A chat with Paul Provenza, Paul Provenza interview, Satiristas, The Green Room
Paul Provenza

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You’ve probably heard the phrase “actor’s director,” used to describe a director who, by virtue of having started their career in front of the camera, is able to better to get actors to give them the performances that they’re looking for. Paul Provenza, then, could be described as a comedian’s interviewer: he’s done his time on the stand-up circuit (and, indeed, still continues to rack up the hours on a regular basis), and, as a result, he’s able to get a lot of funny people to open up when he talks to them. This ability is proven time and time again within his new book, Satiristas, where he has provided conversations to accompany the photographs of comedians and spoken-word performers which have been taken by Dan Dion, and you’ll see it shine further on June 10th, when his new series, “The Green Room with Paul Provenza,” premieres on Showtime.

I had a chance to sit down with Provenza in January, when he turned up at the TCA Press Tour in Pasadena to promote the series, and, as you’ll see, we had the opportunity to continue our conversation on the phone a few months later. In addition to talking about the aforementioned projects, I also got him to talk about “The Aristocrats,” which he directed, as well as his acting work in the film “Odd Jobs” and on TV series such as “The Facts of Life” and “Northern Exposure,” yet for some reason, he seemed more enthusiastic when discussing Satiristas and “The Green Room.” For the life of me, I can’t imagine why…

Paul Provenza: Hi!

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Paul, good to meet you.

PP: And you.

BE: I’ll tell you, man, you had me sold on this show the second I saw Jonathan Winters. I was locked in and ready to watch.

PP: (Laughs) Right…? How cool, right? And not easy to get, I will tell you.

BE: I would think not.

"When I heard Carlin for the first time, when I was 12 or 13 years old, that was for me what it must’ve been like for a kid who wants to play the guitar to hear Hendrix for the first time."

PP: But I’ve become friendly with him in recent years, and he trusted me. And he was, like, “You know, I’ve done all of those talk shows, and ever since Johnny (Carson) left, the talk show world…it’s horrible, it’s horrible. I hate doing those kinds of things.” I said, “Jonathan, this is not going to be like anything you’ve ever done. Trust me on this. Just please let us get a car for you, come on down, and you will have the time of your life.” And eventually I badgered him enough that he came. And then afterwards, I was so proud and excited and just personally blown over when he said that it was the best time that he ever had doing anything on television. I mean, I was just thrilled.

BE: I will say, though, that I was a little concerned at first, because we received a screener of two episodes, and he only appears at the opening of one of them. I was, like, “Are you kidding me? Is this all we’re going to see of Jonathan Winters?” But then we got to see a clip today which showed that he is indeed on an actual episode. I was extremely relieved.

PP: (Laughs)Yeah, there are different people at the door on every show. I just thought that would be an interesting little homage to sort of a classic-comedy kind of gag, and that it would be so cool to have different people at the door all of the time. He did a bunch of them for us, so we can use him a lot.

BE: Excellent. Well I know you did “Comics Only,” and then you had been doing something called the “Talk of the Fest” at various comedy festivals.

PP: Which is what became “The Green Room.”

BE: Right. So when did you first realize that you had a knack for interviewing?

PP: You know, I don’t believe I have a knack for interviewing. (Laughs) But I do believe I have a knack for understanding comedians. I also have a book coming out in May, on HarperCollins, which is 50 artist-to-artist interviews. It’s called “Satiristas,” and it’s subversive, satirical, and provocative comedians talking about the issues and talking about their lives. It’s really free form and edited all together, so big-picture stuff comes through, and it’s all these different, very unique voices. Really, all it came from is that I just love sitting and talking with comics about the art form, about everything that comes up as a result of talking with comics. When you’re talking comic to comic, it just changes things, you know? So that’s really what it is. I just decided that…see, the thing that makes me the happiest in the world, and the thing that saved my life when I was just a kid…I was 17…came when I started doing standup. The greatest joy of my life has been hanging around with comedians. Onstage, off stage, it doesn’t matter. I just love being around comedians. So I thought, “How do I take the thing that I love the most, that makes me the happiest in life, and make that part of the work that I do?” And it’s just been great, great fun.

BE: Well, you’re definitely – and I mean this in the best possible way – a comedy geek.

PP: Big time. (Laughs) Big time, but I wear it as a badge of pride.

BE: As well you should. Now, there have been several other comedian-interviews-comedian kind of shows… Alan King had one, David Steinberg had one not too long ago…

PP: Dick Cavett had one for a while.

BE: True. But this one is a bit more…anarchic, I guess, would be the term?

Paul ProvenzaPP: Yes. Yes, it is. (Laughs) And by design! I mean, I loved those shows, but the problem with those kinds of treatments of talking with comedians is that they become a lot like motorcycle enthusiasts talking to other motorcycle enthusiasts, if you know what I mean. And I always felt that they were too formulized when, really, what is most compelling to me is when stuff emerges from not having an agenda. That’s the big difference. It really, truly can go any which way, and so whatever happens is always authentic. And I love that.

BE: Well, Jonathan Winters is obviously a big “get” for the show. Is there anyone else you were really thrilled that you were able to get to sit down with you for “The Green Room”?

