When in Doubt, Make a Physical Choice: An interview with Greg Proops, the smartest man in the world
“I feel like people have to step it up a little,” states Gregory Everett Proops in an interview with ARTpublika Magazine. “I mean, do people sit in the front row and expect not to be engaged? The whole point of the improv show is that we’re going to come at you. You have to learn that before you go.” As a veteran standup comedian and improv extraordinaire, who is perhaps most widely known for his work on the ever-popular Whose Line Is It Anyway, it’s easy to understand his point: An improv show is at its best when the audience is ready and eager to play along.
Proops has been making people laugh for over four decades. First as one half of the comedy duo “Proops & Brakeman,” and then as a solo performer, before becoming Whose Line’s most frequently featured “fourth contestant.” Though he never finished college, Proops does, nevertheless, credit it as the place where he first learned improv. It’s also where he met Mike McShane, a comedian and one of his closest friends who, too, appeared on Whose Line. Both impressed the show’s producers enough to be booked for the U.S. and U.K. versions.
The actor has been featured in a lot of different shows over the years, as a lead, a guest, and as a host. Furthermore, he’s been cast in several iconic films, though you wouldn’t recognize him in these roles. Take, for example, Tim Burton’s beloved The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), where Proops is actually responsible for voicing several different characters, such as Harlequin Demon, the Devil, and the Sax Player. There’s also a good chance that you’ve missed him as Fode in George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), and more.
To date, he’s lent his voice to numerous video games, cartoons, and other types of media. Frankly, it’s best to refer to his résumé, as there are simply too many things to list. But, one of his longest and most personal projects is The Smartest Man In The World, a podcast he’s been hosting in front of a live audience since 2010. Joined by his wife, Jennifer Canaga, Proops uses the platform to talk about everything he wants, like current events, celebrity culture, his personal life, books, music, and theater. He also hosted The Maron/Proops Experiment before that.
From writing The Smartest Book In The World (2015); releasing eight comedy albums; appearing in a staggering amount of shows and films of different varieties; hosting podcasts; doing standup, improv, and theater; and even getting involved with Turner Classic Movies — it is abundantly clear that Greg Proops is a multi-talented entertainer with a very impressive work ethic. He is currently in the process of preparing for his next comedy album. But, unlike his ninth album, which was never publicly released, this one — kids — is going to be a doozy.
So, you were born in Phoenix, Arizona, but raised in San Carlos, California. What was your childhood like? Did your parents encourage you to perform?
No, my parents didn’t really encourage performance. I grew up in the Bay Area, and San Francisco is the locus for entertainment. My parents, much to their credit, took me to see a lot of old-fashioned acts in and around the city.
San Carlos had a theater, the Circle Star, where they took me to see Ella Fitzgerald [1917 - 1996] and Count Basie [1904 - 1984] and Pearl Bailey [1918 - 1990] and Jimmy Durante [1893 - 1980]. So, I saw a bunch of acts from the ‘30s and ‘40s when I was a little kid. Now, of course, I am very appreciative of it. And later, as I got older, I went to see acts on my own, like Tower of Power and Cheech and Chong.
How old were you when your family moved from Phoenix to San Carlos?
Oh, I was in the third grade. We moved when I was just a wee thing. So, the Bay Area is where I grew up. I had some nice teachers. They put me into some advanced reading programs, so that we didn’t have to read what the curriculum was for eight-year-olds. We were reading Greek mythology, so I’ve always kind of had a lifetime interest in Greek and Roman history because of that. And then my teacher gave me Edith Hamilton [1867 - 1963]. Her book has all the classic myths in it.
Do you have a favorite God?
I wish my choice were hipper, but I quite like (love) Hermes, or Mercury.
When did you start performing?
I started performing when I got to high school, because I wasn’t very confident before that. I think I was in a school play when I was in the sixth grade. It was about ecology — pollution — which was a very big topic for Earth Day when it first started. That’s how old I am! Then, in high school, I started doing plays and variety shows — stuff like that.
Who were your favorite musicians in high school?
Well, the first record I bought when I was 11 was the Jackson 5 Greatest Hits, which was a pretty hot item in 1971.
