Paul Provenza is a veteran stand up comic and actor, but he's also ventured into documenting the world of comedy at large. He's collected interviews with comedians in his book Satiristas: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians and explored the variations of a very dirty joke while directing the film The Aristocrats.
He currently hosts Showtime's The Green Room with Paul Provenza, which seeks to re-create the feeling of being behind the scenes with some of the most celebrated comedians of our time, including Marc Maron, Garry Shandling, Margaret Cho, and Judd Apatow. The show has just entered its second season; you can see it Thursday nights at 11pm.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest on the show is the veteran stand up comedian Paul Provenza. He's been doing comedy for some 20-odd years, and he also has a second career as a sort of chronicler and celebrator of comedy. He co-wrote a book called Satiristas, he co-directed the film The Aristocrats, in which comedians from many generations came together to tell one grotesquely horrifically vulgar joke, and now he's the host of a show on Showtime called The Green Room. It's an effort to recreate, not the comedy stage, but the comedy backstage; the environment that exists in the community of comedians.
Paul, welcome to The Sound of Young America.
PAUL PROVENZA: Thank you for having me.
JESSE THORN: It's great to have you on the show. Many comedians have been guests on The Sound of Young America, and this is something I haven’t talked to many of them about, but I think this it's very central to the work that you've done, especially The Green Room, but elsewhere to, which is that I think in any professional environment there's a community that grows up. I know the people that I look forward to seeing when I go to the public radio conference and so on.
PAUL PROVENZA: It's sort of like the office cooler, but at large.
JESSE THORN: I think it's different for stand up comics.
PAUL PROVENZA: Right. The experience of walking into the Improv and meeting people who felt the same way that I did, people who were alienated in the same ways that I was, when you encounter - - Judd Apatow put it great, this is in Satiristas. He felt the exact same thing, when he walked into a room full of comedians, he realized that he was with his own species. He says he felt like the girl in the bee costume from the Blind Melon video, as she wanders through the field and then finds a whole other group of people in bee costumes, and all of a sudden, I'm not alone, I'm not alone.
JESSE THORN: Did you have that experience?
PAUL PROVENZA: Absolutely. To me it was like when you take a dog off the leash at the dog park. It's just, let me sniff as many butts as I can because these are all my people. That was huge, that was the first time I felt really connected to anything, and one of the conundrums in that kind of a community is exactly what you're referring to, it's that everyone in that community is also a complete and total individual and those things could co-exist. What I loved most about it was that all the people who were weird and funny looking and had speech impediments and were just off beat and quirky and weird, and they were all the people that would have gotten in trouble for those very qualities in high school and childhood, and instead of shunning them or instead of locking them away in a closet, instead of beating themselves up over it, they honed them and turned them into their currency and ultimately the source of their identities and their happiness and their art.
It's almost Oprah like in terms of it being self help. That's a big part of the motivation behind a lot of my recent work is I want people to have an experience of comedy that goes beyond just jokes and somebody's prepared work. It goes to a sort of mindset, a certain attitude, a certain way of being so they can experience that as well as the other more obvious things.
JESSE THORN: I want to play another clip from that first episode of the second season. You have this really amazing panel on this show; a very interesting mix of comic personalities. One of the most interesting folks on this panel is Garry Shandling, who is, besides his work as a stand up comic, he's a brilliant stand up comic and a real life late night television host, he's one of the most significant television comedy writers of our time, having re-written what a sitcom could be and created Judd Apatow.
PAUL PROVENZA: And Garry is a bit of an enigma to a lot of people in comedy.
JESSE THORN: A lot of people in the world. He may be an enigma to himself, and in fact this clip is - - throughout the episode, you jab at him trying to get him to talk about where he is in his life, because it's a very mysterious world that he lives in. In this clip he talks a little bit about it and everybody makes fun of Bo Burnham a little bit.
PAUL PROVENZA: Who can hold his own, by the way.