PP: Oh, yeah. So many. I mean, really, pretty much everybody. Like, Roseanne is somebody who…she’s so busy and she’s so not interested in show biz. She just does her own thing. But I also know that she’s really politicized. One of the things that I love about her is that she truly will speak her mind. Even if you don’t find it funny, she will just keep saying it until she makes it funny, but she’s still going to say it, you know? I just love that, so I was really excited that she agreed to come on. And, my God, how she drove that show is phenomenal, because it just became all about pushing buttons and crossing lines and stuff. Having Roseanne was really, really a treat, because I knew that it could go in any million directions, and it would be interesting, and she would be fearless. Eddie Izzard is a dear friend of mine, who a lot of people don’t know has become very politicized. Interestingly enough, though, the show that he was on ended up not being political at all. I expected it to become very political. I had him on with Drew Carey, who, as you probably know, does these pieces for Reason.tv which are really, really smart, really rich and interesting, and, y’know, we’ve had those kinds of conversations. And Larry Miller, who is also very politicized, more right-wing than the others, and I just thought, “Oh, this show…” (Laughs) And I also brought Reginald D. Hunter on, who is an American who has been living outside the United States for so long that he has an inside/outside perspective on American politics and society and stuff. I thought, “This show is just going to be juicy, politically fraught; it’s going to be interesting.” Well, that whole show turned out to be all about comedy stories and comedy experiences…and it’s hilarious to me, and it turned out to be great, but that it went that direction was a surprise. But I was still kinda thrilled, because it means if I ever want to have Eddie back on the show, it can still end up being about politics then. Just Eddie on at all was a treat, though, ‘cause he’s so busy that it’s really impossible to get him. And, man, there’s nothing that he can’t talk about on some level of smart. Robert Klein was meaningful to me, too, because he’s indirectly responsible for me ever doing standup for the first time. I always felt like Robert Klein never really got his due. He was really, really an important figure in American standup in the early 70’s, and I feel like he was just kind of there and nobody ever writes about him as having been meaningful and all that. But, my God, there are several generations of comedians who will tell you, “Robert is the guy that made me want to do comedy,” so it was a real treat having him on, just so that I could talk to him.

BE: I’ve got to ask you about “The Aristocrats.” Great film…

PP: Thank you.

BE: I would never show it to my mother, you understand. But it’s still a great film.

PP: You know, when my mother went to see it…she lives in Florida, so she said she was going to see it with, like, 30 of her friends. And I was, like, “Oh, God,” and I flew down to be there when she went. I had my cell phone out with 911 all set, just ready to hit the button.

BE: Well, I did take my mother to see “Pulp Fiction” one Mother’s Day, so…

PP: Hey, at least there were no gunshots to the head in my movie!

BE: (Laughs) Or heroin overdoses, for that matter. So, now, am I right in understanding that you filmed Rodney Dangerfield telling “The Aristocrats,” but he was so sick that you didn’t use it?

PP: No, he did it for us over the phone, as did Buddy Hackett. Neither one of them wanted to appear on camera because they were not well.

BE: Oh, okay.

PP: Yeah, they were a little self conscious, so they didn’t want to do it on camera.

BE: Was there anyone else who you wanted to get who you just weren’t able to corral?

"The greatest joy of my life has been hanging around with comedians. Onstage, off stage, it doesn’t matter. I just love being around comedians. So I thought, 'How do I take the thing that I love the most, that makes me the happiest in life, and make that part of the work that I do?' And it’s just been great, great fun."

PP: Yeah, a few. I’m trying to think. Buddy Hackett was really one of the…you know, there’s a great behind-the-scenes Buddy Hackett story about “The Aristocrats” which is fantastic, and how I heard the story came about when I was a kid. I was watching “The Tonight Show,” and when Buddy Hackett was on, it was always an event, because you never knew what to expect. He used to tickle Johnny and poke him and stuff, and it became funny to just see Johnny react to all of this stuff, but you always knew there was some story behind a lot of it. Well, he was on one time, and they cut away to a commercial, but when they came back from commercial, Johnny and audience were just in absolute hysterics for, like, a full minute…and we have no idea what went on! And that always stuck in my mind. So the first time I did “The Tonight Show,” I was backstage waiting for them to open the curtain, and it’s the same stage hand, who had been there for like 30 years or however long the show was on at that point. He had been on there all that time, and he’s this old, wizened guy who’s just going, “Eh, you’ll do fine. People always do fine. Don’t worry about a thing. Enjoy yourself.” And I said to him, “Listen, you’ve been here for this many years, so lemme ask you something. There was this night…” And I describe this thing to him, and he told me that, as they went to commercial break and the band started up, Buddy Hackett stopped them and said, “Johnny, do you mind if I tell the audience a joke instead of listening to the band on this break?” And Johnny went, “Sure!” And Buddy begins to tell “The Aristocrats” joke…and it goes all the way right up until they’re going, “Give, four, three, two…” Buddy says, “The Aristocrats!” The cameras came back on, and everybody exploded. So that joke came back around in the weirdest way, which is why I really wanted to have Buddy Hackett in the movie.

BE: I just want to ask you a couple of quick questions about your acting work. First up, Odd Jobs.”

PP: Look, you know, sometimes you’ve just got to whore it out.

BE: (Laughs) Well, sure.

