This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.

DID YOU READ

Greg Proops talks about balancing improv, stand-up, and tailoring the comedy to the audience

Greg Proops talks about balancing improv, stand-up, and tailoring the comedy to the audience (photo)

Posted by on

If you don’t know who Greg Proops is, you probably haven’t watched television, listened to the radio, been to a stand-up comedy show, or otherwise been exposed to any form of entertainment in the last 30 years. From “Whose Line is it Anyway?” to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” to “Bob the Builder” to “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” to “The Smartest Man in the World,” he’s worked in comedy clubs all over the world, been on numerous television shows, recorded radio shows and podcasts, and provided the voices of characters in some of the biggest films of all time. And perhaps most miraculously, he’s managed to move from one project to the next, for more than three decades, without sacrificing any of his personality, much less his ’50s hipster personal style.

Proops got his start as a class clown before venturing out in front of the microphone in San Francisco as a teenager. But it was in college at San Francisco State University where he discovered a real aptitude for improvisational comedy, joining up with a group of virtuosos that not only expanded his repertoire but opened up a variety of professional opportunities, including stints on both the British and U.S. versions of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” From there, he gained a well-deserved reputation as a versatile comedian and all-purpose entertainer.

IFC caught up with Proops for a chat about his career, and his comedy. In addition to discussing how he got started in stand-up and improv alike, Proops talked about the techniques that brought him success in both areas, and examined the past, present and future of the field in which he’s become not just an elder statesman, but an expert.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started in comedy? Were you always a funny guy?

I was a spaz back in school and I did plays and all of that jazz, and all of the variety shows and stuff. I kind of just always wanted to do it. And when I got to be a teenager, I started doing stand-up, and then when I got to college in San Francisco I started going to the clubs in earnest.

Was there a kind of formative training during that time, or did that experience just naturally augment your own comedic impulses?

Oh yeah, there was decidedly a formal [training], doing open mics the old fashioned way, you know – a million shows of stand-up. I was in a comedy group, too, called Fault Lines, and we were a group in San Francisco when we were in college. We also played at clubs and stuff, so I was doing improv as well. So I did thousands of gigs of stand-up and improv as a kid.

Does performing stand-up and improv comedy concurrently help or affect each style?

Well, I think that the improv gives you the confidence to lean back and know that it’s going to be okay when you’re doing stand-up. I can come off of the script if I want and not panic. Strangely most improvisers don’t like stand-ups and most stand-ups don’t care for improv very much, but I’ve kind of been able to do both. I understand why they don’t: improvisers think stand-ups are selfish and focused on one thing, and stand-ups think improv’s not funny (laughs). But for me they have complemented each other, so it’s been fun for me.

Has it been tough to stay out of that conflict between stand-up and improv comedians?

I’ve never had a problem. I’ve never been in any conflicts between improv [comics] and stand-ups. But again, like you say, because of the groups I’m in, I’m pretty lucky; everyone I work with is the ten or 15 improvisers in the world that anyone would know from TV, which is a fairly small, lucky group. It’s pure fortuitousness that it was us; I don’t think we’re better than any other improvisers in the world. I don’t even think I’m the best improviser in my group. I think I’m like the Ringo [Starr] in my group. I mean, I think Mike McShane and Jim Sweeney, and guys like Ryan Stiles are just really a troupe of improvisers; I don’t consider myself a superb improviser. But I think I can do it.

How formalized would you say your comedy is, either in preparation or execution?

Well, formal, I have an act, a written act, but I improvise within it, and without it. So when I do improv with all of the groups that I play with, I just wing it. But in stand-up, I definitely have an idea of what I’m going to do. And then the podcast, I make up almost completely, just with notes and stuff; that I sort of wind around what I’m reading that day.

Would you say improv comedy is reliant on a sort of muscle memory? Do you have to practice to get ready before a show, or does it always come naturally?

