Talking to Paul Provenza About Set List, ‘The Green Room,’ and Taking Comics Out of Their Comfort Zone

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It takes someone who truly loves comedy to dissect it, analyze it, and fuck with it as much as Paul Prozenza. His show Set List, which is billed as “standup without a net” and sees comics improvising material based on topics given to them on stage, has toured around the world. The show, which Provenza estimates has featured nearly a thousand comics, has become a Nerdist web series and a television show that will air in the UK later this year. His live festival show-turned Showtime series, The Green Room with Paul Provenza, featured a panel of comics – guests ranged from Patrice O’Neal to Eddie Izzard to Judd Apatow to Tom Smothers – discussing and debating comedy and more. He was one of the producers and directors of The Aristocrats and talked to comics for the fantastic comedy book ¡Satiristas! I got the chance to talk to him at Montreal’s Just for Laughs about the manifesto of Set List, improv versus improvised standup, and trying to convey what comedy means to him.

How did Set List start?

Set List is the evil genius creation of Troy Conrad, who’s a brilliant comedian, writer, producer. It was the second or third time that he was experimenting with the format, had it up on it’s feet, and he called me said “Listen, I’m doing this show. I think you might really have a great time. I make up a set list, and I give it to you as you go on stage, and you improv the set that goes with it.” I said, “That’s the stupidest idea I have ever heard in my life. I’ll be there.” And as I was doing the show the first time, I was watching the audience, and I realized that both the audience and the comedians were having an experience they don’t generally have. It’s the closest I’ve ever experienced to the first time you ever went on stage, when you really truly, you don’t even know if you’re funny. You don’t know if you can make people laugh. It was like that kind of a feeling, and it just strips everything bare. And it’s horrifingly intimidating, yet at the same time, ‘Well I have to do this. I can’t not do this.’ And so I literally walked right off stage and went back stage and up to Troy, and said “Troy, would you please honor me and can we partner together? Because this show has to go around the world and every comedian on earth has to do it.” And that’s how it started. This was about three years ago.

Wow, that’s blown up really quickly.

Yeah, it’s amazing. But one of the things that I was really concerned about was, “This is such a great, entertaining forum, and a lot of people are gonna be interested in this. It’s very easy to knock it off its axis.” There’s an ethos to the show, and there are values to it that are very important to both Troy and myself. There’s an authenticity and there’s a certain respect for the process and the art form that goes with that, and I just knew that it’d be very easy to corrupt it. And we ended up doing a series for Sky Atlantic and we were able to maintain the values that we care about. We’ve been trying to avoid the commericalization of it, but at the same time, make it as successful as possible. And that’s really a big part of why I wanted to get involved with it. Because I just felt that it was such a gift to comedy and I felt like it would suck if somebody fucked it up. Because it comes from the same place in me as it did in Troy, which is that of a real comic. It meant a lot that there were comics wrapped around this thing and making sure that it wasn’t polluted.

Why did you decide to pitch the show in the UK? Was that just where there was the most interest?

When I first started working with Troy on the show, it was just under the wire to get into the coming Edinburgh Fringe. When you go to the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s basically 28 shows in a row, and you get a chance to build an audience. More importantly, you get a chance to experiment, from night to night. And that’s huge. And so over the course of that first month, we refined the format, tweaked it and changed it a lot, started to really dive into the different aspects of writing the set list. They’re actually very highly crafted. I know it’s hard to believe, it’s true. And so for a month it was this intensive, like, let’s take this thing and see what it’s potential is. In many ways, it got simplified, and all sorts of really great transitions happened to it. So I wanted to get it to Edinburgh immediately as soon as possible, so that we could go through that process. And also, I also knew that there was amazing talent over there that would take to it.

And it just so happens that while we were there, a lot of the buzz started happening, even sooner than we expected, from TV buyers and stuff like that. And the TV landscape over in the UK is much more conducive. In the States, there’s really no standup in prime time at all, and very little after hours except for comedy-specific channels. Most channels are doing less and less standup. Whereas in the UK, standups and various iterations of what standups do is all over prime time, so we knew that it would probably be an easier sell in the UK. So all of that made us go to Edinburgh right away, and it all fell into place.

You mentioned writing the set lists themselves. Do you pick lists for specific comics, or is it randomly assigned?

For the most part, it’s randomly assigned. The topics are created in a vacuum, and then we put them together in lists. The lists are not random. Because there are different aspects to the topics. Some of them call for different tools in a comedian’s tool kit. And so when we build a set, I like to use the analogy of a golf course. Where one hole calls for one club, another hole calls for another club, a different swing. There’s sand traps, there’s water traps, there’s things to avoid, all that sort of stuff. So the sets are built from these pieces that were created in a vacuum as to how they flow together. But where it becomes not completely random is sometimes we’ll go, “Oh, Greg Proops is on the show. This one, I would love to see Greg Proops do.” And so we might give that one to Greg Proops. That’s the extent of that. But for the most part, it’s 99% random.

