Interview: Greg Proops on Trump, Star Wars, improv comedy and roasters

Greg Proops will appear at this year's Glasgow Comedy Festival
Greg Proops will appear at this year's Glasgow Comedy Festival

It’s not difficult to start a conversation with Greg Proops. He talks for a living. He can weave an elongated, coherent argument out of a paused thought. He made a career out of plundering the most random of topics for a sharp, succinct comedic line.

Greg grew up in San Francisco and lives in Hollywood, his distinctive voice and delivery is all California but he has been a performer in the UK since the late 80s.

You’ll know him for his appearances on Whose Line is it Anyway? and comedy improv in various forms but he currently focuses much of his significant creative energy on his hit podcast called The Smartest Man in the World, which he has recorded live around the world. There’s also the Greg Proops Film Club, a podcast covering old and new movies.

Then there’s Greg’s propensity for political satire and bold interventions on pop culture. He lent his voice to a Star Wars character. There’s a lot of things he wants to say about Donald Trump.

All these aspects and more were covered in a conversation with Glasgowist ahead of his two shows at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival.

How much of your life is split between the UK and the US at the moment?

Well I’m in LA right now but I’m over in the UK at least three, four times a year and over to Scotland at least once a year, so it’s been pretty good.

Is that been something you’ve done for a number of years?

Oh absolutely, yeah. I’ve done Edinburgh about 150 times, it feels like. This is probably my third or fourth Glasgow festival and then I’m going to come back to London to do PR with The Comedy Store Players. So yeah, ever since I first came in 1989, I’ve tried to make it a regular thing.

In terms of how that affects your outlook, when you go from your California life to your London life, do you shift gears when You get off the plane?

Not so much. People want me to be myself and give my famed poisonous opinion. Of course what’s a poisonous opinion in the United States is simply an optimistic outlook in the United Kingdom, as you know.

I just have to shift gears on getting references right and if in Glasgow, never get anything wrong on stage because everyone will climb up your ass.

If you perform in a Scottish venue there’s that back and forth with the audience and you’ll have the feedback of a tangible reaction. Have you found that when recording your podcast here?

Oh, I love doing the podcast in Glasgow because you get just that. I talk to everybody in the crowd beforehand and last year I brought up a woman out of the audience to read a poem by William McGonagall because I can’t do it any justice.

The full majesty of how awful his poetry is has to be expressed by someone with a Scottish accent. The only time I’ve ever really had any guests, because I never do, is a couple years ago in Edinburgh, I brought up a guy, and last year I brought up a woman to read Scottish poetry because I don’t feel I can give it a fair shake.

There’s a long history of American and Canadian performers trying to do a Scottish accent and not getting very far, but then Sean Connery never really mastered the American accent so it goes both ways, Greg.

I mean, I can do it, but I’m not going to do it in front of a room full of Scottish people, so yeah, I prefer it to be read in the colloquial, as it were.

When you started in stand up, what kind of subject matter did you first gravitate towards, what was it that you thought you could make funny?

When you first start, you don’t have a lot on your mind. I think you’re just trying to get laughs with anything you can. The horrible phrase that comics use is finding your voice, but it’s true and after about five, seven years, you find your voice. Then you know where you’re coming from and so I think people know what to expect from me now. The kind of bile that I’ve been spewing over the last 30 years. Politics and taking our pop culture, there’s plenty to talk about.

Right now I feel like if you’re doing bland entertainment type comedy, I’m not really that interested, you know what I mean? Way too much going on to be on the sidelines.

You going to hear it all the time in America, “hey I don’t think comedians and celebrities should be talking about politics, they should stick to entertaining people”. To which my answer is, I invite you cordially to take a long cold drink out of my ass. I’m a tax payer and I’m a human on earth and therefore it’s … Nina Simone said “Your duty as an artist is to reflect the times.”

Well, on that theme, it does seem something of a boom time for satire, right now.

Well unfortunately for satire, shit is piling up so thick and fast here that it’s difficult to get a grip each day because Trump – or Benito Cheeto as we call him here – he has amped up the pace of chaos.

We used to have a crisis every few months, and with him he starts 50 different fires a minute, so the trick is to hook onto something that people actually can remember that he did or is talking about as opposed to day by day because it’s very difficult to keep up with how much insanity this group of nutty, white supremacists maniacs have inflicted on the world.