No, I don’t do it all of the time, but I work all of the time, so it doesn’t really go away. Stand-up I think is harder when you don’t do it for a while; if you don’t exercise your stand-up muscle, you can get a little rough, and it takes a few steps to kind of clear the cobwebs out. With improv, when I get with the guys I find we start right where we left off. We don’t really need to get up to speed too much.

If you’re working with a new group of improvisational comedians, do you have to acclimate yourself to them beforehand?

It’s easy to fit in with other people. The thing is that there’s a familiarity with other people that you work with all of the time where, like I said, you just pick up right where you left off. And with new people, you kind of have to feel them out a little bit – but it’s not that wild of a ride. I mean, I’m able to kind of jump right in and do it. I went to Austin this year for the Out of Bounds Festival and they had me do improv with them, and it was fun. It’s fun to play with new people and see where they’re coming from. I mean, improv is kind of a big, for lack of a better word, fraternity, and there’s just a difference of what people like to play, whether it’s long-form or short-form and all of that. We tend to play, in the groups I’m in, in short-form, but I can certainly do long-form, meaning like they’ll do a musical or Shakespeare or something really long. And some of the more [long-form] stuff doesn’t turn me on as far as improv goes, so that’s why I think that the podcast is the most fulfilling, because it’s a combination of stand-up and improv.

Are there different techniques for improvisational comedy? For example, do some people approach improv from a character standpoint, whereas you might from a storytelling standpoint?

It depends on I guess the games you’re playing and all of that jazz. As far as technical proficiency, it’s a skill you learn doing when you do improv. I mean, I think if you’re an improviser, you should be able to get up there and just do it, no matter what it is we’re doing – whether it’s Sherlock Holmes or we’re just playing tag or whatever. For me, I find improv can be a little precious, and they like rules and stuff like that. But for me, the point of improv is that there’s no rules; I mean, you’re making it up. A little but if guidance is always good, which is I think why the games are there. But I also think that sometimes, serious improvisers think “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” is not straight-up improv because we play so quickly and we do these little games. And it isn’t – it’s sort of a TV version. I mean, it is improvised, completely, but it’s kind of an amped-up version of improv. And they’re a little more proprietary about what does and doesn’t constitute improv. For me, the goal of all of these exercises, whether it’s improv or stand-up, is to be funny; that’s first and foremost in my mind.

Can you analyze the mechanics of comedy, like what word or movement is funnier than another one? Or is it all pretty intuitive?

I think after 100 years of doing it, there is a set of things you can do, and tricks and stuff like that. But I think it’s both; I think you’re trying to bring craft to bear, but you’re always trying to be intuitive and spontaneous and not think about it too much. The problem is that if you start editing yourself, and that’s when you don’t say the first thing that comes to you mind that’s funny, and usually that’s the funniest thing, strangely. Something you haven’t thought of often turns out to be funnier, although having said that, I’ve thought of things that were funny and said them and they worked. You have to trust what you’re going to do it funny, I guess.

Does stand-up require you to refine your language or delivery, or similarly, does it require you to be present and intuitive?

Oh, no. if you’re just walking through it, the audience can smell it a mile away. You have to be present for everything you’re doing. Being engaged is the whole enchilada as far as I’m concerned. For me the point of all of this is to connect with the audience, and if you’re not connecting with the audience they can tell. They can tell whether you’re funny, and they can tell when you don’t care, so I think it’s always good to pay attention, yes.

After having been in the business for a number of years, how would you say comedy has changed throughout your career?

When I first started it was National Lampoon’s and Saturday Night Live and Monty Python, and now it’s Tina Fey. I think there’s been a mad shift. I’ve seen it opened up way more to everybody; there weren’t that many women comedians even when I started. In the early ’80s, there wasn’t the number that there is now, and they didn’t get the respect they do now. I think that’s a difference. And of course, comics of every nationality, you didn’t really have that 25 years ago. You had a few, and I’m from San Francisco, so yeah, there was always a lot of them, but not on a national level. But does the aesthetic change? Yes, all of the time – I think every succeeding generation. But also concurrent with that, every new generation of comedy fans have never heard all of the old jokes before, so they think they’re new, which I find very amusing.