But you know, the whole premise of the entire exercise is taking comics out of their comfort zone. But that’s not only in the fact that they’re working without a net and literally are unprepared and have no idea what they’re gonna say. We also try and take them out of their comfort zone in terms of where they have to go. So we often have topics that are on the face of it, really provokative in some way, and more often than not, what happens is the comic is trying to not go to those places that are awkward. But sometimes, you know, Rich Hall will come up and just dive headlong in. Either way it’s funny, but to see them squirm with this touchy material. How are they gonna handle it? It just adds another layer of playing with comfort zone, both of the audience and the comic. What’s fascinating about it is that the audience is completely open to whatever you come up with, and they don’t get offended by it at all because they know the comic has no choice. They’re bulletproof. We’re the bad guys.

Were the topics always so suggestive? When I first heard about the show, I assumed they would be a bit more generic.

That’s Troy. When I say he’s a genius, I mean it. He’s a comic himself, and I could tell right away that the topics were thought out because, just intuitively as a comic, you sense that there’s juice in there. But the entry points are not obvious. And again, this plays a little bit into the different aspects of the topics. It also became clear to me that there were different sensibilities, that they were calling on different things. And we refined that as being part of the manifesto; let’s call on as many different tools in each set as possible. That’s part of how it developed. But I could sense that Troy was crafting things.

Some of them are straight shots down the fairway, to continue with the golf analogy. We had one that still makes me laugh to this day, and I gotta bring it back at some point for somebody, but it was just, “‘Dr. Seuss, OB/GYN.” That’s like, how far can you hit this? And then there are others that are these kind of labyrinthine concepts, and you’ve got to find the footholds and see where it takes you. So I could sense that there was something crafted about the challenge of it, and as time as gone on, it’s gotten even more and more clear that they’re being written carefully. And there are certain les motifs, if you will, that come back again and again in different forms, because there’s so many different ways you can go with it. We bring up religion a lot, we bring up genocide a lot, we bring up all the cultural hot buttons because that puts comics in real interesting territory. And there’s some are very literal. There are some that are quite literally forks in the road, like a word has two different meanings and so the concept can go down one path or the other, so a comic has to make a hard and fast choice. And all those were evident in the very early incarnations and it became clear that what makes this interestsing is that it’s not just a format. It’s actually an artistic creation. The concept and how it’s executed is actually it’s own entity. That’s more than just, let’s throw some random stuff at comics and see what they hit out. There’s a comedian’s sensibility from start to finish, behind creating these challenges.

Do you have background in improv?

A bit. It’s not my primary wheelhouse, but it’s what I’ve been working towards, the sort of freedom to work structureless, formless. Not even in terms of like what most people know as a improv comedy. I mean, I always worked very, very loose and open in my standup, there was always improvisational aspects to it, so I’ve been in that end of the pool for a long time. This is the most formal expression of “improv” that I’ve been associated with.

The show is such a blend of improv and standup, it seems like a great opportunity for people who do both.

Matt Besser’s terrific at it. It’s funny because a lot of the current tier of young comics – a lot more of them than certainly when I was coming up – have an improv background. It seems to have been a point of entry for a lot of people, and it makes sense because for the last 10 years or so, the fastest growing comedy on the college circuit was improv. There was an explosion of improv troupes and colleges and there are even competitions now. And it would make sense that a generation of comics that are pros, that are making their bones, getting attention now, came out of that generation when improv swelled, because so many of them have improv backgrounds.

But it’s interesting, because people you wouldn’t expect to be really, really facile with it, are. Like Jimmy Carr. His writing is unbelievably precise – his joke is constructed to within an inch of it’s life, you pull out a pause and the joke falls apart. He just flowed last night. One of the things about Set List that I found compelling is that it reveals your own limitations, the limitations you’ve put on your yourself, and very often those are in terms of form. And when you get up there and you’re just striving to find funny, sometimes it comes in a form that’s not the form you normally work in, and you realize, I don’t have to be confined by the form I think is me. And that happens a lot. So whether a comic has an improv background or not, doesn’t actually give them any advantage. It’s just about whether or not they can be in the moment. And there’s a lot of great comedians who don’t work improvisationally, don’t come from an improv background, who can still be in the moment. And the people who have experience in improv, they sense right away the difference between that improv and standup, because when you’re doing Set List improv, there is nobody else that you can turn to. and it immediately becomes clear that, oh that’s been a huge lifeline in all my improv, is all these other minds working. They’re not here now. So in as many ways as it’s helpful, it’s also not. It’s irrelevant.

I also want to ask you about The Green Room. Is that dead or will we see more of it?