Then, of course, on top of it all – because he’s taking everything from the Putin/fascist playbook – basically anything he says is a projection or a lie, so he’s already said he’s accomplished more in the first four weeks than most presidents ever did.

It’s like, well no, you haven’t. Accomplished more discord? Yes, I would agree with you, it is a boom time to talk about politics because everyone is interested in it right now and very few people are on the sidelines. You know how the world is, there’s a bunch of people who are interested in what’s going on. There’s a bunch of fascists and then there’s the other 30 or 40% who just don’t care what happens as long as they get to have a beer and go home and there’s curry or whatever. I think some of those people in the middle have been stirred out of their lethargy by the hideousness of Brexit and Mango Mussolini happening in one short year.

If there’s a positive that’s come out of this, it’s that I will do 100 marches, 100 rallies, send a million letters, and made a million phone calls. I’m more active than I ever was and I was always active.

Scottish people have had a bit of a dialogue with Donald Trump for a number of years, actually, since he came over to open a golf course he was building in Aberdeen. More recently, there was a series of protests and some creative banners that made the news around the world. The name many protesters adopted for Trump was President Bawbag, which then started trending worldwide on Twitter and, I believe, the hashtag #scrotus was then linked to that. That’s sort of Scotland’s contribution to the American political lexicon right now.

Oh my God, President Bawbag is so funny. Scrotus, oh that’s such a rare sense of humour. Hideous and hilarious and on point all at the same time. Yeah, I will be finding out a lot, I’m going to have to catch up. You guys are always ahead of me. I didn’t know what a roaster was until recently…

How did the podcasting start out?

Well, about six years ago, someone approached me and said you should do a podcast and I was like “well, who will care?” It was the dawn of podcasting and I jumped in and started doing it and in those days it was twice a month because I thought “oh that’s all people will want”. Then after a while I realised that the demand was there and you have to put it out every week and you have to put it out on a regular basis and it has to come out at the same time and you’re making a real comedy product.

My wife said to me after the first one, this is what you should be doing and so we decided to focus on that. I realised that it’s the most direct way to communicate with the audience because of its international reach – it’s on phones, people can listen to it anywhere in the world, it’s just changed everything.

The immediacy and the intimacy of it are overwhelming. When I come to record the show, anywhere I go, I talk to everybody in the room beforehand and people give me gifts. We talk about food and candy and booze and drugs and politics and feminism now. People bring me pieces of art, paintings they’ve done, books, poems. It’s a gathering.

I didn’t engineer any of this and I didn’t think of it beforehand and I’m not clever enough to have thought of all that first. It happened organically over the course of the years and I think that’s the part that’s overwhelming to me is that people took it on. Because you’re listening with earbuds on or on your phone, it’s really intimate and I know that I’m talking to everyone individually, I’m not talking to a giant group. Even, though there’s a giant group in the room when I’m recording.

I thought stand up was the most direct way of communicating with an audience and I think now it’s podcasting.

People really come to listen, you’ve taken the pressure off of having to deliver a joke every 15 seconds, whereas in stand up I understand my responsibility is to make the crowd laugh a lot. With podcasting, you can express yourself a little more and get into a subject without having to make jokes about it every minute. That’s the profound part that I thought people would be bored by that but it’s the part people like.

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Is it a different disciple to prepare a stand-up show than to prepare for a podcast?

I know that at the podcast, I plan a load of stuff and I have quotes and poems and songs and everything I’m going to play and do and sing and jump around to. Then that all gets cleared the minute I get here because someone will come up to me and say something or someone will give me something and then that takes me off on a tangent and then I try to follow that tangent.

I like mistakes and I like impromptu things to happen so that I can incorporate them into the podcast. With stand up, I want to plan it so that I’m saying the right words and then I’m doing the jokes at exactly what I do, however this year, I’ve decided that for my Glasgow stand up show that I’m going to try to improvise the first 45 minutes and then I’m going to do my political set the second 45 minutes.

Or at least, that’s my plan, that of course changed 50 times. Last year I did … you do two 45 minute sets, which, is a lot to keep the audience’s attention. I don’t think I cheated the crowd last year, but I think I’m going to be able to be looser.

I was kind of scared to be honest. It’s one place in the world I’m ever scared to do stand up and it’s Glasgow. I really feel like the Glasgow crowd is so acute. Someone is going to come and go, you told that joke four years ago.

