Interview: Paul Provenza, stand-up comedian

As Paul Provenza prepares to bring stand-up with a twist to Edinburgh, he tells Kate Copstick how an idiosyncratic movie reignited his passion for comedy

As Paul Provenza prepares to bring stand-up with a twist to Edinburgh, he tells Kate Copstick how an idiosyncratic movie reignited his passion for comedy

PAUL Provenza is fairly obviously out of his element when we meet, in a circle of TV production offices atop a shopping centre in west London. Even collectively the cluster emanates all the creative frisson of a dental hygienist’s waiting room. It is one of those places where, when someone asks, “Can I get you a coffee?”, you have to accept that it might just be beyond their creative skillset. Looking at him here is like watching a racehorse strapped to a carousel.

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Provenza has pursued his element from the Bronx High School of Science, through a comedic debut at the original Improv in Manhattan at the age of 17, along the way gaining Pennsylvania University’s first ever theatre arts degree and spending more than a year at RADA during which he became one of very few American actors to play Romeo on the London stage. So where, I ask, did it all go wrong?

Looking at his career, he beams, his has been a mess – an interesting ­observation coming from a man who has had Hollywood at his feet, picked up awards and nominations for stage and TV, worked with Keanu Reeves and Diana Ross, lit up small screens worldwide on Empty Nest, Northern Exposure and The West Wing and generated the kind of comedy credibility that has the world’s best comic practitioners eager to work with him.

Not bad for a kid who always felt “out of step” with the rest of the world, and whose work ethic involved “just wanting to do shit that got me excited”. So it is perhaps not surprising that, in his fifties, he has come to the realisation that “the idea of ‘career’ is the problem”.

“Career is a mindset,” he says. “The wrong mindset. Career is linear. Especially when you are trapped in the TV or film world. The next thing you do has always got to be bigger, or it is perceived as a failure. So I realised I had to stop seeing it as a career and start thinking of it as a life. And as a life it has been pretty good.”

Having toured and filled ­major theatres as a headliner and been the thinking com­edophile’s darling for more than a decade, Provenza, as he puts it, “fell out of love with stand-up” around the end of the 90s. In fact, he rather fell out of love with his entire professional life.

“I was at home on Venice Beach one day,” he recalls. “I woke up. I could hear the surf coming in. I was watching the surf dudes enjoying themselves out there and...” he sighs, “I realised that I was spending an inordinate amount of my time with c***s.”

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It was time for a decision. “Do this and I will be working with five c***s and one decent guy,” he remembers thinking. “Do that and there will be one c*** and five decent guys. And I decided to do whatever would put the greatest distance between me and c***s.” I think one day, as a philosophy, this decision of Provenza’s will be recognised up there with Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest happiness of the greatest number” idea.

In 2001, Provenza came to the UK and played the club circuit, and Edinburgh, and – as he puts it – “ran with thoroughbreds” (Glenn Wool, Jim Jefferies and Stewart Lee being just three in the stable he enjoyed so much).

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Around the same time he was working, along with Penn Jillette (the larger partner in Penn & Teller) on what the two considered to be a crazy project, so leftfield you couldn’t even smell the burgers from where it stood.

The Aristocrats was “a labour of love” says Provenza, a film shot and crafted over five years, bankrolled by Jillette and directed and edited by Provenza, consisting of one joke told by dozens of jokers in a brilliantly idiosyncratic documentary. Making the film was, he says, “an epiphany”.

“It was the first time I had worked with no expectation of outcome. We had 140 hours of footage – no arc, no story, no narrative. I let myself be led by the material. It would be what it would be. We thought that at least we’d have a really funny video to put online and show friends.” The Aristocrats went on to comedy glory and, in making it, Provenza fell back in love with stand-up.

In 2005, his rediscovered love of comedy took The Green Room to the Edinburgh Fringe – Provenza and comics talking about comedy in ways that made it fascinating and funny in equal measure. Its mix of testosterone-fuelled humour and in-depth discussion made it a must-see for comics and comedy fans alike, and it went on to television in the States.

Then there was his book Satiristas, a triumph of Provenzian interviews with the greatest satirists he could collect. And last year came Set List, a show that is to comedy what parkour is to jogging. Comics kiss goodbye to their comfort zones and head up on stage to be given their “set list” – a collection of five twistedly surreal topics around which they have to create a comic performance. It is the closest thing to a legal blood sport that we have left.

Cooked in the comedy crack kitchen of writer/performer Troy Conrad’s brain, it was enthusiastically embraced by Provenza and brought to Edinburgh last year by him and production partner Barbara Romen. And now Provenza – along with Romen, Conrad and a genial bloke called ­Pasquale who makes all things technically possible – is rounding up the most talented of 
his mates and taking the show to Sky Atlantic. Then 
the show will be back live in Edinburgh next month.

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“My life feels like the artist in the garret right now,” he says. “Today I’ll do a painting and someone will give me $500,000 for it... tomorrow I might take some found materials and make something and get $85.” He grins. “Have you read The Dice Man? Penn Jillette and I have this idea about producing a movie entirely on the principles in the book... every decision would be made on the roll of the dice.” His eyebrows shoot upwards into the choirboy curls as they shake to his enthusiastic nodding. Don’t forget you heard it here first, folks.

Set List: Stand-Up Without A Net 
is at Just the Tonic at the Caves, 2-25 August, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.