The Ups and Downs of Paula Poundstone

Comedian and author Paula Poundstone talks about her new book, There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say, the best part of her arrest, and why she never wins on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Even if she wanted to, comedian Paula Poundstone says it would be pretty difficult to try to hide her addiction to alcohol.

(Soundbite of TV special “Paula Poundstone: Look What The Cat Dragged In”)

Ms. PAULA POUNDSTONE (Comedian): I had a little drinking problem, but I guess you heard already.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: It was kept kind of hush-hush, wasn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Out of deference to me and my family, I was actually court-ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous on television.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Pretty much blows the hell out of the second A, don't you think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Paula Poundstone performing doing a comedy special that aired earlier this month on the Bravo cable television network. Five years ago, the popular comedian was arrested for driving drunk and for child endangerment. She spent time in rehab for alcoholism and temporarily lost custody of her three children.

Her career as a performer is back on track, but her well-known problems are the subject of much of her humor these days and of her new book, “There's Nothing in This Book I Meant to Say.” It's part memoir, part comedy, part history. Somehow, Paula Poundstone manages to draw connections between her own experiences in life - both the highs and lows - to the lives of important historical figures, from Joan of Arc to Abraham Lincoln to Beethoven.

Later in the program, the media circus with David Folkenflik focuses on O.J. Simpson's new book and TV deal. But first, if you have questions for Paula Poundstone about where she finds her humor and about finding a way to talk about her insecurities and her problems, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. And the e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Paula Poundstone joins us now from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Thanks very much.

CONAN: And I really have to say, I immediately think of Joan of Arc, the Maid of France, and the next thing that pops into my mind is Paula Poundstone.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Well that happens for so many of us now. Yeah, actually, you know, about five percent of my book is about my legal debacle. I deal with it a lot in the first chapter because I felt it was kind of an elephant in the room if I didn't. And so I dealt with it right up front, and because of course the similarities between my life and that of Joan of Arc.

CONAN: I missed that part where you were burned at the stake.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Well, I always say about Joan of Arc, she was in the right place at the right time all the way up until she was burned at the stake. One...

CONAN: One slight mistake there.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Yeah, that was probably the ultimate of wrong place at the wrong time. But my book is a series of biographies of towering historic figures; and in the telling of their story, I tell my own. Also, by doing it that way, I found that I had the fodder of the lives of the historic figures. You know, there just aren't that many Joan of Arc jokes out there.

CONAN: That's true.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Nor Beethoven, who I just had a ball with. So there was the fodder of the individual characters and I just sort of wove in and out, you know, my own life and my own observations throughout. It was really a fun way to do it.

CONAN: Well, Beethoven, you wrote, Beethoven billed himself as Ludwig von Beethoven at the Burgtheater because von meant you were royalty and van meant you were a maker of overpriced sneakers that weighed heavily on one's feet.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: That is correct. Yeah, he cheated with the von thing and he got popped when he tried - when he went to court to get custody of his nephew. And then it turned out that he was cheating with that. To me, to potentially be related to Dick Van Dyke is so much better than being royalty, partly because of the dance with the penguins.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: And yeah, I wouldn't also...

CONAN: I don't think - you're not talking about “Happy Feet.” You're talking about “Mary Poppins” here.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: No, I'm talking about “Mary Poppins,” yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah, you're talking about real classics.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I have no modern references you'll find.

CONAN: Your kids haven't been to see that picture yet, in other words.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: No, not yet. Maybe on Thanksgiving. We usually go to the movies on Thanksgiving. We usually have Tweety Bird-shaped waffles, and then we go to the movies, which is what I firmly believe the Pilgrims would have done if they'd had an electrical outlet.

CONAN: And - well, the other thing, you draw comparisons to your life and that of, for example - Joan of Arc, for example, the things that you were both doing at the age of 17.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I, when I was 17, had - well, I was in high school, but I didn't actually graduate because there was a parking lot that needed hung-out in and I didn't want the brainy kids to have to take an extra shift.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Joan of Arc and I actually have a lot of similarities. When she was 12, she began to hear voices which she believed to be angels of God talking to her, telling her to crop her hair, don armor, and go into battle to restore the king of France to his proper throne. I, of course, didn't do that. But God did speak to me once I'm pretty sure. I believe he said, you're wearing that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: So the similarities - actually...

CONAN: It might have been God or your mother maybe.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: It could have been.

CONAN: It could have been.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I have a lot - I found - Sitting Bull I knew nothing about until I began to research for the purposes of writing my book, and it turns out, you know, it's almost Kennedy-Lincoln, the similarities between me and Sitting Bull.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Well, I often picture Sitting Bull, you know, riding across the plains on his horse into battle with his satiny black hair streaming in a ponytail behind him.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Of course I didn't do that. But when I was a kid my mother used to put one pigtail coming out the side of my head and I had to spend hours waiting at the bus stop looking like that, so the similarities are hard to avoid.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I actually do have some Native American in my background, although I'm Cherokee, which it's not like that comes up a lot in my daily life. But in the 1970s, our family belonged to a pool in the town that we lived in, and at the end of the summer we used to do a synchronized swimming show. And one year for our big finale we used the song Cherokee Nation, and I do think I felt it more than the others, so that's a tremendous similarity there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: We actually couldn't float very well for synchronized swimmers, so our coach made us wear tights underneath our bathing suits. And down the back of the tights, they shoved Styrofoam...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: ...so your body was quite buoyant but your head kind of flopped back. And now of course synchronized swimming is very popular. It's in the Olympics.