JESSE THORN: Part of what the show seems like it's about is people creating this skill for themselves, honing this skill which is going up on stage with nothing but a microphone and making people laugh to the point where they know how to execute that. They can execute that. Creating at least a stage version of themselves that is so clear and specific that they can convey it to an audience within a couple of sentences.
Then, getting to a point where they realize, oh, I also have to figure out who I am in my life and what my role is in the world.
PAUL PROVENZA: Like any other occupation, as you go through it and live it for a certain amount of time and you reach a certain point in life, you want to move forward, you want to see what else there is within that very particular world that you've devoted your life to. That's why it's interesting to hear comics talk about things that everybody experiences, it's just processed in a different odd way. That episode with Shandling and Romano and Maron and Apatow and Burnham is particularly interesting because Bo being so young and such a phenom and also just brilliant, he's one of the most intelligent comedians and people I've ever met.
JESSE THORN: He's a very successful stand up comic who became successful through his YouTube channel.
PAUL PROVENZA: When he was about 15 or 16 he was getting ridiculous attention from his YouTube videos, so by the time he started performing - -
JESSE THORN: He's like 21 now, 22, something like that?
PAUL PROVENZA: He was 20 when we taped this episode, so he's about 21 now, but he started performing live at about 18. The strides he made from when he was making videos at the age of 16 to when he started performing at 18 and where he's at now at 21, they're just massive leaps. This kid is really really special. It's wrong to even call him kid, because in a lot of ways he's an old soul. But to hear him ask the kinds of questions that he was interested in from people like Garry Shandling and Ray Romano and having Ray Romano talk about it, and we even showed a clip from 95 Miles to Go where Ray talks about how he feels like he's a fraud and that he's always uncomfortable, and that the audience is all of a sudden going to decide, wait a second, this guy's a big phony. Then we talked about how that never changes, that goes on through a persons entire career. It's a very interesting mix of young and hopeful and older established and realistic, but at all levels it's very human. Everybody is talking from a very human place with their own emotional experience.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest on the show is the veteran comedian Paul Provenza. He's also the host of the Showtime show The Green Room, which seeks to recreate on stage the backstage relationship between comedians. In this clip from the second episode of season two of the show, the comedian Greg Proops starts talking about meeting Milton Berle, and then, well, things go wild from there. You'll also hear Paul Provenza, my guest.
You brought up earlier the idea of comedians riffing, and I know that you're keen on the analogy to jazz, between the improvisation of Bebop and the improvisation of a group of comedians, particularly. I get the impression that when you're putting these shows together it is a very considered choice; it is more than just who are the biggest comedians, but who are the most compelling comedians that I can happen to be able to book on that day, that you're really trying to find out what it's like to pair Dexter Gordon and Max Roach.
PAUL PROVENZA: Absolutely, that's exactly it. That's really where I do my “writing” on the show, is the combination of people I put together. Sometimes it's completely obvious to me and not at all obvious to the audience, which I love.
JESSE THORN: Can you give me an example?
PAUL PROVENZA: Bo on that show was a great example. Another interesting show from season one was an episode with Roseanne Barr, Bob Saget, Sandra Bernhard, and Patrice O'Neal. That was really surgically put together, because Roseanne, first of all, is very very political and very outspoken and very interesting, and I had seen the cover that she had done of Heeb Magazine, and so I wanted to talk about that. That's another thing, there really is no agenda. I don't prepare questions, per se, the only questions that are prepared are questions I would have for somebody if I ran into them, “I saw this thing you did, I wanted to ask you about this.” The preparation is really organic.
I knew I wanted to talk about Roseanne about this very provocative art photograph, and I knew it would lead into her politicization and her outspokenness. Patrice is very much the same way, but they couldn't be more different people. Bob Saget is an old friend of Roseanne's and had worked on the road with Patrice. I've known Bob since 1975, and Bob is, and I say this not as an insult or in any negative way, Bob is just hilarious, he just loves to make you laugh, he will always come up with a one liner or some outrageous idea, just throw it out there just to crack you up, but it's very hard to get him to talk really and personally, particularly in public. One on one it's different. I also know that Patrice refuses to have a conversation that's not substantive, and I knew that he would bust Bob for me.