Paul ProvenzaPP: No, actually, that…you know, here’s the funny thing about show business: nobody ever sets out to do something knowing it’s going to be less than what they’re necessarily happy with. You know? But there are so many variables along the way. You know, on paper, that movie was, like, unbelievable. The director (Mark Story) was a guy who had done some of the most hilarious commercials that you had ever seen when you were growing up, and this was his first feature. And then it was Robert Townsend, who I came up with, Rick Overton, who I came up with, and…who else was in it? Paul Reiser, who I came up with, too, and some other people that I knew. Millions of people were in this. (Writer’s note: Also in the film were Richard Dean Anderson, Don Imus, Julianne Phillips, and Leon Askin, best known for playing General Burkhalter on “Hogan’s Heroes.”) And it just looked like, “Wow, this is going to be fun,” you know? And shooting it was great fun, but it just didn’t hold together as a movie. It was really something that we did just to have fun. It was a long time ago. Early ‘80s, I think, maybe?

BE: ’86.

PP: Yeah. But that’s one of those movies that the internet…you know, I hate the fucking internet, because now people can find this shit. (Laughs)

BE: In fairness, I did actually see it way back when. But, yeah, it was seeing it on IMDb that reminded me about it. I’d forgotten about it.

PP: You can find a whole list of those. I’ve never made a good movie. I’ve never been in a good movie. My career’s been really fucking weird.

BE: Yes, but your work on “The Facts of Life” was extraordinary.

PP: (Laughs) You know, I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out that that was me working on a farm team, because now…I mean, the girls were, like, 12 at the time, but…you know, I used to do warm up for the show.

BE: I did not know that.

PP: Yeah, I did warm up for that show for years, and then I had stopped and had moved on to other things, whatever. But then out of the blue I get a call, and they go, “We want to bring this character in, and I mentioned you to the girls, and they all know you and everything, so...” I mean, I was part of the family there for a few years, so it was, like, an easy and comfortable thing to go and do. For me, it probably became…see, when they asked me to come and do this, they said, “We want to take it off into a little bit of a darker direction, and we want to spin another show off, so we want to give it a slightly different edge. If we bring you in, we can transition you into that. You bring a dark, different sensibility and everything.” And I thought, “Well, hey that sounds great!” But then, of course, you realize what a network’s definition of darker and edgier is, really…

BE: Especially as defined in the mid- to late 80’s.

PP: (Laughs) Exactly, exactly. So I ended up being rather unhappy on that show, although every day was joyful and fun because that cast…they were great. They were great people, all of them.

BE: You actually came into a couple of shows late in their run.

PP: Yeah, you know, I’m the scourge of prime time. You want a show cancelled, you bring me on.

BE: And how about Ted McGinley? You and him are like…

PP: (Laughs) Me and Ted McGinley. Dude, you’re a geek, too!

BE: I’m absolutely a geek.

PP: But, you know, for awhile, the scourge was George Clooney. So I feel okay about it. (Laughs)

BE: So as you were doing those shows…I mean, I’m just curious: what’s it like coming into a series so late in the game like that?

On George Carlin's inclusion in "Satiristas": "It turned out to be his last interview. Yeah, he died something like a week and a half later. And it’s interesting, because the way he ended the interview is almost like a goodbye. He talked about how he didn’t used to really hang out that much with comedians, that he was very much a loner, and he goes,'Yeah, I probably missed some real camaraderie and stuff I might’ve enjoyed, but that’s life.' And then a week later…oh, no!"

PP: Well, I mean, most of the sitcoms or whatever, they’re kind of easy and lax. Where it really became interesting was “Northern Exposure,” because “Northern Exposure” fans were like Trekkies. They were emotionally involved in that show, which I can understand. It was a pretty great, interesting, unusual, smart and heartfelt show, so I could see people getting emotionally involved with that. The weird thing, though, was that a lot of people in the blogosphere…I was getting, like, accused of being the guy that made Rob Morrow leave the show. And I would just write in and go, “No, I had nothing to do with that. He left the show. You want to be mad, be mad at him; he left the show. I just got a gig. I’m just a guy who went for a job and got it, so don’t hold it against me.” And then the weird thing was that I would also go on the road, and I would be in these different towns and, like, the local “Northern Exposure” fan club person or whatever would show up, and they would ask for autographed photographs of the cast and everything, and I would send them to them. And all of a sudden, I started to see on the blogs that they had seen my standup, they get that, and they’re, like, “Well, you know, maybe we should give him a chance,” or, “He’s not really doing that a bad job,” or, “Hey, I kind of liked that episode.” So that was kind of a weird thing, but it was weird because I was, like, “I’m just doing my job, I had nothing to do with him leaving the show, don’t hold me responsible.” But, again, that was a great cast, and I was really proud to be a part of it. And I had nothing to do with its success or failure or anything, which is almost always the case. I just enjoyed the experience of it and took it all in stride. And I actually became really good friends with John Corbett, who I just ran into. I hadn’t seen him in ages, and I just ran into him drawing a Hitler mustache on my pictures.

BE: Nice.

PP: Somewhere around here, some big poster thing of me has a Hitler mustache.

BE: Which, no doubt, was quickly hustled out of the room.

PP: I wonder if they have any sense of humor. If they do, they’ll leave it.

BE: Come on, Hitler’s funny. “The Producers” proved that a long time ago.

PP: (Laughs) I said to him, “Did you at least sign it?”