CONAN: Very popular, yeah.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: But they test for Styrofoam.

CONAN: But did you have to wear that clip on your nose like they wear in the Olympics?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: No, I was beyond that. I knew to breathe out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: A lot of swimmers haven't worked that out yet that that's what you do: You breathe out.

CONAN: No, and that could be the formula for success, too. You never know.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Yeah, it might. Well, it's true. The short-winded of us probably didn't float as long but...

CONAN: OK. All right, we can see Sitting Bull, we can see Joan of Arc. The Wright Brothers?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Aw, man, the Wright Brothers I have so much in common with. I'm pretty certain - I've not read anything that said this, but I think it's a safe bet that the Wright Brothers had obsessive-compulsive disorder, as do I. Everyone has it. It's - they only diagnosis it based on the degree to which it interrupts your life. But, you know, the different between the Wright Brothers and other people that were working on what they referred to as the flight problem back them - and that's before they knew how big a problem it was going to become - they just did what they did over and over and over again in such a meticulous way that they had success before other people had success. You know, somebody would have gotten it eventually. But were it not for the Wright Brothers and what I believe the fact that they had obsessive-compulsive disorder, we would still probably be about 20 years away from the Cinnabon right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Which most travelers...

CONAN: That might be a step in the right direction, yeah.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Well, you know, I think there's something really weird about the Cinnabon thing. You know you - they must pump in that smell to the airport, because, you know, you can't smell jet fuel in the airport, but you smell the Cinnabon. That seems weird to me. And I think to myself, you know, if the baked good itself were actually that pungent, you would pass out before you could get it to your face. So there's got to be some sort of strange subliminal advertising they're doing with that.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in this conversation. Our guest, of course, Paula Poundstone. Her new book is “There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant To Say.” If you'd like to join us, it's 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Phil. Phil's calling us from Longmont in Colorado.

PHIL (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Phil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

PHIL: Thank you very much. Paula, I respect you greatly. I myself am also a recovering alcoholic, and I would like you to just take a moment to comment on what role your children played and your role as an adult played in your recovery. Because I think it would be very important for me to understand that to help myself. And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, Phil.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Oh, well, that's an easy one, Phil. I don't ever want to do anything that would in any way endanger my children. That was - you know, the very idea of it, that I have done that, it haunts me on a daily basis. And therefore, you know, it's not worth the risk ever, ever again. And, you know, it's hard to speak to tomorrow, but from where I'm sitting today that's not what I would like to do.

CONAN: Endangering your children was getting arrested for driving drunk with them in the car.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Yeah, but I think, you know, when, you know - not if I have one drink or two drinks. Unfortunately, my problem is I - you know, more than that seems like a great idea after one or two, so that's really where the problem lies. But, you know, if I've had a few drinks, I don't do and say the things that are like me and, you know, so it's not - so there's any number of ways that they could potentially be endangered in addition to, yes, drunk driving with them.

CONAN: Yeah. There was a time when they were taken away from you, and that can't have been a happy experience for anybody.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: No, not to the best of my knowledge. No, it was - I always say I've been to hell and back, and even the and back wasn't all that pleasant. No, it was horrendous. And, yeah, never want to be in that situation again.

I am - I deeply regret the mistakes that I made. And by the way, it was totally my responsibility, not anybody else's at all. And, you know, the best thing I can do is not do it again and make sure that - you know, hopefully what my kids will see is someone who - and they were pretty young; I mean, they don't know all that much about what took place - but, you know, hopefully what they'll see is someone who made mistakes and, you know, kind of picked themselves up and kept going and hopefully got, you know, better than before. And other than that, I don't know what else to do.

CONAN: Part of Paula Poundstone's new book is about the experience of going through all of this and the dozen therapists, counselors, psychiatrists who evaluated her for the court who diagnosed her as bipolar, depressed mildly, depressed severely, borderline personality disorder, drug and alcohol dependent, alcoholic, obsessive-compulsive, manic-depressive, compliant, noncompliant, defensive, paranoid, prompt, late, city mouse and country mouse, which makes her the perfect guest for TALK OF THE NATION.

If you have questions for Paula Poundstone, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. We'll have more with the author and comedian after a short break.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Paula Poundstone is our guest today. Her new book is out. It's called “There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant To Say”. To read about what she thinks she does and does not have in common with Joan of Arc, you can go to our Web site at npr.org/talk. If you have questions for Paula Poundstone, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. And our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Tom. Tom's with us Charlotte, North Carolina.

