(This piece was also published in the Huffington Post and by Indian news site We Speak News)
At the recent Edinburgh Fringe, for the second year running, far-and-away the trendiest show among comics themselves was Set List – Comedy Without a Net, in which, when they go on stage, unprepared comedians are given five (usually bizarre) phrases which they have to weave into an act. They do not know the words in advance and the phrases are revealed only one by one during the comedians ‘set’.
Experienced comics can sometimes die a terrible death in front of the audience; unknowns can sometimes soar. And you can often see the fear in the comics’ eyes. But even the biggest comedians want to play Set List because it stretches their ability.
American Paul Provenza, best-known for directing The Aristocrats movie, brought Set List to this country – it has also played at the Soho Theatre in London. I asked him how it came about.
“I was in LA,” he told me, “and Troy Conrad called me one day after maybe the third time he’d ever done it. He said: Do you wanna come down and do this thing? We make up a set list and you improv it. After I did it, I went backstage and told Troy: Would you honor us by partnering with us, because I think we can take this thing around the world? Every comic in the world has to see and experience this show. It’s good for comedy. It feels great.”
“Who is Troy Conrad?” I asked.
“He’s one of these brilliant comedy artists,” said Paul, “both in stand-up as well as writing and producing – he produces all sorts of really interesting podcasts – he’s one of these multi-talent polymaths who is just constantly creating so much that he never actually has the time to push any of the stuff he’s created because he’s moved on already.”
“Much like you, then,” I said to Paul. “What are you? A comedian or an actor or a director?”
“I’m a comedian first and foremost,” Paul told me decisively. “I’ve been doing stand-up comedy since I was 16. But one of the reasons I’m such an Anglophile is I studied acting seriously when I went to RADA in London in the late 1970s for about a year and a half. I am 100 years old. I’ve done a lot of acting. A lot of stage acting in New York. I worked with Steve Martin off-Broadway, doing his play for about a year and a national tour of that and lots of other projects. It’s something I’ve always done.
“I guess it’s kinda been one of my career curses that I’m always doing so many different things I can’t figure out exactly what I am and the business is so shallow that, if people can’t nail you to one spot on the wall, they don’t know what to do with you. I like to think of myself as someone who can’t hold a job. I’m a migrant comedy worker.”
“Comedians and actors have doolally minds,” I said. “But producing and and directing needs a mind that’s more together. You produce and direct. How come you can do that?”
“Well,” said Paul. “that happened after knowing Barbara Romen for 30 plus years and being really close friends. Our lives sort of ended in a similar place at around a similar time. She was always saying What are you doing over in Edinburgh? Why do you leave the country for a year at a time? You’re doing a gig in Shanghai? What??? What’s going on?
“I told her I can’t explain it to you. You’ve gotta come and experience it. So she came over to the Edinburgh Fringe and she understood and became infected too. Then we decided we were both sick of dealing with corporate structures, sick of dealing with the mainstream, basically sick of dealing with cunts. We’d both dealt with too many cunts in our lives and thinking Why can’t we just do what we do and have cool people around all the time?
“So, after Barbara got initiated into the foreign comedy scene, we decided Well, let’s start working together which we’d both been leery of before, because we were friends. But we decided that, over the 30 years we’d known each other, we’d already had pretty much every fight we could ever have, so we negotiated… What new fight could we have that could fuck this up?… and we finally said Let’s just do it. It’s too hard to find new people who are on the same page.
“So, the long-winded answer to your question is it’s all to do with the people around you. If it weren’t for partnering with her, I don’t have what it takes to bring all these ideas to fruition. Barbara suddenly made it possible for crazy ideas to actually get accomplished.
“I’m from New York, she’s from Chicago. We probably originally met hanging around the Improv in LA in the early 1980s. Barbara has been on every side of the showbiz table.
“She’s been a Development Executive at a major studio, been a production executive, she’s worked for agencies – she used to represent Andy Kaufman! I mean, her pedigree is insanely brilliant. But, like me, she would follow her heart and go off and do whatever she felt like doing, so her career doesn’t have a linear path. With us teaming up, we bring together all those different understandings of different sides of the business and, as a result, we can end up dodging the raindrops and creating our own paths, which is really tough to do.”
