Greg Proops Doesn’t Care What Universe You’re From: Be Kind.
Greg Proops is a stand up comic from San Francisco. He lives in Hollywood. It’s not that bad. Really. The Proopdog is best known for his unpredictable appearances on Whose Line is it Anyway? He can be seen on the New Season on the CW. Greg has a brand-new stand up special called Live at Musso and Franks available at gregproops.com recorded at the legendary Hollywood eatery. Professor Proops has a hit Podcast called The Smartest Man in the World. He has recorded it live in London, Australia, New Zealand, Montreal, Edinburgh, Dublin, San Francisco, Oslo, Amsterdam, Austin, Paris aboard a ship in the Caribbean and somehow, Cleveland.
SUSC: When you started doing comedy in 1982 was the Holy City Zoo one of the main venues you would perform at?
Greg: Absolutely, The Holy City Zoo, The Punchline and then Cobb’s opened up and The Improv came after that. There were also clubs in San Jose.
Who was the early 80s crew at the Holy City Zoo?
Bob Reuben, Warren Thomas, Steven Pearl, Paula Poundstone, Jake Johannsen. . .millions of guys and women.
And this was at the tip of the beginning of the 80s boom.
It went insane. The 80s were wild, there were 10 full time clubs in the area. You could never leave and work full time. There was even a club in Palo Alto for a while at the Cabana Hotel. Everybody gave it a whirl for a while.
Were you doing traditional stand-up at the time or was this when you were part of a duo?
I was in a team in ’82 and ’83 and then he moved to LA and I stayed up here and started on my own. Then I was in an improv group called Faultline with Mike McShane who was on the English Whose Line and then it all exploded into destiny.
It must have been a very heady time. Opportunities seemed to be everywhere and things were clicking for you. Did you have your sights set on a goal? Was there a plan?
I never had a plan, I wish I could say I did. Whose Line came to audition in San Francisco in ’88 or ’89 and I got on the show, so I didn’t really need a plan for that one. I was in San Francisco for like, 16 years, and I still play there and in San Jose every year. When I did leave I went to London for five years and when I came back I moved to LA. I had a non-traditional route. Getting on Whose Line opened up the world to me. I love coming back to the Bay Area because I love the crowd so much.
My experience is that the Bay Area comedy scene is very supportive but there are waves. Sometimes you’re welcomed in and sometimes you have to wait for that next wave. Was it like that in the early 80s?
Very much so. The fantastic part is that there were so many great comics that were writers or producers and still comedians. Dana Gould and Alex Reed and Paula Poundstone. So many good comedians, Bobcat Goldthwait. You had to be good. We were suspicious of outsiders. We had honorary Bay Area comics like Doug Benson and Janeane Garofalo who worked the Bay Area a lot and got adopted. There was also a huge influx of comics from Boston who informed the San Francisco scene. I think playing night after night in those days was a great trial by fire, because you had to improve your material every night. When I came back and worked on my own, I was an opener and then a middle and then a headliner. There were so many great comics you had to work on your material all the time, which is the most important thing for any comic, obviously. Stage time and craft. When I came back from England I was a stronger comic. Having to play in another country made me pull my act together.
Did you have to find a broader range of topics that didn’t rely on American reference points?
A different perspective. I like to think I carried the position of my poisonous San Francisco perspective with me, always and forever. I go around the world now and I still espouse the same liberal politics I have always subscribed to. There was so much information to take onboard as a liberal person in the 80s, that it will always inform my comedy. And, we had Robin Williams as our Elvis. He was so intellectual, creative, quick and a humanist and a great improviser with sub-references. I always felt that the San Francisco brand of comedy that I think still maintains its feel, I believe, was always slightly esoteric and not exactly mainstream. When you would go to LA you would have to, uhm, kick it down a notch. I don’t think it’s that way now. I think the whole country has gotten hipper as far as comedy audiences go, but believe me there are still places you can go where they are square as fuck. There’s always uphill battles, it’s all politics. I did a gig in Texas a month ago and it’s was real good and people really liked it. But of course the one person that complains is the one person you pay attention to. She didn’t complain to me, but somebody told me she was in the bar complaining that I shouldn’t talk about politics. Which is course, is news to all comedians. Some people are not ready for any type of opinion, they just want comics to be clowns.
So no matter where you are in your comedy career, that one person is still the thing that gets under your skin. 200 people laughing, but that one person frowning becomes your focal point, during and after the show?