TOM (Caller): Hey, Paula, I understand that you don't like lawyers, which really grieves me grievously because I am a lawyer and I'm really nice.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Oh, I'm so glad. Actually I had one really great lawyer, so I do make rare exceptions to the rule.

TOM: Oh, good. Glad to hear it.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: You know, I dealt with some people that were in the field of kicking people when they were down, and that wasn't really a pleasant part. I got to tell you, though, I wanted to be lawyer when I was young because I was such a fan of Perry Mason.

TOM: Ah.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: And as it turns out, I really just wanted to kind of be a fat guy with dark circles under my eyes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: ...which I have been working towards.

TOM: Well...

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I have a big Perry Mason addiction, actually.

TOM: Well, I loved Perry Mason, too, but I'm glad that you don't hate all lawyers. That's (unintelligible).

Ms. POUNDSTONE: No, I don't. I'm going to make one of the rare exceptions for the rule for you.

TOM: All right, thank you so much.

CONAN: Did you figure out - thanks, Tom, for the call - but the character with the fewest lines in the first half hour is always guilty?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: No, I haven't put that together.

CONAN: If some, you know, elevator operator says going up? He did it.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Well, always when there's someone in an apartment building that sticks their head out and says something, it is always them.

CONAN: Always them.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: And they seem unrelated, and then it turns out that they sublet from somebody and they were in love the murder victim. I love Perry Mason. I have videotapes of it that I take around the country with me and watch over and over again. It's kind of a strange obsession.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Ken from Cleveland. After Thanksgiving dinner, I'm going to run away from home and join the circus. Do you want to come with me? Also, is Poundstone your real name, and if so, is that why you're so funny?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: If I can bring my kids, I would come with him. And, you know, Santa Claus every year brings something like a unicycle - we have, you know, a unicycle and a pogo stick - so believe me, we're in training just to run away with this guy to the circus.

CONAN: Let's get Steve on the line, Steve with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

STEVE (Caller): Hi, there. Paula, my wife and I have always enjoyed your comments from the floor of political conventions. We've missed seeing some of that recently. I wonder what your views were about the recent elections - which, by the way, we appreciated the results of - and what you think is going to be happening in the coming years as a result of the changes.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Thank you very much.

STEVE: And I'll take the answer off the air here.

CONAN: Thanks, Steve.

STEVE: But thank you so much. Bye bye.

CONAN: Bye.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I think - I'm a Democrat, first of all, and as a Democrat every time I hear that Bush's numbers have gone down I think to myself we should vote today. Because what often happens to us when it comes to an presidential election is we do great until we pick a candidate and then we seem to go right in the toilet. So maybe what we should do is just have some sort of election that says we get to have a Democrat and then we select him privately.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: This maybe wrecks havoc with election law, but...

CONAN: Or maybe midterm elections where there's not any one Democrat who can be identified as the candidate.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Well, the other thing is, you know, after they kick the stuffing out of each other during the primary, it is always kind of a sad time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I was thinking actually - I don't know who does Bush's travel plans, but whoever sent him to Vietnam should be in big, big trouble. Because I watched him stammer through a thing the other day, I guess a press conference, where he was trying to tell people that there was no similarity between Vietnam and Iraq, and he was coming up with some great reasons. At one point he said it's very different. There's no movies about Iraq, which I thought was brilliant. And then he gave his favorite argument, which is this - shhh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: That always seems to work. I don't know why that works. He kind of does a little side smirk with his face and just goes shhh. He's a genius.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get - excuse me, that's the wrong phone there - let's get Monica on the...

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Did you push the wrong phone?

CONAN: I pushed the wrong button. Monica's on the line with us from - and is it Nappanee?

MONICA (Caller): Yes, it is.

CONAN: Nappanee, Indiana. Go ahead, please.

MONICA: First of all, thank you for taking my call. And I want to tell Paula that I just love listening to her on a weekend radio show on NPR, and I have a question for her. Was she always witty and quick to speak when she was a child? And also...

CONAN: Why don't we try one at a time, Monica. So, Paula, why don't you try that one.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I don't want to get overwhelmed, Monica.

MONICA: (unintelligible)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: First of all, thank you very much.

MONICA: ...had a comment then.

CONAN: OK, go ahead. We'll wait for the comment till she answers that question.

MONICA: OK.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I don't know. It depends who you ask whether or not I was witty, but I can tell you this. The first sentence of the last paragraph of my kindergarten teacher's summary letter in May of 1965 says I have enjoyed many of Paula's humorous comments about our activities. And that was written by Mrs. Bump who was my kindergarten teacher. And I think the fact that she suggested that it was a good thing probably moved me in a nice direction. And if anybody can find Mrs. Bump - I think she lives in New Hampshire now - I lost her address.

CONAN: Are you trying to tell me that your jokes did not include references to her last name?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Well, you know, part of the reason I think she probably was quite a gifted kindergarten teacher is that anybody who can get enough order to teach when their last is Bump as kindergarten teacher already has a gift.

