You probably recognize Greg Proops from his years improvising on TV in both the U.K. and U.S. in Whose Line is it Anyway? Some of you may remember Proops from hosting a TV dating show called Rendez-View. Or maybe it's the suit that jogs your memory. I had the chance to chat with Proops over the holiday weekend, and before we get to it, here's a look at his appearance last month on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
Greg Proops has been delivering witty retorts for years. This weekend he'll headline Comix in New York City (want a discount ticket? read all the way to the end!), then provide the monologue for UCB's ASSSSCAT on Sunday, head out Monday for Sag Harbor and the Bay Street Theatre, then up to Montreal for Just For Laughs, where he'll join improv friend Ryan Stiles for a series of shows July 15-19 called Stiles and Proops: Unplanned. Caught up? Alrighty then. Let's catch up with Proops.
Wow. Evel Knievel really gets me nostalgically, because my first newspaper gig out of college was in Twin Falls, Idaho, home to that Snake River Canyon plunge!
"He’s the perfect American hero, really," Proops says. "No knowledge of science. 'I'm just going to do it.' It's that kind of stick-to-it-iveness in the face of grievous bodily injury that separates us from the animals. At least animals of a lesser stock, obviously."
At least Robbie is back in the family business with his recent motorcycle jumps making TV news.
"Yeah, he’s keeping that bit alive!" Proops replied.
Enough about the Knievels. More about you, sir. The archives of television history prove that you know your way around improv, so what do you tell stand-up comedians who look down on the art form?
"People want to hate you because you do the improv, but then they see that you have jokes and then they can't hate you," he says. "I don't know how it happened that I even got to do both. Improv, I feel like it's been a fantastic part-time job that's been so rewarding because that's how so many people know me. And I wouldn't have planned it that way."
How much does improv inform your stand-up?
"A lot," he says. "One, it gives you the courage to carry on, no matter how much your stand-up dies...you can roll with it, and flow back into the material when givin the opportunity. Plus, because I have an inclination to go off the script, even though what I've written is genius (chuckles), I can go off and riff. That background gives me that courage." Proops adds that performing in an improv group is somewhat like being part of a band, and forgive him a mixed metaphor or two here. "Playing with Ryan (Stiles), he's like Babe Ruth. He hits home runs. You know what I mean?" he says. "I'm like Ringo. All I have to do is show up, hit the drums every once in a while."
But what about the attitudes some people and comedians alike have against improv comedy?
"I know what people mean," he says. "I won't go to an improv show, because, golly, I've got s$%t to do. I understand it. But to be honest, I'm one of the luckiest improvisers on Earth, because how many people got to be on Whose Line?" There's a pause. "My wife has a funny add to that. She says there's only 10 funny improvisers. And six of them were on Whose Line...you have to guess which ones they were." Anyhow, he adds: "We were doing TV improv," which is much different from long-form stage improv. Sure, everything was made up on the spot, but everything that made it to air had to work. Whereas, with serious comedic improv, where it's about the art as much as about the laugh lines, it may only hit about 60 percent of the time, he says. "On a hot night, only 80 percent works."
And much of it works on The Chat Show you host at Largo? 90 percent? 95?
"There's never been a night that everything didn't work on The Chat Show," he says, as I try to work out the grammar in what he just said to see if it works, or doesn't. "The Chat Show is s&$t hot. It's hotter than it's ever been. And I'm in the show myself. Last show I had Russell Brand...John C. Reilly...(he talks them both up big-time). This month, I've got Flight of the Conchords and Jon Brion."
How does it compare in the new, larger Largo?
"We've just moved to a bigger theater. We were in a dark, impenetrable fortress of solitude on Fairfax...and now we're in...it's showier. There's no close-up magic in the big room."
Is part of the magic of the show that it's not on TV? And I mean that in a good way.
"First of all, people are real candid on my show," Proops says. "And TV and candor are not exactly friends. Just by putting it on TV, it makes it different. I have a few clips up on YouTube. But there's nothing libelous that I've put up. And I think people appreciate that, they won't be destroyed. But of course, as much as I'd love to (have it on TV), I'd love to have it be what it is. It doesn't have to be the mile-a-minute chat show that it used to be. And I don't ask questions. And that's the big difference. We have zero discussion beforehand."
