Comedy Preview: Greg Proops of “Whose Live Anyway?”
The renowned improviser, stand-up comedian, and podcaster brings the latest on-stage version of the beloved "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" franchise to Columbus on Tuesday night with co-conspirators Jeff David, Joel Murray, and Ryan Stiles.
While walking in Hollywood on a July afternoon with my friend and former college RA, Russ, we passed an enthusiastic Audiences Unlimited staffer frenetically waving around passes for a taping of a ‘new’ television show called Whose Line Is It Anyway?
We had both been avid fans of the UK version of the show, so we jumped at the chance to go. It seemed a bit like kismet since Russ was actually the one who had introduced me to improv comedy at Vancouver TheatreSports League, which was coincidentally the stomping ground of Whose Line… stalwarts Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie.
The Whose Line… franchise has, in various shapes, forms, and spurs, persisted for three decades. The US version took a six-year hiatus after its initial nine-year run on ABC, resurfacing on The CW in early 2014.
With Stiles and Mochrie as its constants, the other two seats on the Whose Line… TV set were filled with a semi-regular rotation of comedians, including San Francisco-area native Greg Proops.
Proops began his career performing stand-up while attending the College of San Mateo and San Francisco State University in the latter part of the 1970s, eventually delving into improv as a member of the ensemble Faultline. He spent the next decade performing improv and stand-up professionally before being invited to join the cast of the UK version of Whose Line…
His television acting credits also include The Drew Carey Show, Just Shoot Me!, True Jackson, VP, @midnight, Chelsea Lately, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. He has provided his vocal talents to a wide range of television and film series, including Hell and Back, Star Wars the Phantom Menace, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Brother Bear, and to the principal character in Bob the Builder.
Proops created and hosts two renowned podcasts: the brilliantly funny and observant The Smartest Man in the World, which he records with live audiences as he travels for comedy performances, and The Greg Proops Film Club, which explores classic films and has been featured at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, and at Cinefamily in Hollywood.
His seventh and latest stand-up comedy album, The Resistance, is an aptly titled, shrewd exploration of politics and society.
My recent conversation with the wonderfully engaging Proops, however, is a preview of the Oct. 30 performance of Whose Live Anyway? at the Southern Theatre – a touring improv comedy showcase that features the mighty chops of Whose Line… regular Jeff Davis and acclaimed actor Joel Murray. Proops confirms that Whose Line… veteran Ryan Stiles will join the cast for the Columbus show.
For the small price of a ticket, Proops promises the troupe will work tirelessly to gain your approval.
“That’s really our goal, and I know it sounds silly, Grant, but we really are…we don’t aim for a standing [ovation], but if we don’t get one, we’re really surprised,” he reveals during our phone interview. “That’s the kind of show we do. We really, really want the audience to stay involved.”
“We’re full-tilt live,” he continues. “It’s very audience-interactive, and we bring people up from the audience during the show, so there isn’t that distance you experience when you watch Whose Line… on television. You’ll really feel like it’s a theater type of thing – there’s lots of music, we sing, we jump around like idiots. We really throw down and hit the stage with a fervency. We don’t walk through it, baby!”
So, asking you about your initial entrée into improv comedy seems like a good place for us to start, and I’m always interested in what propelled improvisers to decide to get up on stage for the first time. Tell me about what you remember about those very early days when you started performing with Faultline.
“Well, I was going to State and I’d been doing stand-up, but I’d never heard of improv. I’d heard of making stuff up as a stand-up, but I’d never heard of just…making stuff up. So, they had a show at the cantina with an improv group called Faultline up near my dormitory, and I went over and watched it. They had an audience spot, and they invited someone from the audience to do a bit with them, and so I thought, ‘Well, I can do that.’ And I went back the next week and sat in the front row and jumped up when they did the audience spot.
And the next day, I was playing pinball, and this will give you an idea of how long ago this was since we played pinball, in the student union, and he said ‘do you want to be in my group?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ So, that was 1979. That’s where I learned – I didn’t go to The Groundlings, or anything like that, or The Second City. I learned from the other guys in the improv group, and the girls, at San Francisco State. And we did a regular once-a-week gig at the cantina with a built-in audience of students. There’s nothing that replaces stage time, and so I spent my first two years improvising with, you know, loads of stage time.”
I can answer this from my own beliefs, but why do you think Whose Line Is It Anyway? has successfully prevailed over three decades? What keeps pulling people in to watch you and your colleagues?
“I think it’s because you can watch it with your family…and…well, first of all it’s a novelty. No-one had ever seen anything where there was an actual possibility of comedy failure on stage – or it was that some things worked a little less well than other things, so it wasn’t a total failure. But it gave you at least a glimpse of what it was like to watch an improv show.