BE: I know I’m going to be yelled at to wrap it up in just a second, but just to bring it back full circle, someone made an analogy during the panel between “The Green Room” and, uh, pandas mating in captivity.

PP: (Laughs) That was me.

BE: Okay, it was you. I wasn’t sure. There was a lot of talking going on up there.

PP: Yeah, that was me. And that’s the most perfect way I can possibly describe it. To get comics to be so loose and free and really un-self-conscious is almost impossible…which is why, as I said, any comedian with a brain who’s ever watched television has thought of doing this show. But actually making it happen is really, really difficult. And that’s really what I brought to that idea that everybody else already had. That really is it.

BE: With that being the case, then, I guess you would not consider bringing a semi-unknown element into the show, like a comedian who you didn’t know that well.

PP: Oh, sure I would. Absolutely.

BE: I didn’t know if that might wreck havoc with the balance.

Paul ProvenzaPP: No, in fact…I don’t know if the episodes that you saw had much of this, but there’s a lot of audience interaction. People in the audience would throw things up, and you could take it and play around with it or comment on it or whatever. No, I definitely want something that’s still pretty free-form. It’s just got to be the right vibe. I mean, the way we shot it, you don’t know where the cameras are at any given moment. The audience is all around us, where we’re sort of just sitting in a room surrounded by people, not in a presentational sound stage with the audience, like, over there or whatever. You know, the seating was really random. We had chairs, road cases, people were sitting on beer cases and beer kegs. “Just bring in folding chairs,” whatever. And people sat wherever they felt like sitting. And we told the crew, “It’s your job to work around this thing.” So the audience came in, there was no “okay, everybody, quiet! And five, four, three…” There were no rules, no anything. And we had a party. We actually had a party before we started taping. We had a party out on the patio, and everybody wandered in, and we were already sitting and talking when the audience came in. So the show just kind of happened out of what the vibe was already, actually. And that’s the kind of thing that you can’t really…it doesn’t happen unless you make it happen. That’s what I mean. So anything that happens in that context, small environment, everybody in the audience is essentially vetted. You know, as far as I’m concerned, the only people in the room were cool people who were going to get it and who were savvy enough to make sure the comics stayed at the game and just let it emerge. People didn’t even realize we were taping until we were halfway through.

At this point, the publicist for “The Green Room” was hovering within sight, quietly twitching and waiting for me to wrap up, so I stayed in her good graces and called it quits, saying goodbye to Paul and thanking him for his time. Immediately thereafter, though, I traded E-mail with him, and he told me to keep in touch and let him know if I had any other questions for him before “The Green Room” premiered. By coincidence, I was approached a few months later by a publicist for Harper Collins, who wanted to know if I’d be interested in chatting with Paul about his aforementioned book, “Satiristas,” which was preparing to hit stores. I took her up on her office, figuring, “Hey, this way, I don’t have to bother him on Facebook!”

BE: Well, it’s good to get to do a follow-up with you, even though “The Green Room” still hasn’t actually premiered it. But at least it has a premiere date set now.

PP: June 10th! I’m psyched: they’ve got us following “Penn & Teller’s Bullshit,” which is so appropriate. (Laughs)

BE: Even though you’ve been promoting it since January, I’m sure you were still relieved when it finally made it onto the schedule officially.

PP: Oh, yeah, man, the waiting time has been torture. I’m so excited about this show that I can’t wait for people to finally see it!

BE: Yeah, I’ve still only got those two episodes that were sent out as part of the pre-TCA mailer, so I’m still chomping at the bit to see the one with Jonathan Winters!

PP: Ah, so they gave you full episodes, then?

BE: Yep, two of them.

PP: And did you enjoy them?

BE: I did. It manages to be both organized and anarchic at the same time.

PP: Perfect! (Laughs) Organized anarchy. I love it! It sounds like the title of an autobiography.

BE: Maybe that can be your next book.

PP: Oh, jeez, writing another book…?

BE: (Laughs) So what gave you the idea of doing this book? You seemed to agree with my assessment of you as a comedy geek, so I’m sure that had to have been part of it.

"There’s no real comedy criticism, there’s no real critique. Like, where’s the Pauline Kael who covers comedy? It’s as deep and rich an art form as any other, like music or painting or anything, and yet there are no courses in comedy appreciation like there are for music and art…and it’s because people don’t think of it as being that high an art form. if people just walk away going, 'Wow, there’s way more interesting stuff going on here than I ever thought before,' then I feel like I’m giving a little something back."

PP: Yeah, well, the book actually comes from the photos. I was working in Sydney, Australia, and Dan Dion had an exhibit of his photos. I had seen his work and loved his work, and I finally got to meet him, and we just hit it off like gangbusters. We just talked comedy for days and days and days, and we decided to work together and do something with his photography, so that turned into me figuring out what to do to contribute to his photography, basically. It all really springs from the artwork. So what I decided to try and do was create verbal portraits that were as intuitive and sort of captured certain things in…well, in the intuitive way that his photography did. So I had these cool conversations. They’re interviews, but not really. They’re more conversations than they are interviews, because they’re not really journalistic. They’re more about comedians getting together and talking about comedy. After doing that with everybody… (Pauses) Hang on, I’m going to make a little bit of noise here. I’ve got to have more coffee.

BE: (Laughs) I understand. I’m on my second cup right now.