That combination was really interesting, and of course Sandra with her experience and her closeness with Roseanne gave Roseanne a level of comfort, Patrice gave Bob a little level of comfort, Sandra also being very outspoken I knew that she would bring up other issues. She's also a very interesting person to talk to about race, because the way she deals with race is very particular and very different from most white middle aged people dealing with race.
That was a mixture that just felt really really fertile and really rich, and the personalities were such that I knew I could trust them to take it to interesting places. That's one of the things about the show also that I'm very proud of. I'm not really the host of the show, I'm really just the luckiest guy there. I'm the guy who gets to jam with all these people, to continue that music analogy. I don't look at myself as controlling it. In fact, there's an episode in season two where I just get up and go to the bathroom because I don't need to be there, it's not like the ship needs steering.
JESSE THORN: You do a fair amount of goading though.
PAUL PROVENZA: I do, and that's what I do in life. That's the interesting thing also is that dynamics occur, I do have in my head a sense that I want everybody to get the floor as it were, I want everybody to get their piece out there, but it's also in the organic pecking order that happens, or the dynamic that would normally happen anyway. We did a show this season with Doug Stanhope, Janeane Garofalo, Richard Belzer, a Canadian comedian who's absolutely one of my favorites in the world – Glenn Wool – and Dave Attell. It turned into such an authentic green room where Doug Stanhope had a personal thing he wanted to deal with Janeane about and Attell didn't care and he was sitting in the middle of them and he was like, “Can I change my seat?” And Belzer and I go back to a different generation than most of the others, just the dynamics and everything that happened on that show were so authentically like a greenroom that halfway through I forgot we were making a TV show, which I think is the greatest place to be.
JESSE THORN: One of the things about comedy specifically, and there have been other shows like this, but I think that when you bring a group of comedians together, they may have some expertise on hot new reality shows or toys from the 80s or politics and public policy or whatever, just like any group of people, they have some expertise on that I'm sure. But what comedians do really have a lot of expertise on is themselves, because not only are they themselves – but that is their job, to be themselves.
PAUL PROVENZA: It is a very solipsistic endeavor.
JESSE THORN: There's no other career that is so defined by a need to have an understanding of who you actually are and for many comedians the arch of their career is, well, for six years I was kind of funny but I wasn't me, and then it changes when they become them.
PAUL PROVENZA: And that, by the way, is one of the reasons why there tends to be older comedians on the show, because that's what it takes. It takes time on this planet to really understand who you are and to really zero in on that and be comfortable in your own skin with that. I think you're right, I think that's a big part of it.
JESSE THORN: Do you think that comedians are actually sadder or more dysfunctional than other people as we often think?
PAUL PROVENZA: This comes up all the time, and I just - - my feeling on it is this. I bet if you really look at the numbers, I bet it's the same percentage as in the general population, but the difference being that comedians wear it on their sleeves, they ride it into the sunset. They don't agonize over it, they don't block it away, they're not afraid of it, they've turned it into an asset; they've turned something that is a liability for them and for most people in a general socialized society into real assets and very idiosyncratic aspects of who they are.
JESSE THORN: It's their job to be and express themselves.
PAUL PROVENZA: So I don't believe that it's any different than any other subgroup you choose to isolate. I have absolutely no evidence or proof of that, it's just my gut. I think that everybody's screwed up. Some people go crazy because they can't just accept that they're screwed up, whereas comedians are like, yup, I'm screwed up, what's the most I can make out of this. I really don't believe that they're more damaged than anybody else, I think the real issue is that most people don't believe that everybody is damaged. It seems like comedians are, but this is a sick, damaged society that we live in
JESSE THORN: There's no part of being an accountant where you go up in front of 200 people and tell them about your mom.
PAUL PROVENZA: No, but you might still feel the same alienation that comedians feel and turn into careers.
JESSE THORN: If you have mom issues, it's just not your job to talk about it.
PAUL PROVENZA: IN fact, you better shut up, because it's not appropriate anywhere else, and that’s the thing that comedians don't play by.