CONAN: That's a giggle - it's a giggle last name right to begin with.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Isn't that a great name?

CONAN: Yes, it is. Monica, thanks very much. Oh, you had comment. I'm sorry.

MONICA: Yes, yes. My comment is I'm kind of the same way, and I find that women that are quick on their feet and outspoken and witty are sometimes overly misunderstood, especially in my line of work, which is a stay-at-home housewife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONICA: And, yeah, I just would like your comments on that, and I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: OK, Monica, thanks very much.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Well, it's hard for me to say. You know, sometimes people ask me about being a woman comic, if that - if the fact that I'm a woman - well, you really couldn't be a woman comic without being a woman. But a lot of times people ask me if that - you know, how is that compared to being a man or if there's disadvantages to being female in this line of work. And I've never been able to answer that question because I'm only what I am. I'd have to isolate the variables and relieve my life.

I don't think it's much of a drawback, quite honestly. I think it's probably - I don't know why people have traditionally considered it sort of a masculine art form. I think that that's probably less and less as we go on.

CONAN: Your humor has always been observational and always, at least in part, about your own life and, you know, obviously self-deferential in a lot of those references. But was there a moment after your arrest when you said, look, I just can't talk about this stuff?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: No. No. This is - you know, if I had gone out to work and there were no audiences at all and nobody would hire me, well, I guess I would have had to make a career change. But in fact the only period of time that I did not work was the six months during which I was in rehab. And by the way, all of this was years ago.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I mean this was five and a half...

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: ...years ago now that all this happened. You know, I went to work after my - you know, I was in the 30-day program for 180 days. I can't even sit in a chair unless it's in a circle anymore but, you know, I went to work right afterwards and played to a great crowd and enjoyed the heck out of it.

Yeah, I talk about my life. It would be very hard to talk about my life and not bring that up at that point. It's less and less difficult now because it's kind of receded to where it belongs in my personal history for the most part. It doesn't come up in my daily life that much.

But, you know, I consider myself the luckiest person in the world for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I am - a sense of humor is a valuable tool in getting through anything, and so that's what I do.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Amir(ph). I'm sending you this message from Tehran, Iran. As someone who listens to NPR's WAIT, WAIT, DON'T TELL ME almost weekly I'd be glad to know if Paula makes her interesting political jokes on the spot? Does she make us laugh and think off the cuff? And by the way, how much does she cram for each WAIT, WAIT? I'm a big fan of hers.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Salaam. I'm so flattered that somebody in Iran listens to me. Yes, most of what I say I make up on the spot. On WAIT, WAIT we - all the panelists, we don't - I mean I cram - yes, I try to read a lot of newspapers before I go on because I'm not that well versed in current events if I don't. But in terms of what they're going to bring up or what the questions are, we don't know ahead of time. The only thing we know ahead of time is the bluff stories so that we can write our own. Other than that, everything is kind of like being a baseball player in a batting cage.

CONAN: Hmm.

MS. POUNDSTONE: You know, they kind of toss you stuff. Sometimes we think of funny things to say about it, and other times there's really these long, uncomfortable pauses, quite frankly, where all of us are kind of like, well, I was hoping you had something to say.

CONAN: Well, Peter Sagal's known for years for coming up high and inside.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Peter Sagal is great. He is really a clever, funny guy. I didn't realize when I first was doing the show - I remember one time hearing the director say we're on page 12. And I actually said into the microphone - I go, you mean there's a script for this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: It just didn't occur to me. I guess I hadn't thought it out carefully. But, in fact, there is for Peter's end of things. You know, obviously there are questions and so - especially if it's a multiple choice, you know, they've had to make up the other multiple choice options and he does - not all of it but a lot of it. And man is he a smart guy.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. this is David. David with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

DAVID (Caller): Hey Neal and Paula. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: I just had a quick question. Paula you played the voice of Paula, actually, on one of my favorite shows called “Home Movies.”

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I know the one.

DAVID: I'm sorry?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I said I know the one.

DAVID: Yeah. I was just wondering, I really love that character, and although you only played the voice for part of the first season, how much do you think that that character really kind of reflected on you at all? Because she was kind of like the single mom, you know, comedic type. So I was just wondering that.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: It was me. The way it came about is I used to do a show with the same company called “Science Court.” It aired on ABC, it was an animated show. And when I would come into the studio to tape my part of it, invariably I had just come from some sort of, you know, some sort of personal drama somewhere or whatever.

And so I would always vent for several minutes before I would begin to read my part of the script into the microphone. And the director would listen and laugh and, you know, sort of egg me on. And one day he said, you know, do you mind if I tape some of this, and from that he used that as the character for the show.

DAVID: Oh, great. Thanks.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Sure.

CONAN: David thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

DAVID: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get…

Ms. POUNDSTONE: He was so young.

