Feeling groggy and unprepared, I spoke to this man in the afternoon of November 15, 2013. I was certain that I’d receive interesting answers to my questions, but had no idea that I was in for some of the most thoughtful and potent talks of any interview to date. You might know him from his standup, his frequent appearances on Whose Line is it Anyway, or more recently from his podcast The Smartest Man in the World.
He could only be…
David Luna: What is your earliest memory?
Greg Proops: Probably being in my house with my parents when I was little in Lancaster, California.
DL: Did you have a religious background or upbringing?
GP: Not particularly. I went to Sunday school until I was seven. I liked wearing the suit, because James Bond wore a suit.
DL: Do you have any supernatural or mystical beliefs?
GP: Not particularly. I think there’s such a thing as the supernatural that we don’t understand. I don’t think we can explain everything with rationality and science, in other words.
DL: Can you recall any profoundly funny moments from your childhood, where you sort of just “got it”?
GP: When I was in grade school and I met my friend Forest, we spent a lot of time really yukking it up when we were about 10 years old. We used to just make each other laugh, and I think that then is when I got that it was important to my life.
DL: From what age did you want to make it a career or central to your life?
GP: Well, I’d probably fool myself and say I wanted to do lots of other things, but probably from a teenager on; I’d say 15 or so. I just didn’t dream of it when I was 12 or 13. I was too insecure, I think, but I loved comedy.
DL: Who are your comedic influences?
GP: I have lots of influences. My cousin Donny; Warren Thomas, who was my best friend who passed away; my wife. As far as television and stuff, George Carlin, the Marx Brothers, Richard Pryor, the comics that were on TV when I was little, Rob Klien, Lilly Tomlin.
DL: What works of art or storytelling impress you the most or inspire you?
GP: I think the Renaissance artists are unbelievably moving: Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. But I really love modern art—Paul Klee, Robert Rauschenberg, that type of thing. What moved me recently is Lou Reed passing. I think Lou Reed is a champion of the underdog in this country and a poet of a type of genre that mostly literature covers. He talked about male hustlers and homosexuals and transgender people and cruelty and pain and loss and despair. Those are very difficult topics for Americans, and I think he’s beautiful for talking about it.
DL: If you had all the time and money in the world to work on any project that you wanted, what would you create?
GP: I’m doing it right now. I don’t think you need all the time and money in the world. I think we have all the time in the world. I might go back and try to do something different, but I feel like I’m barely able to manage the time I have now to do things. I want to go around the world and tell my jokes.
DL: When was the first time you did stand up?
GP: I was a teaching assistant at a school called Challenged Learning, and they asked me to do stand up there. That might have been the first time. No, I did it on my own when I was with my partner Forest in junior college, so probably about 18 years old, I guess.
DL: Do you remember how it went, and do you remember feeling good about it afterwards or were you put off by it for a while?
GP: When he left and I went on my own, I did it by myself a few times in my twenties, and I wasn’t ready, I don’t think, psychologically. But no, I was never put off by it. I always wanted to do it; I think that’s part of wanting to do it. People don’t understand that the important thing about stand up is failure. The primary thing about it—it’s not that you succeed and that you’re so funny. It’s that when you fail you understand how to deal with that.
DL: Have you had any scary or uncomfortable moments in your career, like being in a shady club or dealing with imposing or threatening people?
GP: Yeah, I’ve had people threaten me, and they were going to kick my ass for what I said; I’ve had people complain that I made fun of Jesus; I’ve had club owners turn the electricity off and not turn it back on till they wanted to start the show; and all those horrible kinds of things that happen to you on the road, you know.
DL: Have there been any particular instances where you’ve bombed that just stick in your mind?
GP: Years ago in San Francisco I wasn’t doing it by myself as much, and it was some dance club, and I got up and just no one paid any attention. Basically, I just left the stage after about five minutes. I didn’t carry on, which I would never do now. But at the time I was too intimidated. I remember thinking, “That will never happen again.”
DL: Do you usually have warm interactions with people because they are so attracted to your ideas? Would you say that it’s more positive than anything?