And while we were on ABC, were up against Friends and Survivor, I think, at the beginning. So, it was kind of difficult to explain to your children what was going on on Survivor, which was that the nicest, most capable people were being screwed over by the stupid people – that the banality of life was being described in graphic detail. And then Friends had some adult situations, so then people could watch…people would always tell me they could watch [us] with their mom and dad.
The chemistry the Whose Line… cast has, in whatever iteration, is just so compelling to watch.
“I think it’s also a matter of since we’re so familiar and some of us have been on since the beginning, it’s almost like going to a dinner party or a terrible game of charades or something, and you know the people who are there, you know?”
Shifting a little bit, I really love The Smartest Man in the World, and I think it’s really intriguing that you reserve its recording for when you have a live audience. What prompted you to do the podcast and take it in that direction, because it’s so great.
I thought that stand-up was the most direct way to communicate with a comedy crowd. But I found after doing [it] for a long time that the podcast really is. There are catchphrases and there are in-jokes, and I planned none of it – it all happened organically with the audience. Everything with it has been trusting the audience to be involved. One of my friends I work with on the podcast, Matt Belknap, who also works on Jimmy Pardo’s Never Not Funny show, said something to me when I got started: ‘People are attracted to content.’ Which I don’t know if that’s true, but I do think it’s true in the case of our show.
My wife told me after the first one, ‘This is what you should be doing,’ so, I’ve kind of listened to her throughout this whole process. And I’ve been a lot more honest with myself about comedy because of it. I’m a little more open emotionally about…I never would have talked about my family once while I was on stage as a stand-up comedian. To me, it was…you don’t…I needed the privacy, you know? You were going to know me because of my work and my opinion. And this has actually gotten me to a point where I can talk about the things that are happening in my life, or happened, and because of that people really respond.
Also, you know, I’m a cis white male, as they say, talking about women’s rights a lot. And for some reason, that’s a huge anomaly in American culture. Guys just don’t stand up for women as much as they might, and I get a lot of response from women because of that, and from couples where guys go, ‘I didn’t realize that I wasn’t responding to my wife, girlfriend, sister, or whatever, and I learned something from you about how I might take on that responsibility a little more.”
I was going to ask you about that, actually, because I had an opportunity to interview Lizz Winstead a while back, and you’ve performed with the Lady Parts Justice League as part of the touring show before. Why is talking about and advocating for women so important to you personally, and where do you think the comedy industry needs to change or evolve to achieve equality on the gender spectrum?
“Well, there’s been a general premise that women aren’t funny. That’s been going on for a hundred zillion years in this country, which is a…it’s part of male privilege, you know? Men want to think that they’re better at everything, that they’re better musicians, better artists. So, they’ve eliminated women’s access to it. But, I think, to answer your question, the best thing I’ve seen happen in comedy…and I’ve been around a long bloody time – I did my first sets in the late 70s and became a professional comedian in the mid-80s, so I have some perspective. There were a lot less women then, and they got a lot less play.
And as time wore on, we got to see a lot more women come to the fore. Now, I don’t want…I say things like this, and then people get mad at me and go, ‘But there weren’t less women, and had an opportunity, and why should you only care about people by their gender?!’ It’s, like, ‘Well, because, it’s important to represent, and to be represented. Which is why now you’re seeing lots of Korean comedians, and Asian-American comedians, and Indian-American comedians. The cliché was that the dominant comedy races were the Italians, Irish, Blacks, and Jews, right? Because that’s who got to be comedians in the old days. Blacks were on their own circuit, and then finally in the 60s and 70s, more Black people [emerged]…obviously, with Richard Pryor being the greatest stand-up comic of all-time.
Now you see the women on Broad City, and Samantha Bee, and Amy Poehler – and women starting to dominate in all comedy areas. Equality comes when there are women producers, women who are heads of networks, when there are women who decide who gets jobs. So, no, comedy is not all the way there yet, but it’s gotten better over the years.
The truth is, my generation is sexist – and the younger generations, when I go out and work with people in their 20s and early 30s, are not as sexist. And teenagers even less so – they’re willing to take orders from women, they’re willing to listen to women, and they’re more willing to include women in their group. All you have to do is look at the teenagers who are organizing the gun control [protests] around the country…the people who started Black Lives Matter were women.
That’s what it boils down to, I think. So, it’s a willingness to laugh at women, to laugh with women – to be with women and laugh with them. A lot of women were forced to do the, ‘Hey, lady to my right’ stuff when I was doing stand-up in the 80s, and now I don’t see that as much.”
