Sat July 9, 2011

Paul Provenza And The Art Of Stand-Up


SCOTT SIMON, host: This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Comedians don't like to talk about comedy any more than magicians like to talk about their tricks. Comedy isn't chemistry. You can't put laughs together like some kind of recipe. Sometimes, you can do everything that seems right and fall flat or do everything wrong, but still win a laugh.

Paul Provenza, the comedian and producer, is returning for a second season this summer with his Showtime series, "The Green Room." Comedians just sit around and talk there about what they do, their careers, their lives - unscripted, uncensored. Ray Romano, Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Lewis Black, Franklyn Ajaye, Bo Burnham, Gary Shandling and dozens of others.

Paul Provenza is also co-producer of the film, "The Aristocrats" - that's about the greatest joke you can't tell - and the book, "Satiristas."

Paul Provenza joins us from our studios in New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

PAUL PROVENZA: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Is it hard to get comedians to talk as opposed to perform?

PROVENZA: Well, it's hard to get them to do that in front of TV cameras. We really strive for an authentic feeling of what it's like when comedians are hanging out amongst themselves. To get comedians to really open up and be free of the need to get a laugh every so-and-so seconds and that kind of thing is a lot like trying to get pandas to mate in captivity.


PROVENZA: You know, everything has to be just...

SIMON: Oh, now I know what you mean. Yes.

PROVENZA: Everything has to be just right, you know. If the temperature's off by a degree or two, nothing's happening.

SIMON: Let's play certainly one of my favorite exchanges. It's between the young comic Bo Burnham, who I believe is all of 20 years old.

PROVENZA: An absolute phenom.

SIMON: And Ray Romano and Gary Shandling.

BO BURNHAM: I'm of the younger generation so I just wonder for all of you - who are you?


GARY SHANDLING: It's so good. It's so good, because it's so mutual.


SIMON: Now, Bo Burnham he might deserve a special kind of signature in comic history. Did he pay his dues on the web as opposed to clubs?

PROVENZA: Bo is a very interesting cat. I actually first became aware of Bo when - Super Deluxe was a website creating original comedy programming. And they were very interested in doing something with me. And I didn't have any in particular that I wanted to do. And so I would be rooting around on the Internet and I found this kid. And I called him out of nowhere.

And first of all, he happens to know who I was, so I thought, wow, he must really be hip to comedy, because I'm not...

SIMON: He's a student of humor obviously.

PROVENZA: Yeah, I'm not exactly a household name. And he was like this isn't really Paul Provenza. And I said, yes, it is. When I finally convinced him he said, well, listen, can I call you back, because I'm on a field trip with my class.


PROVENZA: And I said, How old are you? And he said, 15. And I was like, oh, my goodness. He's just remarkable. Brilliant, brilliant kid.

SIMON: I was touched when Ray Romano tells you that he's very happy. And why shouldn't he be. He's hugely successful and quite wealthy. But he says his happiest days were earlier in his career.



PROVENZA: I think it's because in the early days you don't really - there's so much more passion. And it's passion that's sort of untainted by business. There is something about, you know, spending your night just hanging out with other young comics who also have aspirations and also are as ignorant to what's to come as you are. And it's just, wow, I'm doing standup comedy, you know. The thing I've dreamed of doing. And I'm doing it well, if you're lucky enough to be in that position. There's a certain purity and innocence to it all.

SIMON: A number of the comics talk about getting older, the difficulty of putting yourself across as a comedian in a sense as your material becomes better known, as your personality becomes well-known.

Here's a clip of Ray Romano and he talks about his admiration for Bill Cosby.

RAY ROMANO: The fear is, as you get older, you don't hold up anymore. And it was great, you know, he's 73 years old, and I was laughing just like I was when I was young. Yeah.

PROVENZA: Did you picture your career this way when you started out? Is this like what you wanted?

ROMANO: Not here.


SIMON: And also, the more successful they become, do comics have a hard time keeping current, keeping their instrument sharp?

PROVENZA: It is, you know, it's a very, very big, big challenge, which is one of the reasons why the late great George Carlin is such an inspiration. Because at the age of 72 he'd be performing to an audience with 15-year-olds in it and 50-year-olds in it and they're both laughing at the exact same things at the exact same time. You cannot find another 72-year-old comedian who is as attractive to 15-year-olds as he is to 50-year-olds. And he doesn't do a thing differently for either of them.

SIMON: I really admire the exchange about Stephen Hawking. Are you married by the way? Yeah.

KATHY GRIFFIN: And cheated on his wife. That's the best part.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN NUMBER ONE: With what? That's the definition of man. A guy who can't move nor talk still managed to cheat on his wife.

GRIFFIN: Right. Yeah.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN NUMBER THREE: That is a definition of the male gene. It's like here you have seconds to live.



SIMON: You folks make...


SIMON: ...some, you have some good humor, let's put it that way, about Stephen Hawking without mocking his disabilities.

PROVENZA: Thank you. That, I'm very delighted that you recognize that 'cause that's a big misconception about comedians. Now granted, there are a lot of comedians who are insensitive. Having said that, there is a vast population of very artful, thoughtful comedians and that's not what artists care about.

SIMON: Do women comics have a harder time being taken as funny?

PROVENZA: I'll tell you, among the funniest comedians I've ever known are women like, Sarah Silverman, Kathleen Madigan, Paula Poundstone, Wendy Liebman, Elayne Boosler. I mean there's a lot of really, really, really funny women out there, and the only reason that that's not obvious is because somehow this idea that women aren't funny got implanted in people's minds and then they're suspicious of actually funny women.

SIMON: Paul, what's your current thinking? Do people say or do something funny or are some people just funny?

PROVENZA: Both are correct. They are people like Eddie Pepitone. Eddie Pepitone is an unsung genius. He just, he can't walk into a room and not be funny. And then there are other people who really, really are brilliantly funny through what they craft and create. The very unhidden secret of the show, the whole premise of it really is music. And what I do there is not so much have a talk show, it's just - here's an artist who works a particular way, here's an artist who works a different particular way. It's just like well, what happens if we put them all together in the same band and ask them to jam?

SIMON: Paul, thanks so much.

PROVENZA: Thank you.

SIMON: Paul Provenza, host and co-producer of the "Green Room," which returns to Showtime next Thursday, July 14 and runs through the summer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related Program