PP: (After finishing the process of making a pot of coffee) So, anyway, I would just have these really jazz-like conversations – like on “The Green Room” – that were very free-form, just talking about whatever. I had some specific questions for some people, but basically I’d just let it kind of wander and let the conversation take whatever path it took. And then you’re contextualizing them all. I chose the ones I ended up choosing based on who said what, what topics have been brought up, what it is that anybody’s saying that’s particular to them, things that are in concert or in contrast, and we just tried to create this flow of ideas out of conversations, as opposed to a journalistic type of interview.

BE: You’ve got a nice mix of friends and heroes in the book.

PP: Yeah, but it’s by no means definitive…mostly because that might be impossible. But as a result of the logistics of who’s available and who you can get to and all that sort of stuff, we ended up with kind of a random sampling of that subset, and a pretty nice cross-section, I think.

BE: Who of the folks you’d never met before were you most excited to be able to talk with?

PP: Oh, I was very excited to talk to Tom Lehrer, who had not given any sort of an interview, I think, since the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. He’s very reclusive and very tough to track down, even though he’s accessible. Six months of the year he’s at Harvard, six months of the year he’s at Santa Cruz University. He’s got office numbers! (Laughs) You can just pick up the phone and call him. You just can’t get him to answer! But after months and months and months of trying to get him, he finally picked up...and it turns out that he’s a big “Aristocrats” fan, had seen the movie and loved it, and he gave me an interview. So that was really, really exciting. I had not spoken to Randy Newman, so that was pretty exciting. Henry Rollins was another one. So was Terry Jones. So, yeah, a lot of people.

BE: Which of the conversations took the oddest turn?

PP: (Laughs) Marc Maron and Dana Gould was an interesting one…and, again, you’re just seeing slivers of the conversation, but it was interesting because A) they’re both so funny, but B) because they go off on these tangents. Also, I’m always really surprised at both Dana and Marc because…it’s really hard to pin down their way of thinking. They always seem to surprise me. And Randy Credico…I don’t know if you know he’s running for Senator, against Chuck Schumer in the New York Democratic primaries. I  had no idea of the depth of his activism, so that led to some interesting twists and turns. Lily Tomlin surprised me. Geez, there’s so many that I’ve got to think. Which ones surprised you?  

BE: Well, I particularly enjoyed the Craig Ferguson interview.

PP: Oh, yeah, wasn’t that cool? I knew about Craig’s punk rock background, so that interested me a lot. In fact, that’s the thing I really wanted to talk to him about. He did this hardcore punk, and when he was a young comic in the UK, he was real, real hard. And he’s turned into just this lovable, sincere, open, warm, genuine person onstage. (Laughs) So I was interested in that transition as well as the punk ethos of his work. I was surprised to find that he’s actually a very, very different person than he was, and that’s interesting to me:  to find somebody who kind of broke through in one way and has, so many years later, become almost the antithesis of the kind of stuff he projected in the beginning.

Paul Provenza

BE: Also, I’m always interested in reading interviews with Paul Mooney. He always seems to be one of the more underrated comedians of his generations.

PP: Oh, yeah. And Mooney does not hold back. (Laughs)

BE: I also laughed a lot at the Billy the Mime interview.

PP: (Laughs) But, now, the copy that you got has an error in it, doesn’t it? You got a galley, didn’t you?

BE: I did.

PP: Yeah, so it wasn’t laid out properly.  But, obviously, you still got the gist of it. (Laughs) Have you ever seen his work, though?

BE: I haven’t.

PP: Oh, it’s amazing. It’s truly breathtaking. It’s some of the most incisive satire I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t say a word, obviously, but…you don’t know whether to laugh or even who or what he’s making fun. It puts you in a place that you don’t even know where to react. It’s just so powerful.

BE: I’m sure you’re glad that you were able to get George Carlin in there.

PP: Yes! And it turned out to be his last interview. Yeah, he died something like a week and a half later. And it’s interesting, because the way he ended the interview is almost like a goodbye. He talked about how he didn’t used to really hang out that much with comedians, that he was very much a loner, and he goes, “Yeah, I probably missed some real camaraderie and stuff I might’ve enjoyed, but that’s life.” (Laughs) And then a week later…oh, no!

BE: So had you been a Jello Biafra fan prior to talking to him for the book?

PP: Yes. Well, I mean, obviously, I’d been a fan of his in the abstract. I didn’t know him, but I knew some of his music and all. To me, he’s one of those iconic characters in the fight for free speech, so that was a treat to meet him. And, man, his story is unbelievable. Unbelievable. It’s a real cautionary tale.

BE: I got to interview him a few years ago, and the first thing I thought when I read your chat with him was, “Man, I know their conversation had to have been longer than what’s in the book.”

PP: (Bursts out laughing) Oh, man, yeah! It almost seems like he’s got a script! He can just talk and talk and talk…and it’s all riveting. Or, at least, I think is.

BE: Oh, I agree. When I submitted the interview, I said, “Okay, this is pretty long, so don’t be afraid to trim it,” but not only did they run it intact, they made it the cover story!