“So,” I suggested, “you are creative with a bit of organisational. And she is organisational with a bit of creative?”
“Well,” said Paul, “she has a lot of creative ability, but I also bring something really interesting to the table. At this point in my life, I don’t give a fuck. I don’t care who I piss off. I tell the truth. I don’t care who’s offended. I truly don’t care. And you know what? It’s tremendously liberating and phenomenally productive.”
I turned to Barbara, who was sitting with us.
“It’s a separate blog,” I said, “but it would be interesting to chat about how on earth you or anyone could ever manage to represent Andy Kaufman.”
“No, it wouldn’t make for a good interview,” Barbara said. “In person, he was quite mild and nothing like his multiple onstage personalities.”
“Mmmmm…..” I replied.
“I guess we work on the fringes of real showbusiness,” said Paul.
“But you had your own series The Green Room with Paul Provenza on US television,” I said.
“And Set List is going to be on UK TV on Sky Atlantic,” Paul agreed, “But Barbara and I, as the figureheads of a small little scrappy group of Ninja production people… we operate in a different world from America’s Got Talent or Michael McIntyre’s Roadshow. We operate in that world where we do things that are weird and interesting and cool and a little bit different and treat comedy with a different attitude, so we’re sorta on the fringes.”
“OK,” I said. “but you’re pretty successful at it. A cult feature film and two TV series on different sides of the Atlantic. What’s next?”
“The book I had out last year with Dan Dion – !Satiristas!” Paul replied. “We still do a lot of live projects based around that. We‘ve been doing experimental live shows – big theatrical pieces with Tim Robbins and the Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles. Putting together particular types of shows for particular events.
“And I’ve started half a dozen documentaries which will go or not go depending on what happens. We’ve got TV projects that we wanna do all over the place. We’re looking for a new TV home for The Green Room now. But the really great thing about us having partnered and understanding the expansiveness of comedy around the world right now, is that everything on our plate is all stuff that we’re passionate about. We just don’t do anything we’re not passionate about.
“I’d never really had a through line in my ‘career’ before partnering with Barbara. But all our projects at the moment are about presenting comedy in a different way that operates on a more emotional level. It’s not just how funny it is… It’s Whoa! This is making me feel things! Wow! Imagine living in the world that way! Imagine what excitement to be around people who just speak the truth and are spontaneously funny and don’t play by conventional rules! It’s almost like a paradigm shift for people to experience that.
“And it’s what I felt when I first became a comedian and actually entered the world of real comedy. It didn’t just operate on the basis of Hmmm! I have a career ahead of me. I’m going to do this and strategise that way and I’ll get this and get that. It was like Oh! There’s a whole species of people here who are outsiders, who all speak the same language! And that was huge for me on an emotional and psychological level.
“All the projects we do involving comedy are trying to embrace that aspect of it: this is not just merchandising, not just pop culture – Oh, that’s a funny joke! – It’s more about Wow! This is a different way to live in the world! And comedians are the ones who can make a living doing it that way.”
“But,” I said, “if you are making these shows mainly for comedians, will Mr Smith in Oregon be interested?”
“That’s the interesting thing,” said Paul. “I truly believe that, if you do something that speaks to comedians – like Set List.… when you’re that true and that authentic, an audience will show up for it because it’s the kind of comedy that people are always blown away by – It’s unprepared, it’s spontaneous, you feel like you are part of the genesis of it, just being in the room. You feel somehow related to what’s happening – and, while people don’t know they’re looking for it, I believe that people nowadays are craving authenticity. We live in a very cynical age where things are marketed down people’s throats. There’s a generation alive now that I can’t even relate to what it must be like for them. From the day they were born, they’ve been marketed-to and demographised to within an inch of their lives. What must that be like?
“People want truth and authenticity. Though not everybody. There are people who want the slick bubblegum and they can always get that in music, comedy, TV. It’s there. We’re never gonna make that disappear. But we do now live in a world where the alternative can also find its audience. There’s a little bit more room on the shelf for stuff that isn’t necessarily McDonalds.”