Interview: Greg Proops, comedian

Greg Proops: In my thirties, I was a bit of an asshat
Greg Proops: In my thirties, I was a bit of an asshat
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Having conquered the podcast ether with his towering intellect, Greg Proops tells Kate Copstick why Glasgow’s comedy festival is still yin to his yang

JUST when I think it’s impossible for me to admire Greg Proops more than I already do, I discover that he was the voice of Bob the Builder for four seasons on US TV. Proops is a performer whose wit makes battery acid seem like E45. His synapses fire like an AK47, and in most series of the hugely popular show the answer to the question “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” tended to be “Greg Proops”. But Bob the Builder is not the most obvious casting for him.

“The Bob people had me read in London,” he reveals. “I was doing all sorts of funny voices. Finally they said, just do your voice. I said, are you insinuating I have a cartoon voice? They offered me the gig then and there. Magic.”

Did he feel at all intimidated, I wonder, following the great Neil Morrissey in the role? “Neil I met after,” says Proops, “and is a lovebug.”

Proops did train as an actor in college, but, from his earliest performing days, it was improv that hooked him. First it was as part of a double act, Proops and Brakeman, and then in a group that included Mike McShane. The two of them were quickly picked up by producer Dan Patterson for Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

“Improv is the cocaine of comedy,” says Proops, “quick and powerful.” And famously addictive, I observe. He does, however, enjoy the softer drug of acting every so often. He has an impressive thespian range that has taken him from playing a Love Bear (in the film Brother Bear), through Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas to Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace in which he and Scott Capurro played the twin heads of the Pod Race announcer.

“I like the acting because you are in a group, and believe it or not I am a team player,” he says. So why doesn’t he do more? “Mostly I cannot be bothered to learn lines.” he says with characteristic honesty. Whose lines would he bother to learn, I ask, and am surprised to hear Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard and William Shakespeare.

Some years ago I spoke to Proops about censorship and comedy (after one of the regular flurries of outrage at some comic making a joke about religion/disability/hair colour/Welsh people… I really can’t remember) and he was enthusing about the unbridled excitements of podcasting – then The Greg Proops Experiment. He is podcasting still, now having become The Smartest Man In The World. Does he still love it as much?

“I do more than ever. I started doing the Smartest Man podcast a little over a year ago and it has changed how I do everything. My stand-up is still catching up to the podcast. I feel so connected to the audience at the podcast. I never thought you could connect more with the crowd than doing stand-up, but I was wrong.”

So why bother with the live stand-up? “Promoters won’t just let me do the podcast,” says Proops. “And I still love it. I have always considered it my main job and I still do. It is the juice that gives my black soul life.”

Calling yourself The Smartest Man In The World is fighting talk at a Glasgow International Comedy Festival that boasts shows by Stewart Lee (who has written a whole opera) and Robin Ince (who does comedy about actual science). It is, of course, a joke, “based on the fact my friend Phil told me I was a pedant. Almost everyone is smarter than me. Just not smart enough to proclaim it.”

It does seem that “smart” comedy is the thing now. When did it become OK to be simply, egregiously smart and a stand-up? “It always was,” says Proops, and lists Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Jeremy Hardy, Stewart Lee, Mark Thomas and Mark Steele as his top smarty-funny-pants.

“When comedy becomes pedestrian,” he says, cryptically, “people will seek out the yang.”

So what keeps Proops bringing his particular yang back to Scotland? The level of intellectual challenge offered by our audiences? “I love all y’all,” he says. “You are cynical and you drink. Where is the bad?”

And as a veteran of both ends of the M8, does he prefer Glasgow International Comedy Festival or the Edinburgh Fringe? “Edinburgh is mad fun, although the festival crowds can be a bit starchy.” he says. “Glasgow audiences are dangerously well informed and rarely prissy.”

Proops has been so charming throughout our conversation that I feel emboldened to ask whether it is simply my imagination or… could it be the comedy world’s answer to a very well-read velociraptor is mellowing in his old age?

“Not in my comedy. In life I will hold off sharing my feelings. In my thirties I was a bit of an “asshat”. Now I take the path of least resistance.”

Greg Proops brings his podcast to the Tron, Glasgow, on Thursday, and plays a stand-up set at the Stand Comedy Club, Glasgow, on Friday.