CONAN: Well, apparently, you're skewing for that younger demographic now.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I love that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Lee and Lee's with us from Portland, Oregon.

LEE (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

LEE: I was going to ask Paula, when she was getting her start which were the comics out there on the scene that she really was impressed by?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Oh, I worked with - my sort of graduating class was Steven Wright and Jim Tingle. Jerry Seinfeld was a little bit ahead of me, but, you know, close enough. Dana Carvey was a big influence on me in lots of ways, actually. Because he's very, very funny and he's very improvisational and sort of would kind of take the audience on a less predictable journey than some other acts. And I really think that most comics, you know, of my generation wouldn't be working at all if it weren't for Robin Williams.

CONAN: Lee thanks very much.

LEE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Our guest today is Paula Poundstone. Her new book is “There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say.” You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Ken on the line. Ken calling from Cleveland, Ohio.

KEN (Caller): Yeah. Hi Paula, I love your stuff.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Oh, thanks so much.

KEN: Yeah. I was wondering what your answer would be to a question that Woody Allen asked Bill Clinton. Do you wear boxers or briefs?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: What an excellent question, both from Woody Allen to the president or from you to me, because this is really going to get us to the bottom of so much.

CONAN: I'm not sure it was Woody Allen. It was on the MTV special where I think then candidate Clinton appeared. But go ahead.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Oh.

KEN: I think he was wearing a disguise.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I wear a thick, high-waisted cottony brief that I purchase in bulk every eight to 10 years at Sears. And I find that the elastic goes out at about seven years but you can still cut it and tie it and get another couple of good years out of it. It's an attractive image, isn't it?

CONAN: I understand that those were originally manufactured in East Germany.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: They likely were.

KEN: Thank you.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: You know, I'm actually recognized when I go into Sears, because they say aren't you the girl who buys her underwear here and I say yes, I am.

CONAN: You're the one?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Yeah. Yeah. I think they have that one rack, it's just for me.

CONAN: Yeah. Thank you, by the way, Ken. Let's see if we can get to Greg. And Greg is with us from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

GREG (Caller): There's no way to follow that up. Hi, Paula. You're great. I love your stuff.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Oh, thanks so much.

GREG: And I can't fly on an airplane without thinking about the poor people on the left who never get to see the good stuff out the window. One of my favorite lines of yours - people on the left, we don't like the people on the right. Excellent.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Thank you very much. Yeah, the pilots don't really talk to us so much anymore. Do you notice that?

GREG: No, they don't at all. No, no.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Now, they kind of sequester themselves.

CONAN: Well, it's so hard for the passengers to decide between the lobster and the filet, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREG: Right. Thank you.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: True.

GREG: Whichever you happen to bring in. Paula I wondered, with your book coming out, do you think you'll sell more copies or O.J.? I'll take your comments offline, in fact, on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POUNDSTONE: I can't tell you how happy I am to have my book and his mentioned in the same promo.

CONAN: It'll be the last time. In fact, we have some breaking news - that the publication of the book and, indeed, the Fox TV interview with O.J. Simpson have now been canceled.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Oh, for heaven's sakes.

CONAN: We're going to be talking about it in the next segment with NPR's David Folkenflik, but if you'd like to say something totally inappropriate now's your opportunity.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: No. I have no comments to make. I will be just as happy to not have our books mentioned in the same breath. But - so I guess that's good. Except for now what they're going to talk about is the fact that they're not talking about the book. So it's just going to go on an on.

CONAN: It's clearly censorship of some sort or another, I suppose. “There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say,” what does that mean?

Ms. POUNDSTONE: When I originally made the deal to write this book - which it took me nine years to write it - there was an understanding, I think, between me and the publisher that it would be memoir-ish - you know, observational humor, memoir-ish. A lot of comics write their act in a book and do it successfully and well. I didn't want to do that, and certainly there are parts of my act in this book for sure. But I wanted something a little bit richer, a little bit more to kind of sink my teeth into than that.

And so, you know, originally I sat in front of blank paper for a really long time, you know, with this idea of writing about myself. And it just felt kind of presumptuous and silly, actually. And finally it occurred to me that because of the kind of human being I am, when I'm in conversation with people invariably I somehow route the conversation back to me. No matter how much I don't want to do that, that's what ends up happening.

So I realized if I tried to write about Abraham Lincoln, I wouldn't be able to shut up about myself. And so that's exactly what I did, and therefore each chapter I start out - and when someone puts the book down by the way, if they've read it, you do end up with authentic biographies of these historic figures.

Each chapter is a different figure. They're fairly well researched and it's a brief biography but comprehensive. But each time I time I try to say something about Abraham Lincoln I find myself diverting to something that - it reminds me of something that happened to me or it reminds me of something else entirely.

CONAN: If you have to find out what those things are, “There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say” is the title of Paula Poundstone's new tome. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. POUNDSTONE: Thanks a lot, Neal.

CONAN: Paula Poundstone joined us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California.