GP: I would, yeah. I think that just being a comic gives you a huge free pass in a lot of areas. If people know me from TV or anything like that, they’re usually generally predisposed to be nice. The only time that people are rowdy is when they’re drunk. Then they get screamy, and that’s a little awkward. Most people are really kind to comedians. You’re not a tax collector, so they’re happy to see you.
DL: How much of your time do you get to spend in solemn introspection, away from people and the stage?
GP: A lot of time. I’m traveling almost constantly, and I’m alone on planes, I’m alone in hotel rooms, probably more than most people. I’m okay with spending time with myself, and I don’t try to fill every second with “things.” I’m as guilty as anyone else of surfing the internet probably more than I should, but I think some of the problem is I’m thinking about things people aren’t thinking about, and you want to connect with people—you don’t want there to be a disconnect.
DL: Do you consider yourself spiritual, and do you have practices that you feel are spiritual and important? Or do you not consider them spiritual but rather just an aspect of living—that is, being introspective, self-critical and mindful?
GP: I think they’re an aspect of living, yeah, and I think they’re a spiritual thing. I think a lot of people don’t have time for it. I could probably be more spiritual and more self-reflective if I thought about it. I spend a lot of time being anxious, like everyone else, and depressed. That’s probably a waste of time, but there you are. But I try to be mindful. I also try to be aware of how I’m coming across when I’m onstage so that it’s not confusing to people—but again that can be a little challenging too.
DL: How is your relationship with your ego, and how aware are you of the way you behave around people?
GP: Well, I don’t think my ego is out of control. My relationship with my ego in the middle of the night is a whole other matter. But I think when I’m with people I try not to be too much of a bombast or anything like that. I don’t think I am some immortal talent or anything. I have to have enough of an ego to survive, and I have to have enough of an ego to get up every week and present my act. I need to know that I’m good enough to do this all the time and that’s not a question anymore.
I was talking to some young comics last night and I said, “Some crowds you just decide ‘I don’t really want your approval,’” and they said, “That’s ’cause you’re confident.” After 30 years, I don’t actually care if every crowd likes me or if every person in every crowd likes me, and that’s not an issue. And I think if you do, you’re sort of going about it the wrong way.
DL: What goals do you think humanity should have for itself?
GP: This is a humor magazine, right?
GP: Heh, well, I think humanity needs to start being a little more honest with itself. I don’t know if I can speak for all of humanity. I can speak for the United States, I think. The United States has got to pull it together and be more honest about what’s going on in our country. We imprison and we destroy the underclass, and the underclass is made up of women and children and veterans and minorities. And we want to say that we don’t. We want to say we live in a post-racial world and that we’re so right on. The prison population is out of hand. The prison is a profit industry. We don’t curtail rich people’s activities at all. Rich people do whatever they want willy-nilly and are never jailed for it, and regular people are always incarcerated for everything. So I think there’s a huge inequity between the rich and poor. I think the idea that CEOs of giant corporations make 250 times more than the regular worker is obscene and disgusting and revolting, and there should be laws against it. And if they threaten to take their businesses to other countries where there’s a more delightful business environment, then they’re welcome to fuck off and do that. I’m very, very tired of feeling like I’m being held hostage by wealthy companies.
The idea that there’s a terrorist threat from Muslims in the United States is absolutely the most asinine thing I have ever heard in my entire fucking life. I live in L.A. Three weeks ago a guy opened fire at LAX. He was a white guy. He was not a Muslim. So, taking off my shoes, and my wife putting her shampoo in a plastic bag, none of that had anything to do with what he did. We spend billions of dollars on a giant industry of fear, whipping up a bunch of fear against an imaginary enemy that’s not trying to hurt us and that doesn’t care.
The biggest problem humanity faces is that humanity commits genocide on women. That’s the number one problem in the world. And then the number two problem is humanity commits genocide against children. And then in the United States we pretend that there’s no such thing as that, that we love children and that we love women. Except we don’t, otherwise we wouldn’t let them starve to death.
