"Unscripted. Unrehearsed. Unsanitized." That's how Showtime is describing "The Green Room With Paul Provenza" a half-hour series that premieres tonight with a panel of comics essentially sitting around and talking with Provenza playing participant more than host. While on paper the concept might sound a little like Bill Maher's HBO series "Real Time," the difference is that Provenza purposely has excluded any agenda or list of topics for each episode and merely wants conversation and everything (and anything) that comes along with it. With comics such as Eddie Izzard, Drew Carey, Roseanne Barr, Andy Dick, Bob Saget and Sandra Bernhard, each episode of "The Green Room" has its own unique energy based on who is thrown together. To get a take on what Provenza calls 'Comedy Jazz,' our Jim Halterman talked with the comic recently about how, as an Executive Producer, he put this show together and shared a little bit about what makes comics tick.
Jim Halterman: You started stand-up back when you were in high school. What was it that gave you the confidence at that young age to get in front of a group of people and tell jokes?
Paul Provenza: Actually, it came from the fact that I had a really messed up childhood. [laughs] I had a lazy eye so I had an eye patch, I had no three-dimensional vision and was always looking through one eye so I was always tripping and falling, breaking my glasses and putting tape on them. Then I went to the movies and I saw Jerry Lewis and I said 'Wait a minute! He's a movie star and he's doing everything I'm doing!' From that point on, I figured if I was going to get laughed at I'd get laughed at on purpose.
JH: With the interviewing of other comics on 'The Green Room,' did that start when you did the documentary 'The Aristocrats' or were you already into it before that project?
PP: In truth, I don't really interview comics. I hang out with them and that's literally what I do. The book '¡Satiristas! [the new book Provenza wrote with Dan Dion] is not really interviews per se. I just really hung out with comics and then wrote up the conversations. People ask each other questions and it's not a real interview format. Of course, I don't really know how to explain the format. When we pitched it to Showtime, they asked about the structure. 'There is no structure.' They went, 'OK.' [laughs] It's really just hanging out with comics. I know how much that's meant to me in my life personally. It's always fun, it's always funny, it's always honest and truthful. Sometimes it's loving. Whatever it is it is real and hilarious and it never stops being funny no matter how serious it gets and that's part of what drew me to comedy. In the book, Judd Apatow explains that he went to a comedy club and became a part of that community. He said it was like the girl in that Blind Melon video ['No Rain'] with a group of people in bee suits. It was through being a part of the comedy world that I started to own who I am. We all take the damage in our lives and do something creative with it.
JH: Would you say that that is the common trait with comics? That you all have brought your personal shit into your work?
PP: Absolutely. I think everyone has their own crap they have to go with, their own insecurities, obstacles and issues. That's all the damage. Instead of trying to suppress all that and get past all of it you just grab it by the horns and use it in some way. I think all humans have damage in common with comedians. It's just we're a particular subset of humans that put it into our work.
JH: Like therapy, right?
PP: Yes! Woody Allen once said he was afraid to ever get cured in therapy. That's exactly what it is and using it in a constructive way instead of a destructive way.
JH: Was cable the best place for 'The Green Room?'
PP: It was the only place. The whole point of the exercise of doing the show is to do something that is authentic. I'm really proud of how we produced it - me and my partner Barbara Romen. It's all about authenticity. We didn't do it in a studio with strangers that were handed tickets to a free taping. The cameras are all hand-held and in your face. We told the camera people to shoot like you shoot news and sports. Just follow the ball. I thought 'What if we adapted the TV medium to comedy instead of the other way around?' If we had to watch what we were saying it would immediately be an aborted effort so it had to be on cable.
JH: How do you bring the group of comics together for each episode? Is there a master plan or do you just throw a group together and see what happens?
PP: There's an art to that. It's a very complicated thing. It's so funny because they're such odd groupings and it's not entirely obvious why people would mesh as opposed to a random group of comics. For the most part, people were put together with really subtle thought about why this would be a fertile grouping of people. For example, Martin Mull, Penn Jillette and Tommy Smothers. I knew that Penn Jillette idolized Tommy Smothers and that he idolized Martin Mull. Penn and I had talked many times about how Martin Mull had helped Penn's development as an atheist and really get a handle on it. So I knew that he had a tremendous amount of respect for both of those guys. I knew that Tommy Smothers really, really would take issue with Penn's libertarian stance on a lot of things and I knew that Martin Mull was somewhere in between and he'd also had great showbiz stories and he was musical. Penn is musical and Tommy is musical. We had to cut it out of the show and you can see it on the website but at some point there is a duet between Martin Mull and Penn Jillette. Penn also does a video blog called "Penn Says" and he did a 10-minute one on taping 'The Green Room' show and he ended up getting yelled at by Tommy Smothers. It's called 'Penn Says: It sucks getting yelled at by one of your heroes.' [laughs]
JH: In the season premiere, you talk about how stand-up is an American thing and I had never thought about that.
PP: People never think about that! Stand-up is so American!
JH: What was it that made it branch outside of the U.S. and inspired other countries?
PP: Everyone had their own version of live comedy. It came out of musical theater, which was sort of like vaudeville. The North American stand-up comedy form evolved out of this sort of hybrid of song and dance like Sammy Davis. Only in America did people stand up in nightclubs and say 'I think this�' in entertainment form. In other countries that would get you killed!
JH: The business has obviously changed so much since you started out but do you think it's easier or more difficult to break into stand up in 2010?
PP: In some ways it's easier but in other ways it's more difficult. It's more difficult to break into mainstream show business but it's infinitely easier to become a working comic with a following all due to technology. The Internet has made it all possible. Ten years ago if you saw a name on a marquee of an auditorium it was pretty much someone that you had heard of. Now you can go see comics' names you never even heard of because they focus on their own audience. You don't have to do 'The Tonight Show' now in front of 20 million people to find your fans. You can now go directly to them. It's mind-boggling. You don't need to be on a single national television show to have a real fan base and a real following now. It's liberating.
JH: Who would be your dream panel on 'The Green Room?' Dead or alive.
PP: [answers quickly] Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin.
JH: You've been asked that before, right?
PP: Nope. Actually you're the first one to ask that. And I'd probably throw Jonathan Winters in there, too. They're the ones who spoke to me the most. I tend towards comedy that's a little bit transgressive. I'd throw Steve Martin in there, too. Can I do that?
JH: You can do anything you want!
JH: You mentioned your book, '¡Satiristas!' What is the book about?
PP: The book is a collection of art portrait photographs by Dan Dion and excerpts of conversations that I've had with 50-60 comedians who work in satire or social/political comedy. Everyone from Lewis Black, Bill Maher, Cheech and Chong, Penn Jillette, Stephen Colbert, Robert Kline. It runs the gamut and I'm pretty happy about it.
"The Green Room With Paul Provenza" premieres tonight at 10:30/9:30c on Showtime. "¡Satiristas!" is available everywhere books are sold.