PP: Yeah, he’s amazing. He’s the real deal. He was another one who surprised me. I really had no idea just how articulate he was. And, you know, that’s one of the things that…I may even have mentioned it in the intro, but that’s one of the things that’ll happen when you read the book. It’s really surprising how smart these people are and how thoughtful they are as a group. That’s something that people don’t really think about. They think writing jokes is writing jokes. I don’t think they realize the level of intellect involved in the exercise of doing this kind of stuff or in having made a decision at some point in their life to go against the grain, how much thought it takes to do that and to succeed at it. I just think they’re…I learned from every one of them.

BE: On a related note, we’ll be seeing some of that in “The Green Room,” I’m guessing.

PP: Uh, yeah, you’ll be seeing a lot of that in “The Green Room,” actually. (Laughs) Quite a bit. You know, with both of these projects…and to a certain extent with “The Aristocrats,” too, but a little bit more consciously with “Satiristas” and “The Green Room”…I really want people to see the world of comedy and the art of stand-up the way I see it. I want them to feel what I feel about it. (Pauses) Let me elaborate just a little bit. When I was a kid, I found comedy and it…it changed my life. It saved my life, really. I mean, for me, it was, like, the way some kids pick up a guitar and, boom, they’ve got a way to cope. They’ve got their thing. For me, it was comedy. When I heard Carlin for the first time, when I was 12 or 13 years old, that was for me what it must’ve been like for a kid who wants to play the guitar to hear Hendrix for the first time. My involvement in comedy is really quite personal and quite emotional. I have this tremendous passion for it, and I’ve been struck over the many decades I’ve been doing this at how people perceive it as just kind of like...well, like I said, they see as this pop culture fluff. There’s no real comedy criticism, there’s no real critique. Like, where’s the Pauline Kael who covers comedy? It’s as deep and rich an art form as any other, like music or painting or anything, and yet there are no courses in comedy appreciation like there are for music and art…and it’s because people don’t think of it as being that high an art form. At this point in my life, I just kind of wanted to give something back to comedy, so in both these projects, it’s, like, if people just walk away going, “Wow, there’s way more interesting stuff going on here than I ever thought before,” then I feel like I’m giving a little something back.

BE: So how many episodes of “The Green Room” are there?

PP: There are six. And they’re ready to go!

BE: You filmed those all well in advance, I guess.

PP: Yeah, we filmed them back in October.

BE: Do you have a favorite of the bunch?

PP: I do. I have a couple of favorites, actually. (Laughs) The Roseanne Barr, Bob Saget, Patrice O’Neal, and Sandra Bernhard episode is one of my favorites, because it goes into so many different, rich places. At first it starts out just playful, and then it becomes personal, where people are really talking from the heart. Patrice talks about the life crisis he has as a comedian, Bob Saget talks about how…I mean, I bust him on doing “Full House,” and he just gets out there and has this real heart-to-heart about how and why he did it. And, then, it suddenly takes a turn to the political in just a hard, caustic way. I just love it, because that one, to me, is…it’s, like, I’ve had that conversation in green rooms. That, to me, is very, very authentic. That’s one of the things that we really were very conscious of when doing the show: authenticity. That’s kind of the idea behind it. We just wanted people to see comedy the way I know comedy but that you can never usually really see. You just have to be there. (Laughs) The stuff that goes on in green rooms is just so funny, so interesting, so heartfelt all the time…well, a lot of the time, anyway…so the classic line is always, “Well, you really just had to be there.” And the only way you can be there is if you’re on the inside. Trying to get comedians to break down and really be themselves with others and in front of other people is…well, I’m pretty sure I said this to you before, but it’s like trying to get pandas to mate in captivity.

Paul Provenza

BE: You did. But it’s still funny. (Laughs)

PP: Well, it is! (Laughs) Everything’s got to be just right. And because we’d done the show live…it was developed at the Edinburgh Fringe and the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival, we did it in Chicago, we did in a couple of other places, so we had many, many opportunities to work out the kinks and figure out what would work best for everybody to get to that place where they’re so comfortable that they forget that there are cameras and other people there.

BE: And you said that you had another favorite episode…?

PP: Yeah, I’m a big fan of the Paul Mooney, Rain Pryor, Jim Jefferies, and Bobby Slayton episode. Did you see that one?

BE: No, that wasn’t one of the ones they gave us.

PP: Well, I have to pay myself on the back a little bit, because it was a little bit of a stroke of genius, obvious though it may be, to put Paul Mooney and Bobby Slayton together.

BE: Oh, man, I love Bobby Slayton.

PP: Of course you do. (Laughs) And to put him with Paul Mooney…? They’re old friends, too, but they love to go for the joke, so I knew we’d get really racially funny. And then Jim Jeffries, who I know from the international circuit, who’s absolutely brilliant and fearless, I knew that, whenever it got tense between Bobby and Paul, Jim would just clean it right up and make it hilarious. I like that show because…you know, when we were taping, more than a couple of people came up to myself and Barbara Roman, my producer, and said, “It was amazing viciousness happening here, and people were saying things that you just shouldn’t say…they’re horrible to hear, they’re horrible to think about, it’s just the worst of the worst…but the room was filled with love the whole time.” And that, to me, was my little mini Oscar for that show. Everybody knew where everybody was coming from, everybody knew that this was a case of, “Yeah, they’re gonna cross lines, this is gonna get really funny ‘cause they’re going to talk about these important, meaningful, dangerous things, and they’re gonna say all these things you’re not supposed to say, but nobody’s hurting anybody, and everybody’s having a great time.”

