GREG Proops is back at the Fringe, ready to prove what anyone who has downloaded his podcasts already knows – that he’s the smartest man in the world.
From his own, rarely conservative perspective, Greg Proops has been a live comedian for “more than a zillion years”, even if he hasn’t performed a proper Edinburgh Fringe run in the last nine. And that’s not because he nearly killed someone. In 2003, the 52-year-old San Franciscan recalls: “I was playing the old Assembly Rooms and a guy keeled over. He was quite big too, we had to call the paramedics. He didn’t die and I swear to God, he sent me a card apologising for passing out. So I sent him complimentary tickets. And like a sucker, he came back.”
Even before this drama, Proops enjoyed a reputation as a brilliant improviser, capable of thinking quickly on his feet. He spent five years in London as a regular on the popular television show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, essentially “two 40-year-olds pretending to be raptors hailing a taxi”, and a further four on the subsequent American version.
Last year he reunited with Whose Line? creator Dan Patterson and fellow alumni Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady in London, to shoot the improv series Trust Us With Your Life. Currently broadcasting in the US, it has the cast act out scenes from the lives of attendant celebrities, including Serena Williams, David Hasselhoff and Ricky Gervais. Meanwhile, in his most recent, fleeting Fringe appearances and at other festivals, Proops has been one of the standout performers in the demanding Set List, in which comics are handed random phrases 15 seconds before approaching the mic, spinning stand-up routines from such tricky topics as “radioactivity festival” or “bacon syndrome”.
To a growing army of fans, however, this nerdy and nasal, bequiffed hipster has lately emerged as The Smartest Man In The World, an endlessly entertaining and fervent fount of knowledge. Almost uniquely among popular comedy podcasts, his 90ish minute monologues, recorded live in Hollywood, Paris or Edinburgh – with India, Morocco and Hong Kong pencilled in for the future – deliver nothing in the way of sketches or interviews with other comedians. They’re simply the garrulous Proops pontificating on the most diverse array of subjects, from his abiding passion for ancient history, classic films and America’s negro baseball leagues, to contemporary, scurrilous assessment of European and US politics, shot through with amusing personal reminisces from his stoner adolescence.
Brooking no dissent and necking copious quantities of vodka, Proops impersonates Jeremy Irons and valorises overlooked figures in the arts and sport, and there’s always an extended question and answer session. Last year, as the rioting erupted in English cities, British comedians addressing the violence were largely conspicuous by their absence. Yet Proops made himself required listening with a coruscating and compassionate commentary on the unrest.
The UK “probably does need a little more agitation in its comedy,” he ventures. “It’s become a little more mainstream than it needs to be.
“I don’t know about the regular guy in the street. But comedy fans are getting tired of all the prepared jokes, the same bloody observations about the same bloody things they’ve been hearing forever. Most comics won’t touch [political material] because they don’t want to open a can of worms and have to deal with other people’s opinions. It’s a cultural and aesthetic choice. Obviously I just lean that way. It’s not like I’m a great rhetorician or essayist of political themes.”
Perhaps. But the podcasts have been a minor revelation, for himself as much as anyone. Never a confessional comic, Proops has started introducing more personal material into his regular stand-up, while at the same time enjoying a much closer relationship with audiences, hanging around after shows to chat. He’s routinely shocked that “in an age of information glut”, so many remain culturally and politically ignorant, citing Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Gil Scott-Heron as two figures that have met blank responses, even as listeners request his advice on books and which news sites to read.
“If you’ve listened enough, you’ll know I tell people not to believe anything,” he affirms. “Not just what you read but don’t believe me either. I get so sick of people swallowing whole this shit the mainstream media feeds them.
“In America at least, there hasn’t been a lot of great parenting in the last 20 years. I’m not saying these kids are stupefied morons, I mean they’ve gotten all the way through school without reading a book. If they’re under a certain age, they may never have picked up a newspaper, they’re on their phones constantly and this nonsense-flow of social media is filling the void of information. So I think it’s legitimate when someone in their twenties or thirties asks me what they should read. I’m lucky enough to have a wife who’s wildly literate and is constantly reading the news sources as well, so I guess I feel I have a window and a responsibility to tell them to not just read any old thing, to read the things I like but question them too. It’s like stand-up. You have to play to yourself first and not worry about what the crowd expects, they’ll appreciate you for it.”
He’s discovered that his “obscure Negro League Baseball and jazz tastes actually cross over with a lot of people. I had a Duke Ellington question last week.” But most people retain their own agenda “that’s specific and weird. I got a Facebook letter today saying I diminished John Hancock, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in my last show.
“Women tend to ask broader questions, they’re a little more philosophical. But men are like hammerheads with an issue, especially regarding Roman generals. And it’s always them that ask the comparison ones, like ‘who’s better, David Bowie or The Predator?’”
Aware that he’s flirting with self-indulgence with the marvellous Irons impressions and the regular hero-worship of “Satchel” Paige, the first Negro League player inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, he nevertheless maintains that “I’ve earned that laugh of recognition.
“I’ve never had a catchphrase and I won’t be judged. Honestly, if I don’t mention him for two episodes, people e-mail me and tweet asking ‘where’s Satchel Paige?’ It’s just so nice to be noticed for anything you’re saying at this late stage of my career.”
• Greg Proops, Assembly George Square, 16-25 August, 6.15pm. Greg Proops Podcast: The Smartest Man In the World, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 16, 18 and 22 August, 10.30pm.