I listened to the same junk that everyone did, too, like Led Zeppelin or whatever, but my favorite group was from the Bay Area and they were called The Tubes. They’re not very popular now, but they were really popular in the Bay Area during the ‘70s. They did a big outrageous stage show, with lots of jokes, scantily clad girls, giant platform shoes, sex and drugs, and I thought they were very groovy. They were at once a rock and roll band, but also a giant show. Anyway, I’m friends with them now, which is hilarious cause I worshipped them so much and saw them so many times in high school.
When you started performing, what was the first play that you did and when did you realize that you could command the room? When did you acknowledge your knack for comedy?
What an interesting question. In high school, it was mostly just a chance to get out there and not be nervous, because I was quite short when I started high school, and by the time I ended high school, I was much taller and confident in my ability as a comic and as an actor. We didn’t do great work in high school, but we did do a musical, which really helped me, because all of a sudden I was forced to sing and dance, and do comedy as well.
In college, we did Equus [(1973) by Peter Shaffer (1926 - 2016)]. I was the lead and had to get naked on stage, so did another actor who was a girl. I remember saying to her: “I feel really vulnerable.” After we did the play for a week, I started to realize that the nakedness was powerful, and the audience was reacting to it.
I don’t know if you know the plot, but there’s violence: A kid blinds a bunch of horses, which we do very theatrically in the play. So, there are giant Greek representations of horses — actors wearing enormous heads and giant shoes and whatnot. When I would “face” the audience with my nakedness, they were absolutely quiet and not a single person even cleared their throat. I realized that I was not the one who was vulnerable, it was the audience that was completely vulnerable.
They couldn’t get their minds around looking at two kids — and we were kids. We were 19; a good-looking girl and me. That was still a forbidden area, especially because the play is about the id. In the play, the kid is completely perverted, he can’t have a relationship or even sex with a girl, because he’s too busy riding horses to climax every night. Mind you, he’s not having sex with horses, but he’s riding them and then punishing himself. It’s really weird. Like, it couldn’t have been kinkier, right? The nakedness, I think, helped me feel the power of writing and ideas.
But, also, becoming a standup comic. People always ask me about going from being a teenage standup comic to being an adult standup comic. I was in college with my partner Forrest Brakeman, and we would go to this bar in Palo Alto to play with this band when we were first starting out, in 1979. We were treated as adults. We were kids, but people there didn’t treat us in any way different.
That was so appealing to me, and so seductive. I was overwhelmed with the enormity of being able to write my own material and produce it. The freedom and immediacy of standup, and being able to do it on my own, made me decide to quit school and just do comedy.
Is there anything about performing comedy that you don’t like?
There are two things I don’t accept from audiences:
One is, if people go, “I didn’t like your standup,” at a standup show. You have a phone and on it is a magical world where you can access pretty much anything, which means you could have taken 30 seconds out of your life to look up my standup. You wouldn’t go see an opera and in the middle of the opera scream: “I hate the opera! But, I really like country music. Why don’t you play country music?” But comedy fans feel really free to go: “I don’t like your comedy, do something else.”
Two is when people sit in the front row of an improv show, covering their heads. Like, “NO! It’s an improv show, certainly you’ve gotten the idea if you’ve ever watched us on TV — we literally go to the audience.” There is a certain amount of responsibility that the audience bears. You’re the other half of the show.
Well, since you always ask the audience, what is your favorite book?
Oh, you don’t want to know my favorite book. It should be something humanist and wonderful; it should be like Giovanni’s Room [(1956) by James Baldwin (1924 - 1987)]. But the book that I probably read the most is Blood Meridian  by Cormac McCarthy. He’s a marvelous writer. There’s only been one decent rendering of his books and that was No Country for Old Men (2007), because it caught a little bit of the humor he does have. If you saw the movie, you may have caught the thrust of Cormac McCarthy’s thesis: Evil exists and it got us war; we’re supposed to kill each other. It’s also based on truth, by the way.