How much does the audience matter, then, in terms of allowing the magic to happen onstage?
"I think it really matters. They love the immediacy and the intimacy. I'm incredibly honest in my opinions."
Proops says moving to the larger Largo also allows his musical director, Jon Brion to shine as he walks up to each instrument to build up the night's theme. "This one is a little more organic. Jon, he basically makes a record in front of you...It's fairly impressive and it's awesome and it's so much different from seeing someone just perform a song," Proops says. "Now, to get to see what he does, it's a wizardry. That's up first. Then I do stand-up." He said the crowd includes both regulars and people he'd never expect to be regulars. Musicians bring their friends, he says. "Richard Marx came to the show and he loved it," he says. "JC Chasez came. I believe he was a Backstreeter. It's weird who comes!"
Since you're putting clips online, have you thought of trying to translate the whole show into an online form? Which reminds me, what did you learn from your experience with Super Deluxe?
"That the people who were running it at Super Deluxe made a series of decisions...I don't know. I thought the bits I put up were good because I spent a lot of time working on them," he says. "They wanted less politics in the end. I think they ended up showing the political ones anyway."
"The Internet is great for democratizing society," Proops says. "In my mind, democracy is not great for comedy. Not everybody should do it."
"They had Maria Bamford on, which was tremendous. She is a miniaturist, which is a very small area of comedy that not many people work. She is very, very specific and very perceptive about what she's doing. She's not trying to be big," he says. "I can't wait to see her come onstage because she baffles audience's expectations. In a way I could never do."
What can you tell me about the Unplanned shows in Montreal next week? Or, since it's billed as Unplanned, can you not tell me anything?
"I can't tell you what we're going to do," Proops says. "It was a TV format in Australia done by other comedians, but not very well, you see. So Ryan and I come out on a sofa. And we have nothing prepared. And then hilarity begins. As soon we get out there. I'll probably do a little stand-up. Ryan will probably kvetch with the audience. We'll have a big blackboard out there. Actually, whiteboard. No one uses blackboards anymore. And no one knows who Mayor McCheese is anymore. See how much the world has changed? We bring out an audience member and force them to write topics on the board. Basically it's a chance to hang out with us while we kivetz* for two hours. An hour, actually. The bald guy, the black guy, the fat guy aren't there. So it all moves a lot faster."
*kivetz not likely a word nor the word he used, but it shall suffice until I can correct it. OK, carry on.
You've been in Montreal how many years at this point?
"27. I'm not certain. I've been there quite a lot in the past few years. I've gone up there with Drew Carey and the Improv All-Stars. I've done stand-up. We've gone up without Drew and the Improv All-Stars....as long as you accept less money, they'll have you back every year. That's the magic of the festival," he jokes. "I have a very good relationship with the JFL, actually. Not to be confused with the JDL...I wouldn't want people giving money to the JFL thinking they're helping the Jewish Defense League."
With all of this JFL experience, you must have some perspective on how the industry and the fest has changed in recent years, right?
"I think it's more about people doing comedy shows now. I don't think it's the same booming atmosphere that it was in the 90s when any old hack could get a giant development deal and fall on their ass that it used to be," he says.
Proops says he is excited to see that both Joan Rivers and Craig Ferguson will be at the fest, too.
He mentions he'll be providing the monologue for ASSSSCAT on the Sunday of his weekend here in New York City, and I wonder, will the suit play in the UCB?
"I'm thinking more of a blazer, jeans, short shirt, boots. It gets deathly hot down there," Proops says. Agreed. "I don't think I'm going to wear a suit for Unplanned, actually." He figures if Stiles will be casual, and he will, then so should he. "Problem is, when you get to a certain age, you can't dress casually without there being a horribleness about it," he says. Picture your old dad in Bermuda shorts, and he says you will be happier Proops is in a suit. "That's sort of the safety valve I have," he says. "Plus, I have dozens of suit-wearing years behind me, so it's kind of hard to jump off that wagon now. If I wear footsie pajamas, I don't know the cataclysmic wave that would send through the comedy community!"
Related: Readers of The Comic's Comic can get $5 discounts off their tickets to see Greg Proops at Comix this weekend (July 11-12). Just use the promotional code COMCOM when you buy online!