Greg Proops has seemingly done it all. He’s famous for doing improv on British-turned-American series Whose Line Is It Anyway? He’s earned a more concentrated and dedicated fanbase through constant touring as a stand-up. He often pops up on the tele– most recently on Chelsea Lately and hit Nickelodeon series True Jackson VP.
And now, perhaps most intriguing, the veteran comedian has garnered huge attention and critical praise with his truly singular podcast, The Smartest Man in the World. Even more recently, the dapper jokesmith has signed on to take part in The Set List, a live, touring improvised stand-up comedy show created and produced by Paul Provenza and Troy Conrad.
Luckily, Proops took some time after a set at the long running Los Angeles indie comedy show “What’s Up Tiger Lily” to chat about all of his comedic exploits, his latest accomplishment headlining The Set List and where the ever-chugging, versatile Proops machine is headed.
You recently got back from Australia where you were performing at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. How was it?
It was great. I loved Australia. I loved Melbourne. I love Sydney as well. I played Perth and Brisbane, which I had never done before and I really enjoyed it. It was just fun to get all the way around the country once instead of being in Melbourne the whole time. I did New Zealand as well; the New Zealand Comedy Festival, which is in Wellington and Auckland.
How were the audiences down there in Australia compared to here in America, or even here in LA?
They’re with it. I think they’re really good. I don’t think the comics are at the LA level and I hope they wouldn’t be mad at me for saying that. Some of them are, obviously; they’re tremendous.
I just think they’re so many professional comedians in Los Angeles. Australia’s only got 30 million people, but I thought the comics were quite good and I thought the audiences were really with it and keen. You know, they put me under a microscope, man. You get reviewed because you’re an international artist and you come down and they fuckin’ come to your show and write about it. So I got ripped a few times.
I asked about the audiences because you do a lot of references of history, literature, etc. Did you have to change it up?
Yeah, I totally had to change it up. I did 10-15 minutes on them and a lot about flying down there because there’s no security to speak of. You know, there’s no scanners, you can take an open bottle with you. You don’t have to take your shoes off.
Can you take liquids and gels?
Yeah, it’s really really nice. It’s like the 80′s. And the freedom of that really struck me… that our country really sucks balls.
You got to record your podcast Smartest Man in the World down there.
It was imperative that I do it down there. Before I went, I made sure that I could. And then I had to sort it out when I got there. We did one at the Festival at Melbourne and then one at Wellington and in bars and clubs with bars, which is what I wanted to do.
I do it in a bar here [in Los Angeles] and sometimes at the Comedy Central Stage, but I love that atmosphere [of bars]. In New Zealand, it was a late night one, which made it even better. I don’t do it late night here because you can’t get anyone to come out late, but at a festival you can. So, it was like a midnight show and that one was great. That one was heaving. It was in a horrible little room in New Zealand. It was all sweaty and the windows were covered with water at the end. I had my coat off, just ughhhh.
It was a lot of fun. I talked about them a lot in the podcast, but what I wanted everyone to hear was their voices, cause then you get that I’m not lying. I mean, I can do the podcast from anywhere, but I did a Q&A with the audience and when you hear Australians and Kiwis, I think that gives it a sense of place and a sense of time and a different point of view.
I mean you’re obviously free-er to say what you want when you’re not here [in America], just you feel like it, but they’re ready to hear it. They’re really ready to hear it. They want to hear America re-interpreted by an American to them because they have their own preconceived notions about it.
Because they only get fed what they can see over the media.
Yeah. And unless they’ve been here and even then, I had one girl go, ‘I lived in Oregon. Why is everyone so fat and why is everyone so patriotic and all this?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, everybody? There’s 330 million Americans. So… no. It’s not everybody, not anymore than all of you have a boomerangs.’