Right. You always want to hit a home run with everybody. It’s always the one person in the front row not digging the show that you end up focusing on. That’s the perversity of being a human being and the perversity of being a comic. In the end it’s not that important. I try to let it go and focus on the people enjoying the show. You know, one of the first things you learn as a comic is you can’t make everyone laugh in the room. I used to do comedy competitions back in the day in the 80s (SF International Comedy Competition). I finished 30th, 20th, 11th and 7th or something. I never won it. I was in it with Louis CK one year and he didn’t win it. I learned comedy contests are not indicative of how funny comics are, or how good they are. It’s a crappy popularity contest. If you can win one, good for you. Every once in a while I would win a night. That’s when it really came home to me that I don’t give a shit if everyone likes me. You have to be tough and you have to be able to back it up. When you are up on stage, you have the conch, nobody else gets to express their opinion and that’s how that works. You have to be comfortable with people not laughing sometimes and just agreeing with you, which I am. It’s the not the state I want to live in every second on stage, but I’m certainly not going to freak out if they go quiet. The Bay Area is about pushing politically correct buttons or liberal buttons. Liberals have lots of buttons too, it’s not just conservatives that freak out about things. Having done a bunch of contests and seen some of the best comics in the world not win them. . .kind of puts it in perspective.
Back in the early 80s when you were making the template of what comedy in the future would look like, was there more of a symbiotic relationship between stand-ups and those who did improv?
No. I didn’t know what improv was until I went to college (San Mateo College) and joined an improv group. I got up and did a bit with them and they asked me to join. When I went to see them I thought, “Oh, I can do that.” I had been doing stand-up and in stand-up you do a lot of riffing. Not everyone, but a lot of comics go into the audience and riff. I always thought that it was hilarious that there was such a divide. Improvisers hate stand-ups because they are self-involved and selfish and snotty and we are. And, stand-ups hate improvisers because it’s meandery and half-assey and arty-farty, which it is. Because I do both, I get the benefit of both. I was so glad that I learned to do improv and that I can do improv—I think it informs my stand-up. If you are dying up there and not going the way you want it to, it gives you the ability to go with the flow. You’re not stuck to the script. My hugest advantage to doing improv is I’m in a group with Ryan Stiles. You can argue which one is funnier all day long. For me stand-up is an effective laser beam. I can put my opinion forward. I can be very specific about what I want to say, I can choose the words. With improv my message is not as important as the band being funny. And that’s the biggest difference. You have to give yourself over in a group and stand-ups don’t want to do that, they want to hog the spotlight and of course, it’s theirs to hog.
How influential do you think Whose Line was to generations of people doing improv?
Hugely influential. I haven’t travelled anywhere where the local high school doesn’t have an improv group or a bunch of local improv groups because of Whose Line. People saw it on TV and thought I could do that, or I could teach that to my students. There’s a positive aspect to it. I find that improv can be a little precious, especially when people eschew the rules. You have got to learn the rules and how to do it so that you can get good enough to not bother with the rules.
I had two more questions.
We haven’t gotten to what I’m doing today, DNA.
I like to keep it to 15 minutes because that’s what I say up front we are going to do and then I panic at the end. I opened up questions to my comedy friends on the internet and 90% of them were scatological. But here’s one from Stephen Turner. Is it true that you were the reason Jimmy Gunn got back into comedy after taking a break?
Yeah, he said he was gonna quit and I said, you don’t quit. Poor Jimmy, he claimed that it brought him back into comedy and if that’s true I’m very proud that I would have anything to do with that. A comic who passed away long ago named Warren Spottswood said, not to me in particular, we were all sitting upstairs at the Zoo and somebody was sick, or tired or whatever and he said, “Take six months off if you have to, take a year off, but never tell anyone you’re going to quit and never quit. You don’t get to quit. It’s stand-up and it’s a profession. A vocation.” I interviewed Bob Newhart years ago and he said he called Billy Crystal years ago and said, “Why aren’t you on the road?”
Right? Look at somebody like Joan Rivers who did a set the night before she passed, untimely. The only reason Bob Hope quit doing stand-up was because he couldn’t see or hear anymore. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to do it. You know what I mean? We were watching George Burns the other night and he was 99 or 98. I don’t think he quit it. I’m always encouraging people to stay. Some people get freaked out and they don’t want to perform anymore. Or they become successful producers and they don’t do stand-up. Seinfeld went back to doing stand-up even with all that money.
Steve Martin did a set the other night.