When we come back from a short break, the media circus surrounding O.J. Simpson's book and TV deal, which as we mentioned just a moment ago, have now been canceled.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say'

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Canonized as a saint 508 years after her death, Joan of Arc led the armies of France when she was seventeen years old. At nineteen she was captured by the British, tried by the Church, and burned at the stake as a heretic. At seventeen I left high school because there was a parking lot that needed to be hung out in, and I didn’t want the brainy kids to have to take a shift. At nineteen I became a stand-up comic, turning my back on a successful table-bussing career, and at forty-one I was arrested, putting off my canonization indefinitely.

Joan of Arc was born to Isabele and Jacques d’Arc in Domremy, France, in 1412. I don’t understand French names. Apparently Joan of Arc was never called "Joan" in France; she was Jeanne d’Arc. Two different authors I read said they were calling her "Joan" because that was how Americans knew her. Well, who started calling her "Joan" in America? You can’t just do that. If it’s Jeanne, then it’s not Joan. It’s not even like it saves your tongue time. It’s the same amount of sounds. Why not save ink and call her "d"?

Joan or Jeanne was raised in a manner considered proper in that time and place. Her father said he would rather have had her brothers drown her than allow her to lose her virtue. I’d have been pretty water-safe back then. My mother told me that she learned to swim when someone took her out in a boat to the middle of a lake and threw her overboard. I said, "Mom, they weren’t trying to teach you to swim."

The youngsters in Joan Jeanne Joan’s community had the responsibility of taking each family’s sheep, goats, and cows to pasture and watching them while they ate. There is a bit of controversy in the record as to whether Joan Jeanne Joan regularly took her turn driving the livestock to pasture, but if she did it drunk we’d have something in common. In June 2001 I was arrested on a felony child-endangerment charge, for driving drunk with my children in the car, a misdemeanor child-abuse charge, the details of which I am not permitted to discuss because they are sealed by the court, and four charges of lewd acts with a minor, which were later dropped. I pled guilty to the child-endangerment charge and the misdemeanor child-abuse charge because those things were true. There is nothing I care about more in the world than my children, but in fact I was drunk when I drove them to the Baskin-Robbins one day, and it was reported to the police. I have no one to blame but myself — which, I’ve always said, takes the joy right out of blaming. I wish Dick Cheney could have been involved somehow.

I did have a drinking problem. I don’t know if you heard. It was kept kind of hush-hush out of deference to me: I was actually court-ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous on television. That pretty much blows the hell out of the second "A," wouldn’t you say? Not only have I not been granted the world-famous anonymity, but when I arrive at those secret clubhouses, there are big blinking WELCOME, PAULA signs. Looking back, I can see that there were red flags I should’ve noticed. In my defense I’ll say that I was drunk. That’s the good news and the bad news about drinking; there are red flags, but they’re kind of blurry and they zip on by. I guess I was in denial. For a while I thought I had an ice cream problem.

I should have known. About three weeks before I went into rehab I got really drunk, went into a pet store, and bought a dog. It would have been no big deal, but we had nine cats. Believe me, the cats started hiding the alcohol after that. We now have ten cats, a big stupid dog, two tadpoles, a bearded dragon lizard, and a bunny. I’m going to be honest with you. I’d been drunk in that pet store before, and I don’t want to play the victim here, but I believe they knew and I believe they took advantage. Does anybody else’s pet store have a wine section? It seems unusual to me.

I was very drunk when I got my first bunny. I sobered up by the next day and bought another bunny to prove I would have gotten the first bunny even if I wasn’t drunk. That should have been a huge red flag. Most people in AA have bunnies. They don’t say it when they stand up. They say their names and identify themselves as alcoholics, but most don’t have the courage to admit openly to bunny ownership.

My dog was a cute little puppy when I got him. However, about three weeks later, having had no success at quitting drinking on my own, I went into a rehab for 30 days and got stuck there for 180 days. In one of the kindest gestures ever bestowed upon me, a woman I had never even met took my puppy the whole time I was away. Six months later, when I couldn’t possibly share in a circle one more time and my dog had ingested all of her furniture, this woman dropped off in my front yard, in what I liken to a drive-by shooting, one of the biggest, dumbest animals I’ve ever seen. I don’t really even have any proof that it was the original dog, but it didn’t seem polite to question it. As it turns out, my dog Cal is part black Lab, part German shepherd, part pit bull, and part chow. I believe there was at least some alcohol involved in his conception. He has eaten everything. Some bleeding-heart dog people have told me he was teething. Sharks eat everything, are they teething? I believe his German shepherd/black Lab/pit bull/chow mother got really wasted one night, went down to the beach, and had sex with a shark. The most diabolical plan of the maddest mad scientists couldn’t have come up with this combination. I read in a dog-training book that during his "chewing phase" I should put anything I don’t want chewed out of his reach. He eats the side of the house. I’m not sure which high shelf to put the house up on.