And say “shrimp on the barbie”…
Yeah, you’re not drinking Foster’s and chasing wallabies. That part was fun. The Kiwis are more reticent; they’re exceedingly shy people, so they were a little harder to draw out, but I got to at least to talk to them and then Rhys Darby came. He was there at the festival, so he came to the podcast and someone asked me, ‘Who’s your favorite Kiwi?’ and I said, ‘Rhys Darby’s here,’ and everyone cheered and there he was, ‘but he’s not my favorite.’ Because the Flight of the Conchords, I’ve known them a long time and I’ve done their show and so I said, ‘He’s my 3rd favorite Kiwi and I hope he can handle that I’ve relegated him to that.’
So it was really fun. At festivals, the comics really ban together, I think. Especially ones that are so far away like that one because it’s not Montreal. It’s more like Edinburgh because you’re on the other side. Glenn Wool was down there and everybody came over. It was funny because we did a gala at Auckland and it was more of a TV thing and then we did a gala in Wellington and it wasn’t for TV. At the gala in Auckland; we all talked and then we all kind of fucked off. In the gala in Wellington, we’re all sitting in a giant circle; everybody drinking and talking and we noted this was the difference. We were all in Auckland four days ago and now we’re here, but because we’re on our own without the TV, we can talk to each other.
I find that too, you’re right about Edinburgh and it’s not Montreal. I find that you get the same camaraderie at Bridgetown in Portland.
I would think so. There’s nothing at stake. You’re there to have fun and be funny.
That list Rolling Stone published recently of the ‘Top Ten Comedy Podcasts of the Moment’ described that you were on the “frontier” of comedy podcasts. Where do you see your podcast “Smartest Man in the World” going?
Well, I just want to carry on, making it better. I think I said in the very first one because we play at Bar Lubitsch and Ernst Lubitsch gave my favorite comedy direction of all time to David Niven in Blue Beard’s 8th Wife. Niven did a scene; I think it was with Claduette Colbert and Lubitsch goes, “Do it again,” and he does it again, then Lubtisch goes, “Do it again.” He does it again and Ernst asks for him to do it again then he [Niven] says, “Ernst what do you want?” to which Lubitsch goes, “Do it better.”
The key to comedy is to do it better, I think, each time, so I like to make it pertinent and honest. Like last week’s episode was not as funny as I wanted it to be and I kept mentioning that and I said to the producers Matt Belknap and Ryan Mcnamen, the guys who do Jimmy Pardo and Doug Benson, “I’m really really touchy about this one and I’m sketchy,” and they went, “They don’t expect you to be funny the whole time. It’s OK if you talk about stuff.” I guess I’ve myself this leeway to talk about stuff. So, for me, the trick is to not abuse that, to talk about stuff.
It was like when Gil-Scott Heron died a week ago, so I talked about Gil Scott Heron for a real long time and not only did everybody not know who he was, it didn’t quite make sense all the way and then from his lyrics he wrote a song called, “Whiteys on the Moon” from the first record: A rat bit my sister now and white-y is on the moon. And I was saying, “Don’t look at it as so literal. Think of it as a metaphor for what’s going on perhaps in New Orleans with Katrina and what happened to anything ever; we’re all neglected because whitey’s got to get to the moon, right? Whether the moon is Iraq…” But it took a long time to get to that and I was very worried and everybody told me don’t worry about it, then I got some very nice tweets saying, “I really liked it.”
So, I think my job is to keep it real and only talk about shit that means something to me and not beat points into the ground that could use a little humor. For me, I’m just so used to going for the joke.
It’s nice to have that freedom with podcasts.
It is. I love it. It’s the funnest thing that I’ve done in the last million years of comedy.
You switch between Bar Lubitsch and the Comedy Central Stage here in LA; a backroom at a bar and an auditorium. Why do you switch?
So I can get more in. Lubitsch wasn’t able to accommodate me every time I wanted to be there. I like the Lubitsch space because you’re right up in people and they serve hard alcohol, which I think is integral to what I’m doing.
I think it has the feel of you.
Yeah, it’s baroque. It’s inexplicable. Why is there an old fashioned room with red lights?
Serving cocktails that were popular in the 40s…
The people at the Comedy Central Stage couldn’t be more professional and nice and they couldn’t be more supportive and fantastic, but the atmosphere is a little more theatrical and a little less one-on-one.
