For Paula Poundstone, life lessons amid the laughs

GREAT BARRINGTON — Comedian Paula Poundstone was not scholastically inclined during her teenage years, but her recent career moves suggest she's trying to make amends for her youth's indiscretion.

Her latest endeavor is a weekly NPR comedy podcast called "Live from the Poundstone Institute," which examines scientific research of varying significance — topics range from self-enhancement to felines' personalities — from the perspective of a fictional educational entity. The laughs come when Poundstone and co-host Adam Felber, both panelists on NPR's popular news quiz show, "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" challenge guest academics who must tolerate their interviewers' irreverence.

"Welcome to the Poundstone Institute, where real people with PhDs answer questions from people who have to check to make sure they're spelling PhD correctly," Poundstone says, opening the first podcast.

Self-deprecation has been a vital aspect of Poundstone's comedy for decades, and it will undoubtedly be part of her performance at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, as part of the fund-raising Fairview Hospital Gala. But even as Poundstone mocks research and the advancement of knowledge by feigning little understanding of the concepts during her podcast, she hopes audience members are learning something — because she certainly is.

"Its first job is to be funny, but it's also informative," Poundstone told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.

In addition to "Live from the Poundstone Institute," which debuted on July 8, Poundstone's memoir, "The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness," was published in May. Throughout the book, Poundstone describes her attempts to use different scientific methods for making herself happy.

"I figured that would be a great playground for writing jokes," she said of her initial thought process.

Instead, after a seven-year process, it turned into something more poignant.

"It really inadvertently became the story of my kids growing up," she said.

The book's transparent theme of pursuing happiness also evokes Poundstone's troubled youth. Growing up in Sudbury, Poundstone wasn't always able to make light of emotional setbacks.

"I was a horribly depressed, terrible child," she said.

Her unhappiness hurt her grades at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School. Though she ultimately graduated from high school, she dropped out for a while. Still, she remembers many of her teachers from her youth fondly, and her mentality is now closer to that of an educator than a high school "screw-up." She recalled making her children fill out workbooks during the summer to ensure that they maintained their knowledge levels from the previous year. She also co-authored the "Math with a Laugh" textbook series.

Poundstone may now be considered a humorous educational ambassador, but she knows that entertaining and engaging audiences is still her primary responsibility.

"My job is to make it funny," Poundstone said of her role on "Live from the Poundstone Institute," which, like "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" is taped in front of a crowd.

Great Barrington spectators, then, can rest assured that they won't be hearing a dissertation on Saturday night. But between — or, perhaps, in — those laughs, they may just learn something.


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