The Hippo


May 24, 2020








Courtesy photo.

Paula Poundstone 

When: Friday, Jan. 26, 9 p.m.
Where: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 S. Main St., Concord
Tickets: $19-39 at

Heps and balous
Comedian Poundstone’s happiness formula

By Michael Witthaus

 Born in Massachusetts, Paula Poundstone has lived in California for decades — but she often returns to do shows in New England in the dead of winter. 

“When people have stressful weather conditions, that’s a good time for me to show up,” she said via phone from her home in Santa Monica. “It’s especially good to laugh then.”
The sum of what makes one smile is on Poundstone’s mind a lot these days. Last year, she published an entire book on the topic, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. In it, she conducted a series of experiments aimed at finding that path. She learned tae kwon do and swing dancing, decluttered the house, volunteered, enjoyed a family movie day, went hiking with her daughter and communed with many pets. She even splurged on a Lamborghini rental. 
Adhering to something like the scientific method, she took notes, identified constants and made observations. 
“If I throw away a screw I find in the junk drawer, I guarantee the refrigerator door will fall off tomorrow,” she wrote during the “Get Organized” experiment. 
To tally the success of each activity, Poundstone invented  units of measurement. A small dose of happiness was called a “hep,” after one of her cats. Four heps made a “balou,” named after yet another cat. Heps and balous are a lot like calories, some more rich than others. One batch of heps provided short-term pure enjoyment, while others offered a sustained boost of calm when it was really needed, like the time she locked horns with her teenage son over computer use. 
“What could give me happiness [that meant] I still had some gas in the tank [to deal with problems]?” she said. “That would of course not be the Lambo, because the minute you push on the pedal, you no longer have gas.” 
Thus, driving an expensive sports car was a sugar rush, while going to the gym provided heps and balous with staying power.  
Though she would note in the book’s conclusion that “happiness was more complex than I thought,” getting fit really was a biggie, “a lot of the answer,” she said. “I do think that one just feels better if they’re not hauling around extra weight and they exercise.” 
Mind you, Poundstone isn’t really a fan of the getting fit process. A tae kwon do studio was chosen based on proximity to her house, not because of the actual workout. 
“It was so I had to walk the shortest distance in order to work out,” she said. “I really am lazy. So I don’t enjoy working out, but I have to say I enjoy the results of working out.”
A late-night ride with her son, hip-hop blasting from the stereo, netted a balou, maybe two, but it was fleeting happiness. 
“It’s never as cool as it looks in the movies,” Poundstone said, noting that the endeavor was out of step with the rest of her search. “I think the chapter turned out funny, but I didn’t want to just be doing things that were very expensive, because ... A, I don’t have that kind of money and B, then I don’t think you’re telling people things that they can do.”
The book took seven years to write, and during that time Poundstone’s three children grew up and left the nest. That story is told alongside the tongue-in-cheek science. In many ways, it dominates Happiness. 
“I knew that would be the focus, and that those other things were a hook to hang that on,” she said. “The book’s No. 1 job was to be funny, and I knew that by doing the experiments it would be, but the story was one of my home life.”
Poundstone is famous for working the crowd and never doing the same show twice. She calls it the best part of being a comic. 
“I mean, I have an act and I do it. I have, somewhere rattling around in my head, 38 years of material,” she said. “But my favorite part of being on stage is when I’m not doing material. I’m just talking to the audience members.”
Oddly, signing and schmoozing offstage used to paralyze her, but Poundstone began embracing the experience after her first book tour. Last New Year’s Eve, she met a group of blind people after a show in San Francisco. While talking to one of them, she didn’t notice his extended hand until midway during the conversation. This was because, she told him, she had poor peripheral vision.
“He goes, ‘Oh, really, why?’ and I said, ‘I have glaucoma,’” she said.
She then had a moment of epiphany that begged for a lab coat and a clipboard. 
“I realized, I am whining about my somewhat limitedly impaired vision to a man who has none. It was classic Paula Poundstone. If you bottled up the essence of me, it would be that conversation. ‘Really, you’re blind? That’s too bad. You know, I can’t see when I look down in a little part of my left eye. You can’t imagine the challenges I face.’” 

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