You did Proops Digs In and you do your podcast. Certain people in the comedy world think the concept of an album is going out of style and the podcast is going to take over. Do you think that’s where it’s going?
I think it’s going both places. I’ll probably make another record because I love making records. Didn’t Jen Kirkman just chart with her album?
Yes she did. She made the Billboard charts.
Well, I think you’re right in one way because people love the podcasts as they’re so immediate, but, I think, with someone like Jen, everyone was waiting for an album from her. I think you have to switch back and forth, but I think the podcast is so immediate and so right at people, you feel like you’re talking on the phone with them.
And people are so impatient these days, they want more now and now and now…
Not only are they impatient; like I was doing mine every two weeks. This month I’m doing it three or four times, so I have a little more than usual, “more product” as we say in the business, but people want you to do it every week. They want that Carolla output, which Maron has covered so beautifully by doing so many. I’ll do one, an hour on my own, and people are like “When’s the next one?” and you’re like, “Fuck, I just did one like two days ago.”
People don’t appreciate that it’s just one man doing an hour on his own. It’s almost like a stand-up album except it’s all brand new.
Well, Proops Digs In was a goodie because it was a release party for another album I did called Elsewhere and at that release party, I made up a whole set. So Proops Digs In is about 75 percent made up, if not more. I made it up on the night. I never do any of the routines you hear on Proops Digs In because I can’t remember them because I only did them that one night. I have to listen to the album to remember them and then I don’t remember them properly and then some of them are kind of dated.
A few were jokes that I had, but I kind of just went at it that night. I also saw Dana Gould and Laura Kightlinger at the show and they were so superb and then I went up after Dana and recorded and I said, “I’m the only comic foolhardy enough to go up after Dana’s writing.
Matt and Ryan give me the voice and the leeway and they’re the ones that convinced me to do it along with Phil Bowman whose an old friend of mine and a writer and producer; he used to be a stand-up comedian. Phil and I were talking on the phone and he said, ‘You should do a show called the Smartest Man in the World where you brook no dissent. You pretend to entertain other people’s opinion, but you simply don’t. It’s all about you and what you know.’ And then they [Matt & Ryan] came to me and wanted me to do a podcast, then I freaked out because I had done everybody else’s, but not my own.
I knew one thing that I didn’t want to interview people because I had done a shock show of mine for years in a live setting, everywhere, in Montreal, Edinburgh, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. I had done it a million places. I knew I didn’t want to do that because other people were doing it and doing better. Marc [Maron] and Jimmy [Pardo] and everybody just murdering it.
So it struck me, I remember in my tiny little brain, ‘What do we call it? I know what we call it, The Smartest Man in the World, cause my friend on the phone [Phil Bowman] said that’s how I come off because sometimes you have to have other people tell you how you come off. I went, ‘Right. I do. I will.’ So, that gave me the impetus, them going, “let’s do it” and “yeah, that’s the premise” and then him saying, ‘no, you need to do this because this is the side you’re not getting to do on a stand-up stage in clubs.’
I hope it gets bigger and better.
Like I said, it’s my goal to make it part of my career as much as anything else.
Despite what you said earlier (Proops made a joke earlier in the night onstage about not being on TV), you are on TV frequently these days with Improv-a-Ganza and Chelsea Lately. How are you enjoying that?
It’s good. I don’t know how Improv-a-Ganza‘s doing, I don’t know what the ratings are, but Chelsea I love doing. It’s a lot of fun and she’s a good kid, you know.
I know her from the old days, from the clubs and I think that she’s done everything you can do for someone in her position very intelligently. She took it and she had done it for long enough that it became established and has shows off the back of it, books off the back of it; that’s exactly the right thing to do and I think she’s going to probably do something different in the next couple of years.
She has definitely built up that brand. Is that something that you want to do?
Absolutely. My goal in the next few years is, as much as I adore Whose Line and it’s the reason why I have a career or why anyone comes to see me in Australia or Edinburgh or anything like that, I can’t always be the guy from Whose Line.