Well, it’s not dead. It’s not going back to Showtime, barring any unforeseen apolaypses. I’m doing everything I can to get it back into production, because there’s so many people who are dying to do it. And I mean, I’m talking people like Billy Connolly and Robin Williams and Wanda Sykes and Lisa Lampanelli, from as varied a spectrum as Monty Python guys to Jim Norton. And really, The Green Room was the first time I felt like I was ever really geniunely authentically me on camera. That’s always been my problem with television standup. I’ve always felt like there’s so many places where what’s great about standup gets its wings clipped so that it can be on television. And I said, “Why doesn’t television production adapt to what’s great about standup and try and capture that?” So that’s what we tried to do in The Green Room, and it’s something that I’m absolutely not done with and I want to do more of, but I also want to do it right. I don’t want it to just turn into a glorified podcast, because there is something about the live event that’s meaningful and that hopefully comes across. So I want to do it right. And we’re working on finding the combinations of sources of funding and outlets and rights sales and blah blah blah to get it done again. But I’m not done with it. I’m gonna do it one way or another again, somehow someway.

It’s a very different model. It’s not like, “Ok, we’re gonna do a show. Book five guests.” It’s about the combinations. They’re really well thought out and they’re kind of my big brush stroke in it. I can let everybody be the colors they want to be, because I’ve put them in the places that they want to be. That’s kind of my expression, that’s my real artistic input on this. And so it really depends on what kind of a combination of talent can we get, and if that feels fertile, then I’m really into it. And that was the great thing about doing it as a series. We had the money to make sure that we got people to be in the right place at the right time. But there were lineups where somebody dropped out of and we had to scrap it, cancel three or four other people because it’s not about just, “Oh, we have an opening, plug somebody in.” If it’s not the right combination, we couldn’t do it. So that has something to do with it too, because that really is the point of it for me. Everybody can hear comics talking, but to get something going that has lots of layers to it calls for the right casting on any given night.

That’s so true. Earlier, I was watching what I would refer to as the Bo Burnham episode

Fair enough.

Which is a funny thing to say, given the other people on that episode, he’s the one who stood out.

That’s a great example of what I’m talking about. That show was set with Ray Romano, Judd Apatow, Marc Maron, and Garry Shandling. And that’s a fuck of a show right there. But I was looking at it and I was going, something feels flat about this to me. And I think it was because, everybody on that bill has such clear characters, and I could see how they would mix. It was interesting and great, but just felt like something else could really bump it up a notch, for me. And that’s why Bo Burnham is an extra person on that show. Because I said, if I can get Bo on this, he’s the perfect out-of-left-field color to throw into this, and I was really proud of my instincts on that. It ultimately is the Bo Burnham episode.

And I just knew putting him on the show with Marc Maron was a whole other color to throw in the mix, because Marc’s such a prick to young comics. He’s such a fucking miserable cunt, and I knew that Bo Burnham could fucking knock it back twice as hard and it proved to be the case. There’s such an interesting dynamic there.

The thing with The Green Room is that there’s comedy in it, but it’s really more about comedy. Did you always like talking about comedy?

Yeah. You know, back in the mid-80s, I did one of the first shows on Comedy Central. I actually started doing it when it was still Ha! We’re sort of like what Bilton Merle was to NBC or I Love Lucy was, we were like that for Comedy Central. Allan Havey had a show called Up All Night, where he used to do a hilarious segment on it called An Audience of One, where he would just have one person in the audience and do a whole show to one person. Jon Stewart was doing Short Attention Span Theater, I was doing a show called Comics Only, which is sort inversion of what The Green Room is. The Green Room is something that I’ve been dealing with in one form or another since the beginning of my career in comedy, and that was that I always wanted to try and convey to an audience what it was about comedy – the art form and the lifestyle and the philosophy, if you will – that became a complete and total addiction for me. I was always trying to figure out how to express that in some way, so that other people could see what I saw. And Comics Only was a very early iteration on it, a very sophmoric iteration on it, but really the flipside.

With Comics Only, it was a talk show format that we broke all over the place. It was almost a parody of a talkshow. It was basically a talk show where all the guests were comedians, but nobody actually does standup, so there were conversational aspects to it, there were backstage aspects to it, there were sketch aspects to it. That early approach was, “Let’s take the form and subvert the form from within it.” With The Green Room, it had evolved to, “Let’s eschew form completely and let form emerge from the content.” So it’s the same idea. It all stems from this desire I’ve had for a long time to somehow share with people the things that I can’t tell you. Nobody can illustrate what comedy is to me. And that’s what The Aristocrats is about, that’s what ¡Satiristas! is about. But I don’t tell you what it is to me. I just put it all out there and let you get from it whatever you want to get from it, you know? So that you’re having your own experience with the stuff that has been an experience for me, and I figured out how to convey some of that. Does that make sense? You can’t really do a drive-by poster quote on that.

Set List can be seen regularly around Los Angeles and elsewhere. Paul is on Twitter at @PaulProvenza.

Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider who tweets sometimes at @EliseCz.

Photo credit: Dan Dion