As I fly by my neighbors at the end of his leash, they sometimes shout after me, "Why don’t you get rid of that dumb dog?" Sometimes, after exercising the dog, while popping my arm back into its socket, I think about getting rid of him, but he’s an important part of my punishment. It should have been part of my sentence — five years probation, random drug and alcohol testing, and keep the dog-shark.

When she was twelve, Ms. d’Arc heard voices that she believed were sent by God. The voices eventually told her that she had been chosen by God to restore the kingdom of France. She was instructed to dress as a man, crop her hair, take up weapons, lead the French troops to victory, and assist King Charles in reclaiming his kingdom.

I thought I heard God speak to me once. He said, "You’re wearing that?"

I bought a black chiffon spaghetti-strap shirt and jacket once. The salesperson told me I couldn’t wear it with corduroy. There was a sense of danger in her voice. It didn’t sound like merely a "fashion don’t," but rather a word of serious caution, as though the combination of the two fabrics might result in an explosion. She repeated the warning as she bagged the garment. She was troubled by an uncanny sense that I owned a lot of corduroy. The military must have bunkers full of carefully separated corduroy and black chiffon secreted away somewhere in Nevada. It’s one of those tigers we hold by the tail, like the A-bomb. I never wore the black chiffon shirt and evening jacket. Too risky. I buy impulsively sometimes, totally forgetting what I look like and how I spend my time. Amazingly, the fantasy of going out someplace kind of fancy, on a night when I wasn’t wearing corduroy and had shaved, lasted long enough for that shirt and jacket to make the cut through three moves and countless closet cleanings.

Much of history’s record of Jeanne’s extraordinary life comes from her own testimony during her heresy trial, although I can’t imagine that they got it all written down accurately. My criminal court case in Santa Monica was rescheduled three times in a row, weeks apart, in part because the court clerk wrote the wrong time down on my lawyer’s official document. Once, at the appointed day and time, the district attorney wasn’t there and the judge had to go to a doctor’s appointment. In an effort to cheer me up, my lawyer told me, after he rescheduled with the clerk, "It’ll be next month on the nineteenth and the clerk says this’ll be good because the judge can be there that day." I realize that, as a criminal, my thoughts on the legal process don’t carry much weight; still, for whatever help it may have been to my lawyer in his own personal relations, I explained to him that people are supposed to plan things for the times they are available to do them, and that one does not score points for scheduling a court hearing for a time when they can be in court — especially when they are the judge. It’s hard to believe that all of what Joan Jeanne Joan said in court got written down exactly as she said it.

Jeanne claimed to have heard voices and seen accompanying apparitions several times each day for five years. She said they were Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, and were often flanked by hundreds of unidentified angels. I keep picturing Michael Landon and Della Reese surrounded by those little white decorative soaps shaped like angel heads, but I’m sure that’s inaccurate. Who would crop her hair short and cross-dress because little soaps told her to?

Joan Jeanne Joan said she never sat for a portrait, but there are many artists’ renderings of her. Since she rather famously cut her hair, it’s clear that the images of her with long, flowing red hair are inaccurate. Jeanne was a farm girl who labored in the sun, and she came from thick, short, muscley farm people, so it’s not likely either that she was tall and thin, with soft pale skin, as she’s often depicted. My face started to wrinkle this year. I don’t see what function it serves in nature, but it’s amazing. My face is folding in on itself. It’s no wonder I’m tired a lot — that has to be a draining process. I recently bought wrinkle cream. I tried to slip it surreptitiously into the basket at the Rite-Aid, but my daughter Alley saw me and kept asking, "What’s that?" in a really loud voice. I was so embarrassed. I had always hoped that I’d be willing to age gracefully, but sometimes you panic. "Wrinkle cream," I muttered. But Alley wouldn’t let it go. She looked at me wide-eyed and said, "But, Mom, you don’t even believe in stuff like that." "Yeah, but what if I’m wrong?" I answered.

I dyed my hair because HBO wanted me to. Not when I subscribed to cable, but when I did a show on their network. It was a series. Well, it was four shows. We taped them in two nights, and they decided not to make any more midway through my "we love it" hug from the executive on the second night. It was a good show, though. My hair was dark. I did three shows of a series for ABC once. The third one didn’t air in the L.A. area because it was preempted by the Malibu fires. It was a good show, though. My hair was dark.

I started to make a pilot for Fox once, but it got turned into a "presentation" partway through, which is to television what a show in the Little Rascals’ barn was to theater. It was one of the worst show-business experiences I’ve ever had, and I’ve hosted a pie-eating contest brought to you by Zim’s family restaurants. I should’ve seen that one coming. I shouldn’t have even put in a rinse. When I met the head of that network, before I could recoil effectively, he had immobilized me with his python-like embrace and oozed, "I’m an executive who hugs." Not too many sentences later he told me, "We’re like a family here." I should have run. He got fired a couple of years later. I guess Grandpa let him go.