I would break up giant corporations. I would get rid of boundaries. I think countries are an incredibly stupid idea. Artificial borders and the idea that you’re supposed to “love your country” I think is extraordinarily weak.
DL: Just more separation comes from nationalism and just following a particular doctrine, whether it be religious or governmental. Do you think the current systems governing the world—or at least our country—can be changed into forces of good or are they too fundamentally messed up or malevolent?
GP: I think the way they are now they can’t be changed into good, because we have no say in them. I think the only way is grassroots. The only way anything has ever changed, in our country or any country, is if people demanded it changed. In other words, if it was up to corporations, there would be five-year-olds in coalmines in the United States still, and I’m very serious when I say that. There’d be a 60-hour workweek, and people would be working six days a week. It’s only because people fought and died for these rights that they were changed. And that’s the only thing they understand. The powers-that-be will relinquish no power. At all.
The 10 richest people in America—the list came out last week—all of them white men. See that, and we have an idea of what’s going on. Doesn’t have to be explained; it’s pretty self-evident.
DL: What is it that people need to know?
GP: That whatever they’re telling you on TV and in the newspapers is a lie. Anytime they use the word “controversial” about something, you can be sure that it’s because it helps people. Like, gay rights bills are “controversial.”
For instance, Sarah Palin: she’s been wandering around this week talking about a war on Christmas. There is no war on Christmas. There is no such thing as a war on Christmas. It doesn’t exist. It’s not a thing. It’s not happening. It’s a made-up thing that she’s carrying on talking about, and it’s one of the most tired tropes in the universe. If there was a war on Christmas, why would we all have Christmas dec- I’m in a bar in Calgary, there’s Christmas decorations, no one’s freaking out. The fact that you have to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”—if that is enough to send you into a tailspin, then you’re an idiot.
Those kinds of things that people say all the time and that are on the news all the time. The Obamacare is a failure, within two seconds. I went on the CNN website; the first headline is “Another Blow for Obama.” Their objective is to destroy this; their objective is not to let us have healthcare. The media conspires in the bullshit. The media is not your friend. There’s five or six companies that own a great deal of the media in the United States, and they don’t have disparate viewpoints, and they’re not interested in providing news. They would rather talk about the mayor of Toronto or Miley Cyrus or whatever fucking bullshit that distracts from the real [pause].
You know, every year they print the ten least covered news stories, and that’s something I’d have people Google. For instance, there’s still a war going on in Syria, there’s still a war going on in Afghanistan, there’s still Americans dying every week in Afghanistan. Isn’t that shocking to anyone?
DL: It should be, but it isn’t. Do you believe in the soul? And if so, what do you think it is?
GP: I think it’s the anima that lights us up, the thing that makes us humans. I think it exists in your physical body and I think when you pass it changes into something else that we don’t quite understand yet. And there are some people who don’t have them, even though they’re human.
DL: Like sociopaths?
GP: Yeah, like sociopaths. And your Dick Cheney types.
DL: Do you think we’ll see cannabis become federally legal within the next two years or do you think it would take more time than that?
GP: Federally legal? No. I think the states are going to do it piecemeal, and I think the Bible Belt and the Rust Belt will resist to the bitter end when the money becomes too tempting for them
DL: Have you ever had any psychedelic experiences through cannabis or LSD or mushrooms?
GP: I have, yes.
DL: Do you think these experiences are important in expanding the way you perceive things?
GP: Once you take psychedelics, you see that there’s an alternate reality that exists alongside our regular reality, and I don’t think your point of view ever goes back to being as narrow as it was before. I think there’s something to what Aldous Huxley said. The doors of perception are kicked open and you realize your senses are more fluid than you think they are and that your perception of everything is more fluid than you think it is. For those who can handle it, I think it’s certainly something profound you can do.
Greg Proops continues touring and recording his podcast. You can find more about him and his work at www.gregproops.com/blog/.
Artwork by Buddy Purucker, Kevin Cole, and Parker Benbow