I always do improv with the guys because I still do. For me, with The Smartest Man in the World, my stand-up, Paul Provenza’s show the Set List, and getting to do the Green Room with Paul, I realize how old I am and where I am and I can be a little more — I’m not certain what the word is — ‘august?’ You know what I mean?
I can afford to kind of redo how people see it. Let me put it this way: There’s Whose Line fans who don’t know that I’ve ever told a joke because they’ve only seen Whose Line. And I dig that. Then, some of them listen to the podcast and they’re upset: ‘You’re opinionated. You’re poison, you’re horrible, you swear, you hate all these different things, and you love all these other things that I hate. I don’t understand what you’re talking about. You’re obscure, you’re arcane, you make ancient references because you talk about history and literature.’
Like they’ve been betrayed…
Right. Then I’ve had other people, and this is the part that has made me enormously gratified, something unbeknownst to me because I’m shallow and that’s how I survive, who detested Whose LIne beyond all measure and then some people who watched it and didn’t care for it and they didn’t know I was funny. So, I get that a lot, too.
Even in Rolling Stone, when the guy says, ‘Well, he was on Whose Line, but that wasn’t like this.’ He doesn’t do it backhanded. He says something like that show is no glimpse of what this was going to be like. So that’s been the gratifying part to me. I feel that I’m finally reaching the comedy fans that I want to reach.
That’s all that you can really ask for as a comedian.
Yeah, which is all the people who love all the great comics of now, which are Patton and Louis and Sarah and Dana and Tompkins; I feel like I’m a peer of theirs. Some of them I’m a little older than and some of them I’m a little younger than, but that’s the class I want to be in.
I feel like the podcast has opened the door a little more for me, and people are willing to accept that a little more and are a little less resistant with, ‘you’re the guy from that fucking thing and you think you’re so cute,’ instead of, ‘you’re talking about shit I like to hear about.’
You’re redefining yourself like Joesph Gordon-Levitt. People for the longest time called him “the Kid from 3rd Rock.”
Yes, and now he’s a fine actor. He is. He’s done a lot of scary, intrepid, cool, edgy shit. It’s why I’m doing Paul’s show and I told him as much at his show Set List.
Let’s talk about Set List (the improvised stand-up show). How’d you find out about it?
Troy Conrad invited me to do it. He e-mailed me when I was in Australia and I said yes immediately. Then, when I got back home, I e-mailed Paul, ‘I’m really excited.’ And then he e-mailed me back and said, ‘I’m doing it in Montreal and Edinburgh and you can come and do it every night if you want to.’ So I wrote him back and I said, ‘You’re shit out of luck, I’m gonna.’
I hadn’t done the show yet and then I did it and I loved it, then we talked afterwards and I said, ‘No, I’m really coming.’ So, I’m gonna go to Montreal and I’m going to do a week there and then I’m gonna go to Edinburgh and do a week and do the show every night because I wanted to get that feeling, the freefall, that show provides. Like you were talking about with redefining, reimagining, I felt like I really needed it.
The thing I learned in Australia was like every other comic, you end up doing material on the road that you’re not as proud of as other stuff you’re doing. There comes a time when you need to burn all that and be bolder.
Absolutely. Can you elaborate more on how you love the actual show and how it runs?
Well, being presented with an arbitrary list of topics that you don’t have any control over is exhilarating. I watched the first two guys go up before me and still had no idea. I knew how it worked, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. All I had was the guidance of what they did.
So, there’s a complete jumping-in-the-void feel that made it unbelievably fun and exhilarating and fantastic. And you’re forced to not rely on old material. On the podcast, I can because it’s my show, so if all of sudden I run into a topic and there’s a joke from a 100 years ago that I remember, I can stick it in and I think that’s legitimate and in the Set List it is too. But I’m going to try really hard to stay away from that and do the format of the show. And to me, it reinforced everything that I wanted to do in the next couple of years.
Something like the Set List is so free and creative. Paul’s ideas for comedians are so great and they respect comedy so much: The Green Room, Sataristas, and now this. With the Set List, which Troy came up with and now produces with Paul, it pushes the boundaries of what you can do. I find the premise enlightening and it puts the audience on your side more than any show that I’ve ever done. People are rooting for you.