A couple of years ago, after Bob Costas and then Greg Kinnear had left the position, Later invited me to host their one-on-one interview show for a week. It was sort of an unofficial audition for a permanent position. With coaching and practice, I have done a good job as an interviewer in the past. I actually got a CableACE Award for my work as an interviewer on my extensive four-episode HBO talk show. I beat out Larry King and Charlie Rose, and Larry King became bitter and had me on his show and didn’t show up to do the interview. The whole thing was a fluke, of course, because nobody is a better interviewer than Charlie Rose, but my point is I have done that job before. So, Later lined up a week of interviews for me beginning with Betty White, who I love. Betty White was great. I was nervous and I could not stop talking. If I read the "We’ll be right back after the commercial" cue at all, I still wasn’t able to stop talking afterward. In fairness to me, I think I talked mostly about Betty White. So I was on topic. That’s something. I could probably be heard just faintly behind an ad with some woman happily cleaning and disinfecting a stubborn stain in just one easy swipe exclaiming, "With Pine-Sol every day is fresh … Did someone say something about Betty White? … What’s that noise? … Who’s talking while I’m trying to clean and disinfect? … Anyways, I’m sorry. … Buy this stuff. Really."

The producer came into my dressing room afterwards and said I’d done a good job. He said I had gone too long, but that meant there would be lots to choose from in editing. However, the following day, the same guy called and said they felt I had purposely tried to sabotage their show. I couldn’t believe it. Not that I didn’t perhaps suck. I sometimes do, but this was beyond simply not liking me, or the classic "we’ve decided to go in another direction." Apparently I was so bad that it appeared I had planned to be bad, as if it had been a studied, skillful execution of a plot of mine, or perhaps of a rival network against the Later show. It wasn’t an honest blooper, it was a conspiracy. I didn’t simply lack talent; I was part of a terrorist organization aimed at disrupting the American way of life by bringing down the Later show. I know nothing about the history of France except what I’ve recently read about Joan Jeanne Joan. Oh, and I’ve also seen Beauty and the Beast , both the video and the hit Broadway musical when it came to L.A. In fact, my daughter Toshia was in a kid’s production of the play and I saw that a few times. Still, there are gaps in my working knowledge of the history of France. Toshia played a wolf and a peasant. I asked her what her favorite part of the show was. She said, "The bow." That is so-o-o my daughter. Come to think of it, with the exception of the making of The Wizard of Oz, I know almost no history.

Once, in Washington, D.C., I bought a timeline of world history in a three-poster set that equaled twelve feet across. I had it with me on my way home at the D.C. airport. My flight was delayed and I went into a bar to kill time. The bartender handed me a drink and told me the guy at the end of the bar had bought it for me. I didn’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings and I was too shy to say "no thank you," so, stupidly, I accepted the drink and the guy moved to the barstool beside me. I assume the neon I’M STUPID sign went on over my head; I heard a click. The guy kept trying to make conversation and, just trying not to be rude, I answered his questions. Then he suddenly reached across and grabbed my crotch, crushing my poster. He said he was trying to make sure I was a woman. What a waste of good manners on my part. Gee, I’m embarrassed to get caught reading a name tag at a social gathering. Anyways, I broke up with him. What I do know about the history of the world is that it is twelve feet long and the United States doesn’t even begin until the last four inches. My arrest isn’t even mentioned, and there’s a mysterious bend in the middle.

When Jeanne got her instructions from God, France was in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War with England. That’s a long war. That’d be just under half of our nation’s history, or about a third of how long it has taken me to write this book. I guess France had been bothering Scotland, and England had taken issue with that. Charles was the heir to the throne of France, but he had not, at that time, actually sat in the big chair. There were many Charleses back then, and they were all kings. It’s like Briannas at my kids’ school. There are so many that even the use of the last initial can’t keep them all straight. They have to use a complicated numeric system as well. Toshia may have Brianna G.57 as a reading buddy next year. There’s a Brianna Club at school, and this year they had a highly competitive "What Being a Brianna Means to Me" essay contest.

If I ever give birth, I’m gonna name my kid "Yikes." I’ve never had any interest in giving birth before. I was a foster parent for eight years and I fostered eight children, in various combinations within that time. In three strokes of luck, which I could never deserve, I was able to adopt my foster children Toshia, Allison, and Thomas E Poundstone. Part of my sentence was that I can no longer adopt. I had hoped to adopt the two foster children who were in my care at the time of my sad mistakes, but they were taken from me permanently. Toshia, Allison, and Thomas E went back into foster care. For a year I had to have a monitor with me while I picked them up from their foster home at 6:00 a.m. every day. I took care of them until I brought them back at bedtime, and I didn’t leave them until they were asleep. I taped labels with the numbers 1 through 365 all over our house, and each day the kids searched for the right number to rip off of the wall, lizard tank, playhouse, stilts, Harpo Marx photograph, jukebox, etc., in a sort of life-size Advent calendar. By December 2002 we were reunited and quite happy to put it all behind us. Now when I see a blue adopt-a-highway sign on the side of the road, I think, "Sorry, can’t." I’ll have to give birth to my own highway.

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