I heard that. He plays in LA but he usually just does a joke or two while playing banjo. He really started to hate on stand-up. I can understand it from his point of view. He became so popular and people stopped laughing and started screaming. It bored him. But, I wouldn’t rank on stand-up. In my opinion, any craft that has given the world Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Robin Williams. . . be nice. It’s not ignominious to be a stand-up comic.
Is it possible for a stand-up comic to only do stand-up comedy or does everyone need to present themselves in the broadest way possible?
I think everyone has to be an across the board player. The power of network TV is not what it was, once upon a time. And that’s a positive thing. You don’t see stand-up comedy on TV as much but there’s more opportunities with Netflix specials. Having gone to the internet with my podcast has been crucial in my comedy upbringing. It brought me back to being in the middle of comedy, again. Off the podcast I did a book, a video and I just did a record. The more productive you are, the more productive you are and no one should limit themselves. If you are a stand-up comedian, by nature you are a writer. That means you can write a book, sketches, a script whatever it is and obviously your material. In this day and age where everything comes over the phone and the computer, it’s imperative you do all those things. Its also imperative to be a good performer and the only way to do that is by going on stage all the time. Nothing replaces that. No matter how popular you are on YouTube or great you are sitting in your room writing, nothing replaces going onstage in front of people. People are the ultimate arbiter. The audience decides, in the end. As Doug Stanhope said to me once, “I don’t fix anything until I’m working onstage.” If people are just getting into stand-up, I urge them to start a podcast, go onstage, write, blog whatever it requires, shoot videos, do improv. I don’t think you can just be a stand-up comic. And stand-up comics never just were stand-up comics. Everybody ends up doing a TV show, a record or a book. Not to keep coming back to Bob Hope, but he was the first great comedian cross pollinator. He was a Broadway comedian who sang and danced, then a stand-up comedian who went into radio and had an enormous radio career. When the war came he had an opportunity to perform for the troops and that became his other platform. For eight years he didn’t perform for anybody except the troops. When TV came he jumped into that and of course, he made pictures as well. I did a documentary on Hope a couple of years ago and was talking to Margaret Cho about him. She said the person he is most like is Jay-Z. Like if Bob Hope were onstage right now, one, is he would be tweeting and two the concert would be sponsored by an auto company. Nobody looks twice now at people who commercialize themselves, but when Bob was on the radio he would say, “Hi, this is Bob Hope for Texaco,” he linked the sponsors name and his name. The multi-platform artist has been around forever, the difference is now, the content is delivered instantaneously and is personalized. Back then you couldn’t carry a TV with you.
Do you think there’s no more scrutiny on performers “selling out”? Would Doug Stanhope’s message diminish if he was sponsored by Toyota or a gas company?
I don’t think he would have those kind of sponsors. I have sponsors on my podcast and I know who they are. I don’t do sex toys or anything nonsensical. I like to think that I have a modicum of integrity with my audience that I actually care about somethings and stand for them. Of course you have to pay the rent, bills and insurance. To be frank, I think a lot of stand-ups get off easy with the crappy commercial shit that they do. I’m not going to name the names because they are famous and you know who they are. You see some stand-ups in movies or on TV that are just dire pieces of shit. And you think, “OK, they made that compromise.” Or if you were opportunistic, you would think, “Oh, they took that opportunity.” Show business is a sell-out by its very nature, because you are trying to sell something. It’s no different than any other business. Once I was at a club and I said to Bill Hicks, you have a CD right, Arizona Bay, why don’t you sell it after the show, people would really like it. He turned to me and he said, “What am I Greg, some kind of huckster?” Ive never forgotten that. Anytime I begin to feel schlocky I think of Bill. He was real staunch about that.
Having said that you have a new book and album out.
Yes. I will talk about it in my podcast because it seems like a much more personal endeavor. When I do my podcast live it’s very personal, I talk to everybody and I feel if they want to read my book, it’s much more intimate than me selling T-shirts. There’s a 1000X more interaction than at a stand-up show. I think if you talk to people before a stand-up show, you’re kind of blowing the magic. There has to be some artistic difference, some kind of shock and awe. With the podcast I want complete and total intimacy.
The podcast I saw was the day Adrian Rich had died and you read one of her poems and it blew my wife’s mind, that a stand-up comic would even know who she is.
I will read poetry on my podcast because I don’t think it’s even being taught in school anymore. It’s kind of a lost thing, which is sad, because poetry can help people get through the day. In a world of reality TV and people being venal and fucking each other in politics and all the heartless bullshit that goes on, it’s nice to have a poem once in a while. You can lose your faith in fucking people. Poetry renews that faith.
I’m glad we didn’t talk about Donald Trump, even once.