Where do you think improv comedy is at right now, based on what you see around at comedy festivals?

Well I think there’s a lot of great comic stand up comics who improvise total sets. I remember Phil Kay from 20 years ago was the first comic I remember coming on and just saying “I’m not going to bring any prepared material on”. As far as improv comedy for me, I still do it all the time, I just finished up a season of Who’s Line is it Anyway? on The CW network here.

I’m on the road this weekend with Ryan Styles, Joel Murray, Jeff Davis who are going up to Vancouver for three days. I’ve got a million dates with them. I’m coming back to play at The Comedy Store in April and then we’re going to do The Globe Theatre with The Comedy Store Players, so I’m still up to my neck in doing improv.

It’s just a different bag. I can’t force my personal opinion into an improv set that I can in my podcast.

You can’t have a segue when you’re improvising that a man walks in with an umbrella and then add that he has an opinion to share on the illegal invasion of Iraq or whatever….

Exactly. I can’t go on and say “knock, knock, it’s the dictator of Syria”, that’s not going to happen in improv. You’re in a band and you have to realise you’re in a band and you’re playing to the audience and so we play the game to the best of our ability and if the politics get in then that’s good.

I took the excuse to revisit some of episodes of Who’s Line is it Anyway? from it’s run on Channel 4. What stands out as the reason that it worked so well and it’s still working in America is the interaction between the performers and having this group of people – this band as you say – that clearly have so much fun with each other. Would you agree with that?

I do. I utterly agree. I think that the material we’re doing is nonsense, a good deal of it, and so really what you’re coming for is to see us interact with each other. The American team that I’m on with Ryan, we always say it’s like the Rat Pack with Sinatra. Really what you wanted to see was Sinatra muck about with Sammy Davis and Dean Martin, that was the funny part. You didn’t really care, you knew they sing the same song and you knew they were going to do whatever. You want to spend and hour and half with a bunch of people who are ripping the piss out of each other, and that’s what we do. That’s the same thing with The Comedy Store Players.

We did it in the West end last summer in London. It was me, Josie, Colin, Brad and Jeff, and Linda and Laura from the American show and Clive Anderson. We just have a go at each other and I think that’s what the audience really likes.

We’re not characters, we don’t have pretend character names. I’m not Mr. Winklesteen or whatever, I’m Greg and so for better or worse, we’re ourselves on stage and I think that’s what gets good laughs. It’s that everyone who started on Who’s Line, including Sandy Toksvig and Paul Merton, all of us are known to the crowd as ourselves.

That’s been a big advantage I think because it allows you to be yourself and you don’t have to go, “oh I’m wearing a wig and I have funny cheese hands”. Not that I don’t admire people who can do characters, that’s certainly a magical skill, but with our group I, I think, it’s us.

My only evidence for this is we’re on TV almost, oh goddamn, 27, 28 years now, since I joined the show and it’s still us. They won’t allow us to put in any new people. The newest person that joined the group was Jeff Davis, and he joined us like 16 years ago. You know what I mean, this is like being a waiter at a restaurant that never changes staff.

You’ve got the freedom now to be a multifaceted performer. You write, you’ve got your own podcast, which technically makes you your own media organisation, really. There’s all kinds of things, you’ve done films, voice work. What attracts you to stick with going into a room, going onto a stage, doing your thing, walking off?

I can’t do anything else. It’s what I want to do, I think if you’re a performer, you perform. It’s disingenuous to be otherwise about it. I mean, I’ll have the book there with me too, we’re selling the book as well because it’s out in paperback now, so we’re having a second go at the book.

I’m motivated to go on because I still really love it. I love the immediacy. I’ve gotten to meet people all over the world that I’m friends with. That’s what motivates me. And now, we have a crusade, I mean a real crusade. It’s not just preaching to the converted now, it’s alerting everyone to the impending political takeover.

I’m still motivated and even with everything that is happening right now, comedy still works. I was very surprised to find that after the election here. I was doing a gig in Portland, Oregon and we were all backstage chewing our hands, the comics and I, wondering whether anyone can laugh at anything or was it all too horrible to consider.

Then we went out there and did jokes and everybody laughed and it was like, no, comedy like music, still works. It works on its own and it’s a salve and a balm and if you can articulate how people feel or even if you can’t. That’s what gets me up in the morning. That and of course the thought of alcohol.

