Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Smartest Man in the World

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Vital stats:
Format: live persona-based comedy
Episode duration: 1h-1h10m
Frequency: once or twice a month
Archive available on iTunes: all

I don’t have to tell anyone who hangs around this part of Internet that comedians and podcasting are the new peanut butter and chocolate. Sure, whenever we weren’t seeing them live, we got used to enjoying our comedians on talk show appearances, critically-acclaimed double albums, buddy comedies, and Private Joke Files, but this podcasting business is a whole other deal. It’s like it was crafted specifically suit the form of expression and the lifestyle of the modern man or woman of hilarity. They’re catching on to this quick, too. Does your favorite comedian not have a podcast? Wait a few weeks.

Greg Proops got with the program, as it were, in October. Remembering him as surely one of my top 25 favorite Loveline guests of all time — though I couldn’t quite remember why — I hopped immediately on his podcast, The Smartest Man in the World [iTunes]. Then I had to wait a few months for a substantial episode stock to build up, since he only puts out one or two a month. But they’re elaborate! You get over an hour! Recorded live! Audience Q&A and everything! The show, you see, takes on a form that’s recently gained a lot of traction in the podcasting comedian community: the recorded live show. As near as I can figure, Proops puts on a live show in L.A. every few weeks, records it as what he calls a “Proopcast”, then releases it to his worldwide Proops nation using the magic of the internet. Straightforward stuff, but with Proops, the personality delivers the complexity. Or I guess I should say the persona delivers the complexity, since it’s hard to imagine him going around like this all the time in real life.

From his Loveline appearances, I’d remembered Proops as funny and crisply well-spoken, but not wildly out of the ordinary. Either I’ve misremembered him or he’s ramped it way up in the intervening years, because — jeez, how do I even describe his demeanor? He holds court with a manner of speaking that’s part old-school cartoon Englishman, part gay caricature, part regular Joe’s impression of an egghead, and part stoned Southern California surfer. He combines surprising-in-a-comedy-context historical references with impressively well-remembered quotations with deliberate malapropisms with pop-culture name checking that’s much more obscurantist in tone than in content.

You’re probably either thinking this sounds grippingly fascinating or deeply insufferable. You are right and wrong, all at once. I’m no comedy nerd, but it seems to me that much of the way Proops performs exists outside the normal spectrum of comedic expectations. He walks the thinnest imaginable like between irony and sincerity; sometimes blasting the audience with a thick, gooey spray of vaguely multisyllabic adjectives, deadly maladies of centuries past, and lines from Antony and Cleopatra; sometimes simply connecting with a story or an opinion that’s cleanly, uncomplicatedly his own and doesn’t need the extra layers of delivery flavor.

But it’s not always easy to tell which is which! At any given point in a Smarest Man in the World episode, you’re hearing, I suspect, a certain percentage Greg Proops the made-up character and a certain percent the genuine dude. Never is he 100 percent one and zero percent the other. As an audience for comedy, confusion isn’t a terrible state of mind to be in, but I have to say I come down solidly in favor of real Proops rather than crazy Proops. It’s best, I suppose, when the he cuts the former a little bit with the latter, but he risks a style takeover by his worst tendencies. It’s like, dude, I don’t much admire George Bush or Dick Cheney either, but those unhinged Mr. Hyde screeds aren’t doing either of us any favors. There are superlatives that apply to the sort of people who make a habit of those, but “smartest” isn’t one of them.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]