I talked about this a few times with Kathy Griffin. It’s mind-boggling to hear what she and other women have experienced during their work in comedy.
“Oh, they tried to run Kathy right off the road.
Well, they tried to do the same thing to Janeane [Garofalo] during the second Iraq War. They basically blamed Janeane for the entire anti-war movement. And as for Kathy, they tried to blame the whole anti-Trump thing on her because she did one slapstick photo. Either way, parody is allowed in United States – we’re supposed to make fun of figures that have power. We’re jesters and clowns. We’re not supposed to go, ‘Gosh, everything is great! The emperor’s new clothes look so good!’ We’re supposed to say, ‘Everything’s wrong!’ Otherwise, Mark Twain, and George Carlin, and Lily Tomlin are wrong. But, they’re not.”
They’re not, no. Absolutely not.
“Kathy was brave to stick through that. But, I mean, it’s an extension of – if you’ll pardon me extending this extension – trying to silence Hillary Clinton. We were going to ‘lock her up,’ you see, because she’s crooked – even though she’s not crooked. And there was nothing to lock her up for – she’s been completely tried, and grilled, and fried, over and over and over again for a variety of mythical crimes she’s committed. And we were going to put her in a cell, you see, because women should be put in a cell to shut them up and make sure their voice isn’t heard.
And then you get people railing and railing ‘well, what about gender identity and gender politics?’ Well, there haven’t been any women presidents, and there’s only been four women Supreme Court justices, and congress is woefully short on women, running at only about 20 percent. So, when women run the Supreme Court, and there’s been 45 women in a row as president, then you can come back to me with the argument.
Until then, I don’t really care for the argument very much. So, I really see Kathy being castigated as part of that. And then you see in the past year, she’s rehabilitated because she’s on the right side.
Everything 45 does – every Tweet, every mad idea, every stupid thing he thinks of – like Space Force, and what not – all the ink, and all the press, and all the chat. People go on TV and talk about it 24 hours a day – literally 24 hours a day. And then one comedian does one slapstick joke – which, by the way, that joke has been done since ancient times, baby. I can guarantee you in a triumph in ancient Rome there was a clown with the head of the emperor.
So, her access had to be completely taken away, right? That’s how frail this house of cards is. If you’re so frail that you can’t take a joke – and that’s what that is, it’s a joke. A Vaudeville-y, lampoon-y joke, but a joke nonetheless. And I know the difference, but some people don’t, you know? People who have no sense of humor, of which there seem to be many, don’t know.
People say to me, ‘Hey! Why don’t you stick to comedy?’ And here’s what’s so important, Grant – Kathy is what she fundamentally is, and her perspective and storytelling is what she’s selling. And I feel the same way about myself, and I think all comics do. So, how do you separate yourself from comedy?”
“You don’t. Any more than you can say to a jazz musician, ‘You’ve gotta stop playing those minor notes. Why don’t you just stick to the major chords, man? People don’t wanna hear that minor shit!’ So, to say to me, which people do, ‘I don’t like your political…why don’t you stay away from the political and stick to the jokes?’ You’re mistaking that. Because you think I’m funny on Whose Line…, it doesn’t give you the sovereignty over me to…you know?
Whose Line… is a different venue – we’re there to entertain and to dazzle, and we sing and dance and jump around. And if politics come in, they do. We don’t crowbar them into the show, but there are opportunities for political jokes, and we’re all on the same side politically among our group, and that’s where we come from. Everyone is welcome…we’re literally clowns about it. It’s not something we think about, even – we don’t say, ‘Oh, let’s not do politics tonight.’ We think, ‘How can we do this faster? How can we do this funnier? How can we do this with less swearing? How can we be more clever?’”
And I think that’s so important to fine tune those concepts because improv audiences are rooting for you to be successful. Nobody wants to watch a group of improvisers fail, because they don’t win if you don’t.
“Right? They’re totally rooting for you. That’s what people misunderstand about comedy. ‘Oh, I’d be nervous to get up there! I’d never do that! What if I fail?’ Well, if you think that then you don’t understand anything about comedy. That’s like saying, ‘I’d be nervous to be a saxophone player. What if I hit the wrong note?’ No one even thinks about that when they’re doing it. You’re just thinking about, ‘How can I be funny up here?’ And that’s all a matter of listening, and asking, and using your instincts.’”
Greg Proops and the cast of Whose Live Anyway? will take the stage Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Southern Theatre, 39 E. State St., Downtown. Tickets are $40-51 (only single seats remain at press time), plus applicable taxes, and are available via Ticketmaster. Greg Proops’ podcasts, comedy albums, and future performance dates can be found on his official website. Follow Greg on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.