BE: I’d guess that just finding the right vibe is a major accomplishment.

PP: That’s exactly what it is. When we decided to do the show and Showtime said…now, I have to tell you that the pitch of the show to Showtime was great. I have to give those guys big kudos… (Laughs) …because the pitch was…we had some footage of some live shows that we did, just to show the vibe and how funny it could be and what we were going to try to accomplish, so Showtime’s people watched it, thought it was hilarious, got the vibe, and go, “Okay, so what’s the premise of the show?” We said, “There is no premise.” “What’s the format?” “There is no format.” “What’s the structure?” “There is no structure.” And they went, “All right, let’s do it!” (Laughs) Which is shocking. But they did it. They took a great leap of faith, and I think they were really surprised, too. They didn’t know what to expect, and they were kind of, like, “Well, let’s hope we didn’t screw up with this one…”

BE: You can probably thank Seinfeld for that one. After he managed to find success with a show about nothing, they probably thought they might be onto something similar here.

PP: (Laughs) Well, you’d have to ask them about that one. But, basically, what sealed it, I think, was that I said, “You know what this is? This is comedy jazz.” And it really is. And the other thing about it that I’m very excited about is the style of production. I mean, it definitely has a style. It’s borne of authenticity. I’ve always been frustrated by the fact that the form of comedy always has to conform to the medium of television; I never understood why nobody went to try and adapt the medium to the form of comedy. It always seemed backwards to me, and that’s why so much comedy on television to me feels flat, uninspired, unspontaneous, staged…it all feels so constrained to me. So we tried to shoot it in such a way that, y’know, the cameras are all handheld. Because you don’t know what’s coming next. You can set your cameras up in that conventional two-shot, two-shot, iso, iso…and it’s boring and feels staged. So we decided to make it like a football game. Follow the ball! Follow the ball! (Laughs) So it’s shot with a real action style, and Barbara Roman was amazing at making that happen. We didn’t know when we set out to produce these shows exactly what they were going to look like, we didn’t know how it was going to be shot, we didn’t know any of those things. We just knew what we wanted it to feel like…and I think we achieved it. I wanted it to feel active, I wanted it to feel spontaneous, I wanted it to feel unpredictable and authentic. Do you think we succeeded at that, by the way?

BE: I do. Like I said back at the beginning, it has a feel of organized anarchy. You guys stay on one topic for awhile, you shift to the next one comfortably, and you’ve got some talking over top of each other, but it’s usually one funny line on top of another funny line.

PP: And, you know, people ask, “But don’t you get that thing with comedians always trying to outdo one another?” And that always frustrated me, because it’s almost never like that. That’s such an outsider’s perspective. What it really is, it’s people just trying to get a volley. You find out the level of the player you’re playing with, and once you see how good a player they are, you raise your game. You just want to keep that volley going. People are never trying to stifle one another. They’re actually trying to give each more and more and take it further and further. You see it a lot in the episode with the episode with Andy Dick, Dana Gould, Andy Kindler, and Brendon Burns, where these riffs happen. Someone will throw out an idea or a funny line, somebody else will pick it up and take it somewhere else…it really is like music, that episode. That’s another one of my favorites.

Paul Provenza

BE: I was just reading somewhere the other day about how the sign of a good comedian on television is that they surround themselves who they know are funnier than they are.

PP: (Laughs) I will take that as a huge compliment! And, you know, that was a real conscious thing, too, when I pitched this show. I said, “You know, if you take the right kind of comedian, you take somebody who works artfully, someone who’s thoughtful, someone you know is smart, and you put them together in a room, you’re just going to get great, entertaining, interesting, smart, provocative dialogue. It’s not possible not to. What television often does, though, is get in the way of that. You’ve got to stand here, you’ve got to come in there, don’t over-talk this person, don’t do this, don’t do that…screw that. It’s boring. You don’t have to do it that way. You can make it real. You can make it vibrant.

BE: Well, appropriately, I’m going to close with a question that just came to me spontaneously a moment ago. Since you are, as we’ve discussed, a comedy geek…

PP: Ugh. So much so that it’s depressing.

BE: (Laughs) …then I’m guessing you’re the kind of guy who’d go scouring through the Comedy section of record stores to see if you can find a comedian you’ve never heard of before.

PP: Yeah!

BE: I was just curious if there are any discoveries you’ve found that way.

PP: Yeah, actually, I found one that just absolutely knocked me out, and I’d love to do a movie about this guy. Have you ever heard of a guy named Murray Roman?

BE: The name. But that’s about it.

PP: Murray Roman was a contemporary of Lenny Bruce, and if Lenny hadn’t been around, Murray might’ve been the guy. Murray Roman was so interesting and so provocative, and he almost worked poetically. I mean, his stuff is a cross between spoken word and stand-up. It’s beautiful. It’s literate and caustic and biting…it’s phenomenal, and I’d never heard about him. My buddy Dan Pasternak turned me onto him, and it was a huge discovery. You should just sit and listen to Murray Roman. It’s so interesting. I mean, now, this guy, it really is like listening to jazz.  It’s like a more accessible Lord Buckley.

BE: Of course, I’ve immediately headed over to YouTube to find a clip.

