting to make good on sustainable life improvements.
She tries things that we all have tried, those fads whose essential forms never really die: finally organizing all the junk in the garage, renting a fancy sports car, going on a serious movie binge-watching marathon with her kids, attempting to get in shape, learning to use a computer and the internet, trying to meditate, making awkward efforts at hugging everyone, volunteering for noble causes, and so on. Does she succeed? Not much. Does she backslide on her small successes? All the time. Is she human? Absolutely.
She has a methodical mind and can gracefully work the steps to punchlines on the page with just as much ease as she does on stage. Moreover, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness is so much the universal daily plot for human beings that any reader will feel just as plugged in to her hilarious commentary as they have felt listening to her engage with the nice couple from Des Moines in the fourth row during her second show on a Thursday night.
Her closure of recurring jokes is just as thorough. Her attention to the telling detail is just as evident. Her willingness to admit her own shortcomings is just as valuable. Her good will toward her audience is just as available. To say she has her routine down, that she is reliable, should not imply that she is predictable.
Poundstone’s brand of comedy is both endearing and enduring. It easily takes root in whatever medium she wants to plant it because she has made a long study of her art so that it is now a remarkably precise science. She’s not a comedian who bombs, though her impromptu capacity means she can never be described as playing it safe. There’s nothing experimental about it; she simply delivers the best features of her finely-tuned work, with which her audience will be well acquainted.
If you haven’t checked in on her work in a while, or even if you’re completely new to it, this book is an immensely satisfying entry point. More people should read this book so that the next time Poundstone wants to rent a Lamborghini for science, she won’t have to fret about the cost as much. Or maybe just so she can buy some self-cleaning litter boxes. Not that these things would make her any happier.