Blood Meridian is a really interesting book — Moby Dick [(1851) by Herman Melville (1819 - 1891)] in the desert. It’s about a group of ex-soldier privateers, who, after the Mexican war, receive this giant bounty for bringing in the scalps of Apaches. And they pick up a tot in their company and he is clearly Satan’s. So, it’s a rumination on the West. On the one hand, there’s all this unbelievable gory action. On the other hand, there is this interminable philosophizing around the campfire by Satan. And it’s told through the point of view of a 15-year-old, like in A Clockwork Orange. He is referred to as “the kid.”
Does the book end well? It ends well in A Clockwork Orange (1972) by Anthony Burgess (1917 - 1993), if it’s read with the 21st chapter.
Oh, no! Of course not. It ends terribly, with an awful sexual murder, which is unspoken. With him, a lot of the time, you have to do your own arriving [at the conclusion]. Then there’s this epilogue, which is completely inexplicable, but has amazing sense. Some of the writing is aethereal and his vocabulary is astonishing; I have to use the dictionary when I read his books. My wife, who worked at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco — which is pretty groovy — told me that no woman ever bought a copy of Cormac McCarthy.
You’ve written books. Do you like to work alone?
I work well in a group and love collaborating, but I don’t like hierarchy.
How old were you when you got on Whose Line Is It Anyway?
I got on Whose Line when I was 29. It happened quite late for all of us, which is hilarious. Colin [Mochrie], Ryan [Stiles], and I, are all about the same age. Colin is a year older, but Ryan and I were born in the same year. And Josie [Lawrence] and Richard [Vranch], too. We’re all from 1959, and we got on the show in our late 20s. Then, I started going on the road with Whose Line, I think at about 40. These are good questions, I don’t think about these times anymore, but now that you brought them up it’s nice to think about them, those kinds of moments, you know?
When it comes to improv, are you comfortable or nervous?
Being nervous on stage is not something I feel. Jeff [Davis] and I were discussing it the other night, and the stage is a safe place. I have anxiety and insecurity, and all that, but not on stage. On stage, I am completely calm: I am in control. I am going to dominate you. I am going to educate you. I am going to seduce you and your friends. I’m able to do all of that, and that’s the power of it, I think.
With improv, you have to give yourself over to the group. You may have an idea that you want to put forward, but it gets stomped on because someone does something or says something, and there’s no bringing it back or trying to wedge it in. So, you have to be able to go with the flow, and I’m willing to do that because the people I work with are quite good and I trust them. So that’s where I’m coming from. I love a group. I like being in a band.
But, I also like doing stuff on my own. I like doing my podcast. When my wife joined — basically in time for the plague, but a little before then — we were trapped together and I had to learn to deal with her and get over myself. We are as close as can be, but someone said that listening to us is like listening to George and Martha arguing. Someone else said we’re the hip aunt and uncle who know all the records and drugs. I’m happy with that role.
You cover so much in your podcast!
When we started the podcast some 10 odd years ago, I said to my wife: “Certainly I can’t cover some of this junk because it’s so 101.” And she said:” You have to understand that no one has that background. You need to start at 101.” So, I accepted that.
Now we look at the podcast like curation [of information], because it helps our audience organize how to think about stuff. So — when we say There’s this play you should read! or There’s this author you should read! or Here’s music that you should listen to! — we give people examples, so that they can grasp it. A podcast is an old-fashioned thing — it’s a radio show. People are spending time with you, listening to what you have to say. What I always wanted as a performer was connection and I’m not going to get that if I don’t connect with who I’m addressing.
What is your favorite game on Whose Line?
The one where we do song and theater styles, which we don’t really do anymore.
Really, not Superhero Friends?
Nah, I don’t care about superheroes. I’ve always had to start off that game, because I’m good at driving, as they say in improv. I’m always the guest in Party Quirks and I’m always the date in Dates, because I can drive. It requires someone who can stick to the format.
You frequently exchanged banter with Clive Anderson on the U.K. version of the show, are you guys still in contact?
Yeah, we’re friendly, it was always a joke on the show. But, he’s inconceivably pedantic and horrible, and he has to be taken down a notch.
Who is your favorite person to improvise with onstage?
I don’t know. I’ve been working with Ryan since 1989 and he’s pretty goddamn funny. McShane and I, we go way back! We were in San Francisco together and I always thought we had fantastic chemistry on the show. I love improvising with Josie. I think we bring a little flirtation to the thing which is much needed. I try to work towards those ends. In my opinion, not having enough women on the show, you remove an enormous Aristotelian element from comedy.
