Improv artist Greg Proops and co. refuse to dumb it down
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Even if you’ve never seen Greg Proops — in his Nickelodeon show “True Jackson, VP,” or endless reruns of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — it’s almost guaranteed you’ve heard him.
He’s lent his acerbic, malleable voice to cartoons, commercials and even George Lucas, playing one-half of the two-headed pod race announcer in “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.” He voiced Bob the Builder for much of that kids’ character’s run, and spouted off in “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“Someone told me years ago, ‘You should work on your voice,’ and I thought, well, I’d never get any gigs if I changed it,” Proops says by phone from the “True Jackson” production stage. “... You have to take what you have and just go with it. I realize I sound funny, but that doesn’t hurt as a comedian.”
Proops lent bite to “Whose Line,” both in the TV show’s original 1989-1998 British incarnation and its stateside 1998-2004 run, with Drew Carey as host. Next week, he and fellow “Whose Line” players Ryan Stiles, Chip Esten and Jeff Davis bring their “Whose Live Anyway?” tour to the Performing Arts Center of Wenatchee, wringing comedy from off-the-cuff audience suggestions.
Outside improv and voice work, Proops, 50, has built a successful standup comedy career with a scathingly prolix style. His advice to white supremacists, for instance: “If you want to experience the stultifying boredom and penetrating ennui that homogeneity can bring, you can go to Canada every day of the year. It’s an entire country named Doug.”
Go! Magazine: When I talked to Ryan Stiles a few years ago, he told me he preferred improv to standup. You do both. Do you have a preference?
Greg Proops: I love them both. Doing improv’s like being in a band, because you have buddies you can hang out with after the show’s over, and you’re not alone, pathetically, in your hotel room. I think they’re very different. On “Whose Line,” we had to drag Drew behind us like a husky pulling a refrigerator. That was difficult. I’m joking, of course. And being the sexiest one on the show is an onerous responsibility.
Go!: Wait, I am talking to Greg Proops, right? Not Chip Esten?
Proops: I’m being ironic. ... But I like standup because I can say what I want and do what I want. I can give my opinion and say how I feel, and in improv you can’t do that. You have to let the group preside and do group things. It’s a completely different dynamic. To make a huge mixed metaphor, improv is the river, and standup is the laser beam.
Go!: Which did you come to first?
Proops: Standup first, because I didn’t know what improv was. That was 100 years ago, and I learned to do improv at college. They had a weekly group at San Francisco State, where I went, and they did shows in the cantina. I went down and they picked people out of the audience to do an audience spot. I thought, well, I can do that, so I went back the next week and sat in the front row, and when they called, I jumped up. And I was asked to join the group the next week. It was pretty fun. But I’d already been doing standup at that point, and I kind of learned from all those guys. So I’ve done both for ages and ages. Improv, I’m lucky ... I’m in a group with Ryan Stiles. So I’m like Ringo, I just show up and play the drums. He’s Babe Ruth — he points at the fences and hits homers.
Go!: Improv is something that seems kind of fleeting, whereas standup is something that we see being repeated and passed around and enjoyed in a sequential way. But improv, unless you’re making an improv movie, doesn’t really have that long shelf life.
If You Go
What: “Whose Live Anyway?” improv show
Where: Performing Arts Center of Wenatchee, 123 N. Wenatchee Ave.
When: 7 p.m. July 15
Tickets and information: 663-2787 or pacwen.org
Proops: It’s completely in the moment, and that’s the excitement of improv. That it’s different every night, that it’s just for that crowd, that it’s that immediate — I think that’s the amazingly fun part of improv. And yeah, standup sticks around, it has a little more plasticity. ... Improv is not something that you hash over and over again — unless it's “Whose Line,” which gets shown eternally, in England and America. It’s funny to see the really old ones, and they kind of hold up. Yeah, there’s a few John Major references, but funny’s funny.
Go!: You have a sizeable vocabulary. Do you ever worry when you’re reeling off a string of fairly large words, that you’re gonna drop the audience somewhere behind you?
Proops: No, I give ’em lots of credit. I think context is everything. I think you can understand whatever someone says just by their context for saying it. And I can’t fall into the abyss. I have to fight every day against my hatred of everything that’s going on in the world, and one of the things that’s going on is the dumbification, or whatever you want to call it, of America. ... I mean, I enjoy “Real Housewives of New York” and “Project Runway” as much as anyone else. But at a certain point, my tolerance for Brooke Hogan and Snooki and The Situation and all that has been maxed. I can’t watch any more shows where people are sluts and the dudes are complete boneheads, and they’re supposed to represent the young people of America. Because they don’t. There’s plenty of intelligent people in this country. It’s the kind of thing that makes other countries feel superior to us, quite frankly.
Go!: Good comedy often seems to be a response or a criticism of that kind of culture. You can say things about the culture doing comedy that you couldn’t necessarily say straightforward.
Proops: Oh, no, because everyone would be all insulted that their favorite show got slammed or whatever. No, I’m in a very good position. Not only am I old enough now that I have a little bit of gravity so I can do these things, but it’s actually how I feel. No one expects me to love Justin Bieber, and it’s OK for me to say, “I would like Justin Bieber if I were an 11-year-old who recently took a near-mortal blow to the head from a croquet mallet.” It’s not for me, so it’s OK for me to hate it. ... You can rail and rail and it doesn’t change a bloody thing. Someone asked Peter Cook, is comedy important? Can it change the world? And he said, “Yeah, look what the Weimar cabaret did in stopping the Nazis.”
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123
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