Paul Provenza And The Art Of Stand-Up

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 a recipe. Paul Provenza, the comedian and producer, is returning for a second season this summer with his Showtime series, The Green Room. Host Scott Simon discusses the art of stand-up comedy with Provenza, whose show features comedians from veterans Ray Romano and Gary Shandling, to young up-starts like Bo Burham.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAY ROMANO: All right. It's not even close.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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 anything 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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: Yeah.

SIMON: Why?

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 stand-up 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 he was young. Yeah.

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

ROMANO: Not here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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 admired the exchange about Stephen Hawking.

Unidentified Man #1: Is he married by, the way?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

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

Unidentified Man #2: With what?

Unidentified Man #3: That's the definition of man. A guy who can't move nor talk still managed to cheat on his wife.

GRIFFIN: Right. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

Unidentified Man #3: That is a definition of the male gene. It's like, you have seconds to live...

Unidentified Man #1: What's your name?

SIMON: You folks make...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

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