PP: Yeah, but, y’know, there’s not much out there by Murray Roman. There are only a few up there. He was really, really interesting, and he was just completely overshadowed by Lenny Bruce, who was working in the same vein. It’s a lot like Picasso and Braque.

BE: Yeah. (Pauses) I do get that reference, by the way.

PP: Of course you do. I love that you felt like you needed to say that, though. (Laughs) I love that!

BE: All right, Paul, it’s been good talking to you again. 

PP: Thanks! I hope you got some good stuff, and if there’s anything else you need down the line, feel free to call anytime.

BE: And, of course, we’re Facebook friends, so there’s always that.

PP: (Laughs) I’m a little scattered on that place, but, yeah, I’m there. Oh, and be sure to join the “Satiristas” fan page. There’s some cool stuff happening on there. That’s a little bit active right now, so contribute all you want, man. We need to get more conversations going, because the stuff that’s happening is already getting real interesting, and there’s some great stuff on the wall. What we’re going to do is…that page is going to become kind of a resource for people who are interested in subversive, smart comedy, and it’s already getting fun. The page for “The Green Room” is going to be getting really great soon, too. We’re going to have some outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage and all sorts of stuff. Also, on the “Satiristas” page, when the time comes, most of the interviews I did, I videotaped, so we’re going to be putting up little promo pieces of some of the people. So it’s going to get interesting, and I’d really like to build those numbers up, because I feel like the “Satiristas” page is already beginning to build a community. 

BE: Absolutely. I’ll do what I can.

PP: Thanks, man, I really appreciate it. I know everybody’s got a lot to cover, and there’s a lot going on in the world, so thank you for giving us some attention.

BE: Oh, sure. After we talked in L.A., “The Green Room” has been on my radar ever since, and then when the copy of “Satiristas” showed up, I was, like, “This is serendipity.” 

PP: Have you gotten a chance to read much of it?

BE: As much as I could in the time that I had before our chat. I scoured the whole thing, and then I went and read some of the individual interviews with some of my favorite comedians. But you can bet I’ll be going back to read it in full.

Paul ProvenzaPP: Cool! Yeah, one of the things about the book is that, when people read it, one of the things that surprises them is that it isn’t like you’re reading an interview. It’s like sitting in on a conversation, which I think is great.

BE: And from my experience as an interviewer, those are the best, anyway.

PP: I think so. And then it was a question of, well, what do we use from everyone’s interviews? What do we highlight? And that was a very interesting process when dealing with so many people who said so many great stuff. That’s something else that the “Satiristas” website will eventually have: some of the interviews that didn’t make it into the book for various reasons, either logistics or, uh, publishing concerns. I mean, our first draft was something like 1200 pages. (Laughs) So, yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that’ll go on the site that I think is still really fun and interesting.

BE: Can you offer a tease of some of the folks we might see up there?

PP: Yeah! Some brilliant people from the UK who…I mean, we had to cut the book down, and when we did, we had to make the decision, “Do we just cut out a vast number of people and go with this specific amount, or do we go and trim down the interviews and get a little more laser-like on the content and have a greater number of people included?” So that’s what we did. Some of the people who didn’t make it were Drew Carey, Steve Hughes, Glen Wool, Tim and Tom…I don’t know if you know them, but it’s Tim Reid, from “WKRP and Cincinnati,” and Tom Dreesen.

BE: Oh, right, sure, because Tom wrote a book not too long ago (“Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White”).

PP: Yeah, and it’s a terrific book!  Their piece was really great, and it broke my heart not to be able to include that one. That was just a logistic thing about not being able to get Tim and Tom in the same room for a photograph, but their interview was phenomenal. They were basically the first black and white comedy team in America, and their experience of doing this in the late ‘60s…it’s so funny, because they’d play white clubs where Tim would be the outsider, then they’d play black clubs where Tom would be the outsider. So, yeah, their interview was really great. And Drew Carey’s interview was really fascinating, because he grapples with the idea of being kind, that he hit this point in his comedy where he realized about what making fun of people says about you as a human being. It’s really interesting to hear his evolution in that regard, ‘cause Drew’s a lovely, beautiful, compassionate guy, and he one day sat back and said, “Man, I’m making fun of a lot of people who I don’t feel good about making fun of anymore.” That’s an interesting thing. Tim Minchin…are you familiar with him at all?

BE: I’m not.

PP: Tim Minchin is an Australian performer…there’s a lot of his stuff online…and he’s one of the best working today. I mean, Randy Newman and Tom Lehrer both think he’s brilliant…

BE: Oh, wow.

PP: …and he does a full-on rock ‘n’ roll show. Grand pianos, eye makeup, the whole fucking deal. And his stuff is so caustic, so biting, and so beautifully written, and it’s emphatically performed. You should take a look at his stuff online. It’s really brilliant. So, yeah, there are quite a lot of people that we talked to that we didn’t have room to include.

BE: I smell sequel.

PP: (Laughs) Volume 2…? I actually wrote that in the intro! “If you buy enough of these…” (Laughs)

BE: Well, you know, nowadays, I think sequels are a given.

PP: Yeah, and, actually, we could go on forever doing variations on the theme, because it’s impossible to be definitive, and as time goes on, people are, like, “Hey, how come I’m not in that book?” “Well, it’s because your fucking manager wouldn’t let me talk to you!” (Laughs) Now’s their big chance!

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