Paul Provenza: Master of the green room

By | June 17, 2010 at 7:35 am | No comments | Features | Tags: , , ,

By Jonathan Morvay

Every Thursday at 10:30 pm EST on Showtime, comedy veteran Paul Provenza welcomes a handful of the best minds in comedy to the Green Room. And now, we get to finally listen in!

I had my first true green room experience recently. I was asked to perform on a show in Los Angeles with some big name comedians, and was, of course, excited to meet them.

When I got to the venue (the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre), I was lead to the backstage space where I found some of my favorite faces in stand-up comedy, all in one room. Some smoked weed, some had a beer, and some simply sipped on water. The banter that went on throughout the next two hours was something I’ll never forget. The topics ranged from married life to first jokes to peanut butter. The environment was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced, and something I hoped everyone would get to see for themselves one day.

This is an idea Paul Provenza shares as well.

A veteran of stand-up comedy for over 30 years, and director of every comedy nerds favorite flick The Aristocrats, Provenza is the host and executive producer of a new show on Showtime rightfully called The Green Room. The premise of the show is exactly what I described in my recent experience – and we, the viewers, are afforded a fly-on-the-wall perspective of what’s discussed in this most sacred of comedy institutions.

I was fortunate enough to watch an advanced screening of the first season; it’s something no comedy fan wants to miss. From the clever introduction where Provenza warns “if you have ever been offended by anything” to stay away, we know we are in for an interesting look into the minds and banter of stand-up comedy legends. Each episode features some of the most well known names in comedy – think Roseanne Barr, Robert Klein, Patrice Oneal, Andy Kindler – as they sit down with Provenza with a small studio audience circling the laugh masters.

Shortly before the show premiered last week, Provenza released his new book Satiristas!, a collection of intimate stories told by some of the greatest political and socially aware minds in comedy– both vets and newbies. I recently caught up with Paul for a quick chat about his new show and book. Check it out.

How did the idea for the show come about?
I was doing this for a while— live around the world at various festivals. It started way back in the 80’s on Comedy Central. Then it was called Comics Only, and the idea behind the show was, ‘What if we did the Tonight Show with just comedians?’ And that was me trying to recreate what it’s like to be with comedians. As Judd Apatow describes in Satiristas! – I felt like the girl in the bee costume in that Blind Melon interview. I found other bee costumes; I found out I’m not alone. Comedy is all people that don’t fit in anywhere. Hanging around with comedians is a whole different lifestyle.

It’s a different way of looking at the world and being in the world. So I thought, ‘how can I convey to other people how I felt when I discovered this?’ So I started doing it live at festivals and it worked. It was hard to break down comedians. The audience isn’t supposed to be there but they’re allowed to be there. I wanted to get the comics to perform for themselves – not the audience – but for each other. So that was the vibe we tried to make with this show.

Tell me about the way the show was shot, and where it was filmed.
It’s a lot like trying to mate pandas in captivity. Everything has to be just right or no one is getting a hard-on. I gotta give props to Barbara Roman, my producing partner on this. It’s not shot like conventional TV.

We filmed it at a great nightclub called the Vanguard in Los Angeles. We built a little environment within that. We wanted the audience to not have the feeling of a TV show. We wanted the performers to feel like the comics are not on a television show. The people can sit wherever they wanted to. Those people aren’t gonna move so it’s up to you to get the shot. The camera crew was amazing. Every aspect of the production is artful.

Did you think the comics felt comfortable on set?
They walked in the room, and they could tell the audience was a notch above how most people are in comedy. Larry Miller saw the space we were shooting in and saw the people milling around and turned to me and goes, “there’s some serious comedy in this room.”

How else is the show unique?
No bullshit applause signs. We had the audience getting to know each other eating and drinking before hand. They didn’t know who was gonna be on the show. Everything was very unplanned. The closest paradigm to it which is different but the closest is Playboy After Dark – took place at a cocktail party.

We wanted people to think, “wow, this is an event.” We even used footage from people’s cell phone cameras.

How many comics are on each show? And who are some of the guests we can expect to see?
Three or four comics, plus myself. The guests include Eddie Izzard, Drew Carey Larry Miller and a comedian from the UK, Reginald D. Hunter, Roseanne Barr, Bob Saget, Patrice Oneal, Martin Mull, Bobby Slayton, Jim Jeffries from Australia, Paul Mooney, Jonathan winters, Robert Klein, Rick Overton. Andy Dick, Andy Kindler, Dana Gould, and Brendan Burns.

What sorts of things do you discuss?
No format, just jazz. Somebody just starts talking and it goes where it wants to go. It runs the gamut. Every show has a totally different feel. The show with Patrice and Saget and Roseanne gets personal and intimate. They discuss religion, Full House, politics. Another show could just be great comedy stories. Another show is very racially charged with Mooney and Slaton.

Let’s talk a little about your new book, Satiristas!
It’s conversations with about 50 or 60 comedians who all work very artfully with socially critical comedy— people who have something to say. They have all these different perspectives from craft, technique and audiences. Rather than journalistic interviews, they’re more conversations. The book also deals with my own personal issues of what I believe and feel— where I come from and where they come from. They’re very personal conversations.

Who are some of the people in the book?
Lewis Black, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Robin Williams, Billy Connolly, Kids in the Hall, UCB, Patrice Oneal, and Roseanne Barr. There’s also some unknowns like Lee Camp and Jamie Kilstein. The book closes with George Carlin who was interviewed a week before he died.

What does Carlin talk about?
He talks about why he did what he did, and his worldview. He never considered himself as a political comedian. He talks about humanity in a way that’s compelling and artful.

How does the photography in the book come in to play?
The photography in the book by Dan Dion is fantastic. Dan photographs comedians as artists and tries to get a moment from them that says something about them. It’s compelling and provocative. That drove the style of the interviews. The conversations… you feel things from them. They both rest on Philosophy 101, which is ‘show don’t tell. Show me how you feel, don’t tell me.’

For more info on Paul, check out paulprovenza.com. And check out the Green Room’s official page here for a full schedule of shows. And to buy Paul’s new book Satiristas! just click the image below.

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