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You’re the first credited cast member of Star Wars we’ve interviewed, so congratulations for having that distinction. Do you get recognised for that part of your career, is there a particular Star Wars fanbase around in the background when you are off doing things?

Yes, it is. It’s really particular. People who love Star Wars are completists. They even recognise members of The Phantom Menace, which is the movie I’m in, which anyone would agree of course is the finest of all the Star Wars movies… Part of the plot was destroyed in a terrible accident… I get letters from all over the world and people. Me and Scott Capurro were the pod race announcers.

I own a polo fleece that says Episode I. That’s only significant if you’re a Star Wars person. It was called Episode I until they renamed it The Phantom Menace, but when we shot it, it hadn’t been named that. It was like in the 80s version when they had Revenge of the Jedi and then it was Return of the Jedi when released, so some amount of gear came out with Revenge on it.

I actually own a polo fleece – don’t come to my house and take it – that says Episode I on it.

Then I’ve done a million video games off the back of it. There’s also a Star Wars cartoon, The Clone Wars. I’m an evil warlord called Tal Merrick on that.

I got killed in the first episode that I did and then they brought me back and I said “what am I doing?” and they said Tal Merrick, and I went “but you killed me”. Fantastically, one of the Lucas people went, “it’s Star Wars, Greg. This is a Prequel”.

So I get to play the character again, when I was alive.

You got to embellish the backstory?

Right. I’m very proud to have been in it and Scott is too I think. I don’t obsess about it or anything because it’s not my favourite, but I’m thrilled that I got to be in it. The other thing that I was in that everybody really seems to still care about is the Nightmare Before Christmas that Danny Elfman did the score for.

The last two years in Los Angeles, we’ve performed it live at the Hollywood Bowl over Halloween week, with a full orchestra and they’ve had me and a bunch of professional singers, and PeeWee Herman, and Catherine O’Hara – and Danny and Ken Page, who sings Oogie Boogie’s song. They all sing their songs live with a full orchestra and it’s just a sensational experience.

It’s my favourite thing I’ve done in the last few years, it really is because I feel like I’m in an opera. You have to get up and sing in front of 15 thousand people and there’s technical screw ups and sometimes you miss your cue and there’s 150 people behind you sawing away on violas.

It was just extraordinary. Danny couldn’t be calmer. I said to him once when we were at rehearsal, how can you be so calm with so many people in a room? He went “Oh, this doesn’t bother me, it’s this one fucking song that I have to sing that really bothers me.”

For me I’m panicked that I’m going to miss my cue or sing off key or that I’m going to blow the words. I don’t know if we’re going to do it this year, but we did do it the last two years.

You do something 20 years ago and you don’t think anybody is going to think about it 20 years down the road, but Star Wars and Nightmare Before Christmas turned out to be two awesome things that, through no doing of my own other than just being in them, I’ve been lucky enough that people still give a shit.

What can expect from the podcast show and the stand-up show at the Glasgow Comedy Festival?

The podcast, I meet everybody beforehand, everybody gets a kitten sticker, I’m going to talk to you. That’s part of the punishment of coming to the podcast is you actually have to meet me. Then I’m going to get up and sort through stuff and then we’re going to talk about politics probably. I’m sure someone will have passed away that week a significant musician or whoever, we will probably talk about them since eulogies are a big part of the show.

We’re going to really talk about feminism and toxic white male privilege the whole time. In the stand up especially I think with the election of Mango Mussolini here, the absolute apex of white male privilege. That someone this unqualified, someone this dis-tempered, someone this racist and sexist could be considered someone capable and calm, following one of our most capable and calm presidents, who had the misfortune of being black while president.

It’s a terrible reflection on the one hand, but on the other hand I think galvanised everyone and so that’s basically my main thrust. There will be jokes, and there will be humour and dancing, and drinking, and dope smoking, and abject stupidity so I wouldn’t … you don’t have to wear an armband to come to the show. You’re free to come and just be a drunk. That’s where I’m coming from this year.

The podcast I do improvise a lot of, but I’m thinking about actually just winging a bunch of the stand up. It’ll be more fun for me, it’ll more fun for you guys, and it’ll be funnier.

I’ll read all the Scottish papers and I’ll study, because I always do, and I’ll of course have bawbag and roaster in mind. In my holster as they say.

Find Greg on Twitter at @GregProops and download his podcasts at proopcast.com

Book tickets for his Glasgow shows here.

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