JESSE THORN: You and Penn Jillette made this hilarious movie called The Aristocrats that is sort of a catalog of the art of stand up comedy, from the - -
PAUL PROVENZA: I love watching people try to explain what this movie is.
JESSE THORN: It's not quite the very birth of stand up comedy, but George Carlin's in the movie, it's at least the birth of it as an art form, as it's own special thing. It's dozens of comedians telling the same joke all in their own way. I think it's been - - the movie came out 5 or 8 years ago.
PAUL PROVENZA: 2005.
JESSE THORN: So six or seven years ago. I think it's time to let it be said that you just made this joke up.
PAUL PROVENZA: You know what - -
JESSE THORN: This is not a real joke.
PAUL PROVENZA: I've heard this theory before.
JESSE THORN: This is not a real joke, Paul.
PAUL PROVENZA: This made it on the internet as some sort of conspiracy theory, I guess. It came from the fact that Penn is a magician and does the show that he did on Showtime.
JESSE THORN: It came from the fact that you made this joke up.
PAUL PROVENZA: I wish we were that smart. I wish that we had thought of something that sophisticated, because that would put a whole other level on it.
JESSE THORN: You're telling me you didn't explain what this joke is to at least two thirds of the people in this movie?
PAUL PROVENZA: I would say - -
JESSE THORN: You went to Sarah Silverman and she was like, oh yeah, I know that joke.
PAUL PROVENZA: Sarah had not heard the joke, but two thirds of people in there knew the joke, more than that, three quarters of people knew the joke. First of all, most people started in the 70s who knew the joke because it had a resurgence in the 70s because it was very much a Derek and Clive kind of thing.
JESSE THORN: Are you sure they weren't just familiar with the movie The Aristocats? When you said, do you know the aristocrats, they were thinking The Aristocats, and they were thinking, “Everybody wants to be a cat.”
PAUL PROVENZA: When we called George Carlin to do this, the first thing we talked about actually, and this is another example of the Jazz analogy, cause that’s really what it is, it's the singer not the song, take a standard and do your own interpretation of it, because that's something that jazz cats do.
JESSE THORN: Jazz-bos, as they like to be known now.
PAUL PROVENZA: That doesn't exist in comedy because you're supposed to be writing your own material, but it does exist backstage in the world, so to speak. When we called Carlin about it and we said we want to do this thing and we want to look at comedy like jazz and we want to do find a joke that everyone can do their own interpretation of, and he said, what's the joke? And we said the Aristocrats, and he said, that's great. I have a notebook on that joke, call me in about three weeks, I'm gonna dig it out, I'm gonna get some stuff ready for it, I'm gonna reacquaint myself with this.
He had actually felt the same kind of things that we felt many years previously. He felt like this joke deserves a little playing around with. It really did exist. And Jay Marshall, who was the first person to tell the joke in the movie, he was in his 90s at the time, he's since passed away, but he actually placed it back, firsthand, he placed it back to the middle of the 19th century. He was a kid in Vaudeville and he had heard it from an old stage hand who had heard it when he was a kid in Vaudeville, so that brings it back first hand to the mid to late 1800s.
JESSE THORN: I think that anybody who says they knew it, they were just thinking of the movie.
PAUL PROVENZA: You're going to get people calling in right now and they're going to tell you when they heard it. Musicians know it, a lot of musicians know it, it went around with musicians and comics.
JESSE THORN: People are going to call in and tell me their version of the joke, I bet.
PAUL PROVENZA: Then you are in for a questionable treat. Because that went on for years for me. The joke really did exist, I wish we were sophisticated to have created that premise and made it a whole scam. That was a brilliant idea. When it was put forward, Penn and I were like, we should just say that's what we did because that's way better than what we did.
JESSE THORN: Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.
PAUL PROVENZA: Thank you for having me, it's a treat to be here, I really appreciate it.
JESSE THORN: Paul Provenza's television program The Greenroom with Paul Provenza airs Thursday nights and, I'm guessing, a lot of other times during the week on The Showtime network.
PAUL PROVENZA: One hopes.