Are you a student of older comedians? Even if only so that you’re not rehashing old bits pioneered by your predecessors.

Oh, I think you just go with the flow. I don’t think about what anybody’s doing, I only try to do what I think is funny. I mean, when you start thinking about the audience, or catering to anyone, you’re not being true to yourself and therefore you’re not being funny. Honesty is super important, I think. When you’re a comedian you can’t talk about things you don’t care about on stage, because I think that audience will read that you’re being dishonest with them. At least, that’s my experience; I’m sure people get away with some characters they hate, but I think that’s what will end up happening if do something you don’t like or you don’t believe. You grow out of it, and you’re mad that you still have to do it.

What’s the most important thing to focus on or remember in order to ensure that you’re delivering an honest performance? Especially given the fact that you’ve done voice-over work, where you may not have written lines yourself?

Well, acting (laughs). Sincerity is the most important thing to me. I did a sitcom on Nickelodeon for a couple of years and the writers on that show were very funny, and I think you just dive in headfirst. Also, you’re not alone out there; on a TV thing, there’s other cast members, and I find that they tend to be wildly funny, so you can kind of get in their grooviness, and let them be hilarious too, and still be confident that you’re going to be noticed.

You mentioned Nickelodeon. If you’re working for a network or somewhere there are language or content constraints, how tough is it to internalize that and stay in the moment?

I mean, on the Nickelodeon show, it’s one kind of comedy, and if you do Chelsea Lately, that’s another kind of comedy. Whose Line is a live show, and that’s another kind. And my podcast, that’s another kind entirely. I just shift back and forth between them without giving it too much thought. I know not to curse like a sailor if it’s inappropriate on a certain thing. When I do the podcast, I don’t think there’s a way to be more up front; it’s just important to be as sincere and from the heart as possible. I think that’s what people want from it, and it’s certainly what I want from it. When you’re doing improv, you have to give over to the group, you know; there’s a bunch of us, so you can’t just hog it up and say whatever you like. That’s the biggest difference between stand-up and improv – there’s a little more Islam in improv, a little more surrender. I think you surrender to the will of more people.

Can you switch your comedy on and off?

Well, I make jokes all of the time. I’m just a natural goofball or whatever, so I’m not like deadly serious off the stage and don’t let anyone ever come near me that’s not taking me seriously. Yes, there’s times in your life when you want to be taken seriously, and I assume that if I’m in public, then people recognize me as a comic, and therefore it would be nice if I had an engaging personality as opposed to being a miserable fucker when they meet me. But it doesn’t bother me that much.

Are there times or specific situations when you’ll sort of turn off that comedic impulse?

Oh no, it’s always there. To destroy any situation with jokes is my prerogative. I know when it’s inappropriate and when you oughtn’t make a joke of something, but the impulse is always there. I do a political show in LA on Pacifica Radio called Comedy Congress, and sometimes they ask you a serious question, and you’re allowed to give a serious answer within the context of a comedy show, and make it funny as well. You can kind of do both sometimes, I think. And I take on serious topics in my podcast, and I don’t feel the need to be hilariously funny with every single thing I say. I feel like I have the air in the room, and the latitude the audience gives me in the podcast to say something serious or something of substance and not necessarily expect a huge laugh, or be disappointed when they don’t.

What’s your favorite Greg Proops comedy performance? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

Watch More
SistersWeekend_103_MPX-1920×1080

WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

Posted by on

Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

IFC_Comedy-Crib_Sisters-Weekend-Series-Image

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

SistersWeekend_101_MPX-1920x1080

IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

IFC_Comedy-Crib_Sisters-Weekend_About-Image

IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

SistersWeekend_102_MPX-1920x1080

IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

Watch More
IFC_BVSS_203_birthday-song-celebration

Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

Posted by on
GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

via GIPHY

IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

via GIPHY

IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

Watch More
IFC_NYTVF_EColi-High_blog

G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

Posted by on

Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

E.coli-class-

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

ecoli-computer

IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

Watch More