The competition is with yourself and not with anyone else and that’s what makes it groovy. I’ve done other shows like Hardwick used to one called the Joke Machine and it was great. I loved it. The Joke Machine was personal attacks on each other and all this other stuff.
This one [Set List] is an utterly different world, but I get the same bang, but even more falling without a parachute because I think that format supports comedy, utterly, because you’ve put the audience on your side and now when you reach in the bucket after they’ve seen three things that they know you didn’t know what you were going to do and now you’re doing something you’ve never even seen. So now, they’re like, ‘Come on, buddy.’ I love that they thought of this idea that puts the audience totally on your side.
You know I always say to people that are like, ‘You’re famous, so you just go up and kill.’ ‘No, you don’t. You have to prove it. Anybody will tell you. Even Seinfeld, any one will tell you, you got to prove it.’ With this, it reinforces the oldest adage in the world, which is it’s all about what you can come up with. You’re forced to rely on yourself.
Having those two elements creates what I’m always going for and what I’m going for in the podcast, which is a complete connection with the crowd. And even with the podcast, it’s just me. Now, you’ve removed you from the equation and what you think. You’re still there, but now you’ve got to adhere to a bunch of other precepts and I honor them and dignify them with some kind of explanation and jokes and stuff and I just feel like it creates exactly the type of contact I want with the crowd.
Do you think the Set List can be a Whose Line Is It Anyway? for stand-up and possibly be as big?
I don’t know. I’d love to see them sell it. It’s always easy though to say ‘no’ or ‘this doesn’t work’ or ‘this isn’t a TV show.’ That’s always the question that gets thrown at me when I come up with an idea, ‘How is this a fucking TV show, you know?’ Paul said to me, ‘I come up with these shows that don’t have a demographic.’ ‘That’s not true. You got a show on Showtime about four or five comics sitting around talking. That’s an enormous accomplishment.’ No one’s been able to do that. Steve Allen wasn’t able to do that.
When HBO copies you, you know what you’re doing.
Right. All of sudden, here’s Ricky Gervais and CK and so on. They went with the four biggest comics that are in the moment and didn’t have, you’ll note, Lee Camp, Glenn Wool, or Hannibal Buress. They went with the top rung, not to denigrate that in anyway, but they stole the format, but without the looseness and the hip information Paul provides. Having the audience sitting around you like Elvis’ comeback show creates an amazing feel in the room. If it was just four of us sitting in a room in chairs like they did — and I think there’s an audience there for that — but the audience isn’t around them.
Like I said, it’s the connection and I think that’s what Paul’s gift has been– that these shows really connect with crowds. Sophisticated comedy audiences, which there are now, huge ones, want to hear what someone has to say and not necessarily a joke every second. With the Set List, you’re aiming towards funny all the time, but it’s OK if you don’t hit funny for a minute because they know that you’re making it up.
I’d love to see it go and I’d love to be part of it because it’s exactly what I need. I think it hits people a little bit, like you said, like Whose Line. I think the freshness of Whose Line, though, of course, I did it from the very beginning, in England when we started and then the freshness of it when we got to America and the people who hadn’t seen the English version, saw it, were like ‘really?’ because people still come up to me at this late date and go, ‘Do you guys really make that up?’ Then, you know you did it right. I think with the Set List, it’s going to be the same thing. People are going to go, ‘You didn’t have that before hand?’
I hope that’s what happens with Set List. So, you do stand-up, podcast, improv, you’re on TV, you do voice work, and more. How do you manage to change “hats”?
It’s not that hard.
You don’t even feel like you need to change hats?
I do, but I don’t really think of it as an arduous task or anything. I can’t wait to get up and do the podcast and I love doing the improv with the guys. I just got back from a week with Ryan [Stiles] and the guys. So to me, it’s all fun. I’d like to get more voicework.