Do you enjoy working with people you’ve known for years?
I think it’s great, I love the familiarity of it. We have a lot of continuity in our group. It’s lovely having long relationships with people.
Does it make working together easier, since you know each other's strengths?
Yeah, absolutely! We can pass the ball back and forth without looking at each other. But it’s also about having minimum interaction during the day. If you spend every day together, you may not have anything to say on stage. So, normally we hook up around dinner time, do a soundcheck, eat, and then we hit the stage together. We want to keep it a little fresh.
You have a lot of physicality on stage. Where does that come from?
Oh, I think you have to do vaudeville, all the time. I don’t think there’s a greater calling than slapstick and vaudeville. You have to get on the floor and roll around, or stick your head in someone’s crotch, that’s when the comedy really begins. And disappointingly, or illuminatingly, it gets more laughs than anything you could have sat down and crafted. I think the physical humor really pushes everything else along. When in doubt, I think, make a physical choice.
How do you feel about the hoedown?
That is the game we like the least. The producers saw to that one. We kind of do it for them.
What is your favorite type of performance? What do you like most — standup, improv, or your podcast?
It’s changed over the years. I would have said standup 10 to 15 years ago. I love doing the podcast, because it’s my baby, my wife’s and mine. And then improv, because it’s a great way to make a living. But, doing The Nightmare Before Christmas Live with a Full Symphony Orchestra is probably my favorite.
I was in the movie back in the ‘90s and Danny Elfman, who wrote the score, likes to perform it live. Over the last six years, we have sung the songs accompanied by a giant orchestra and shown the movie. It’s the most extraordinary thing! It’s very emotional and I love doing it. People are really devoted to the movie, which has become a giant cult thing since it opened. And I laugh my ass off, so I think I enjoy it more than anything else.
I’m paid to sing, and I’m not a singer. Catherine O’Hara is usually Sally, and Ken Page is Oogie Boogie. But this year Catherine couldn’t do it, so Billie Eilish was brought in — she’s going to sing Sally. So, the show is pretty big, it’s a giant undertaking. So that’s the thing I lose my mind over the most.
Because when we rehearse, and we’re singing Danny’s score, the more I hear [Felix] Mendelssohn [1809 - 1847] or [Pyotr Ilyich] Tchaikovsky [1840 - 1893], etc. We were singing the opening songs years ago, and the conductor said to us: “[Danny] wrote a nice Jewish song here: ‘This is Halloween, This is Halloween!” And then we were all like: “Right! It’s absolutely Yiddish.”
There are all these details and elements I didn’t think about at all when I did the movie. And now, having listened to the score a zillion times, and having to sing it live, I find a lot more subtlety and nuance to it. There are so many things to enjoy, like listening to the celeste play, or listening to the harps and the congas, or listening to the first violinist’s solo. It’s interesting to see how the different orchestras around the world play the score differently, even though it’s the same, there are still slight variations on the theme.
Who is your favorite comedian?
George Carlin [1937 - 2008] is probably my favorite because he’s so intellectual. Richard Pryor [1940 - 2005], I think, is the greatest standup, because he’s the most empathetic. Joan Rivers [1933 - 2014] and Robin Williams [1951 - 2014], were genuinely funny, and genuinely nice, and genuinely dedicated to being funny; I don't think there is anything that you could improve on them.
I think Jonathan Winters [1925 - 2013] was an astonishing comedian. People are always like: “Who is the greatest improv group of all time?” And I’m like: “Winters didn’t need a group!” I met him a few times and was completely blown out of the water. Though I’m talking about these comics who are dead, I think there are a lot of great comics, I really do.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
If I’m in good form and I've got my ideas in order, I can externalize as well as I can write. I have hours and hours of material that I can remember, recite, and perform. But, I want to get up on stage, talk and change topics if I want to, and to interact with the crowd. I want to talk about what’s going on, I still want to do funny and silly stuff, because I think you can’t be unrelentingly morbid, but I think you can also talk about the most serious things with the right point of view, and I think that’s where my passion, if you will, is.
Note* Images used with permission.