Even at this late date, I feel I could be in show business more and comedy less, but, you know, like I said, part of my goal is to try to connect with people on an honest level. I think it will happen, all the things that I want to happen, which doesn’t mean worldwide fame or fortune or anything like that; just more of a chance to do it on my terms.
I think that’s where you’ve got it right. You’ve been in comedy a long time, but you’re still on the forefront, I think, because that’s what you’re going for.
Well, I hope so. I mean I’ve looked at other comics and been inspired by how bold they are. Chelsea or Paul or all the guys we talked about before, doing what you need to do and doing what you want to do is more important than doing what you need to be a comedy star.
I’m not at the age where anyone’s going to make me a comedy star, whatever that means. I think you’re right. I just feel like I had a big epiphany over the last couple of months over what I want to do and that I’ve not been drifting, but just working so hard, so long. I’m on the road more than half the year and in the past I’ve gone to every country, every year. I haven’t done that in the last few years. I was on a TV show for the last few years, a kid’s show [True Jackson VP on Nickelodeon], which kept me here more. Then it became, “oh no, I’m on the road in American all the time,” and I think that’s where I lost my thread a little bit.
And now, since last year, when I started the podcast and doing Paul’s thing just made me realize — and I hate to quote Bono because I make fun of him a lot — but he said something, and I’m misquoting horribly, “the world is more malleable than you think if you go out and do what you want to do.” I thought that he’s right. I’m going to worry less about some things and more about others.
Last question, I’ve always just wondered, what is it with you and Paul F. Tompkins wearing those snazzy suits?
I just always dressed up on stage. I’ve told this story before, but I don’t know why Paul does it. I assume he does it because he enjoys it, but I used to, in San Francisco in the old days, wear a leather jacket and a skull t-shirt and jewelry and stuff like that.
Then I got to my 30s and I went to England. All of sudden I realized the wardrobe available to me and I saw a guy at an airport who was dressed just like me at the time and he was about 10 years older than me. He was wearing skull shorts, tennis shoes, and a leather jacket, and a necklace, and this guy looked like Def Leppard’s roadie and I was like, “I can’t do that.” You know what I mean? When I get to be that old, I can’t do it and when I’m older I definitely can’t do that.
So, I started then wearing a suit about 20 years ago and I’ve stuck with it. Mostly because you can get older. You can be a grown up in it. At a certain point, for me, I never feel comfortable with just a t-shirt on stage.
I like the suit. It was ‘thrown under the bus’ some years ago as far as comedy wardrobe trends and I don’t think it should have been completely gotten rid of. Certainly, people should dress the way want, but I do appreciate people like you, Paul [F. Tompkins], and newer comics like, Ryan Stout, all wearing suits.
Yeah, Jimmy Pardo always wears a suit.
Matt Champagne (hilarious up and coming Los Angeles based stand-up comedian) over here (Champagne was sitting at the table near the end of this interview) wears a suit when he’s on stage.
MATT: You know I just tuck my shirt in when I’m on stage and people are like, “You look snazzy.” Seriously. Last night at Public House, I tucked my shirt and people were wondering what’s different.
GREG: You looked groomed.
MATT: You look skinnier if you tuck your shirt in.
GREG: Exactly and I always do that because of it. If you wear it out at all, it’s like you’re trying to hide something. I remember doing a show in New York about five years ago at a really hip lounge there and every single comic was dressed like David Cross. Everybody had glasses, a t-shirt, and a knapsack.
They look like they were grad students out of Columbia and I was like, ‘Surely, not every single one of you guys is like that. Some of you guys are 40, so I know you’re not a grad student,’ and I thought, ‘would it kill you?’
MATT: You can use the word ‘nadir’ if you’re wearing a suit.
GREG: Right. You can say ameliorate. You can hit them with other stuff. I think it shows that, one, you’re prepared for the show, and two, that you understand that it’s a show. But again, I would never tell anyone to dress another way. I have a few old buddies that I always try to get them dress up because, I would say, ‘you look a little bit like the campus rapist, you know? You need stop wearing a wind breaker.’
For more info on Greg, check out GregProops.com.