Talking Pictures: Rules of comedy

Greg Proops questions forms of humor

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Greg Proops is best known for his stint on ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’

by David Templeton

Comedian Greg Proops is not a fan of superhero movies, sequels or remakes—with one or two notable exceptions.

The Maltese Falcon, by John Huston, is a remake,” he points out. “There have always been sequels and there will always be remakes, but all of these superhero movies just don’t do it for me. I know people love them, and they are mildly entertaining, but my problem with superheroes is that they all have these amazing powers, all of these fantastic things they can do that defy nature—and then at the end they just have a big fistfight. Anybody can have a fistfight. Big deal.”

Proops, best known for his stint on TV’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” is the author of The Smartest Book in the World, a reference book adaptation of his popular podcast “The Smartest Man in the World.” Essentially a witty download of Proopian thoughts on history, culture and the state of the world, the podcast—and the highly entertaining book it inspired—is a companion to his other podcast, “Greg Proops Film Club,” a live recording of conversations that Proops has on stage in Los Angeles after screening one of his favorite movies at the Cinefamily theater.

Recently in Northern California on a book tour, Proops enthusiastically accepted my invitation to see and discuss a movie … but then we couldn’t find a film that we both wanted to see happening at a time we were both available to see it.

Then he left the state.

Today, having given up on choosing one particular film to discuss, the Smartest Man in the World and I are on the phone, talking about why it’s so hard to find a good film that isn’t in 3D (“The wax museum [movie], sure, but nothing else,” Proops says), isn’t a remake or sequel or doesn’t feature a superhuman mutant beating the crap out of other superhuman mutants.

“The last movie I saw in a movie theater was Pillow Talk, with Rock Hudson and Doris Day,” Proops says.

No, Proops is not saying that he hasn’t been to a movie since 1959, when Pillow Talk debuted. He screened it as part of his Greg Proops Film Club.

“It’s great to see an old movie on the big screen,” he says. “It’s kind of funny how, even if you’ve seen a film a thousand times on TV, then see them with a bunch of people in a theater, those movies seem new and exciting. Pillow Talk got actual screams of laughter from some people in the audience. People were crying, they were laughing so hard.

“Do you know that movie, David?”

“I’ve seen it on TV,” I admit. “It’s one of those weirdly dated movies that still manages to be funny, partly because it’s so dated.”

“Exactly!” Proops says. “Rock Hudson absolutely tortures Doris Day, who’s his neighbor, with a party line on their phone. Rock Hudson keeps calling her up and pretending to be different people on the party line. It was getting howls, and I was thinking it really wouldn’t hurt to go back and look at some of those great sitcom-style movies from the ’50s and ’60s. They make movies like Bridesmaids and The Hangover III look so unsophisticated and dumb.”

“And yet, in a way, they were the Bridesmaids and Hangovers of their day,” I point out. “These were the movies parents didn’t want their kids to see because they might be a bad influence.”

“It’s true. They had sex in them, or the possibility of sex,” Proops says. “When we showed Pillow Talk in Los Angeles on a Tuesday night, the place was packed with 170 people, and not just old people in their 80s. The people who come are not dusty archivists, pining for the past. They are film fans, and a lot of them were young—and they loved it, because it works. It’s a good movie.”

“And it’s not mean,” I add. “Comedies today have gotten incredibly mean. The remake of Vacation, for one example, heaps so much genuine pain and agony on its characters I don’t see why people can laugh at it for 90 minutes.”

“Oh, I agree,” Proops says. “Cruelty has replaced humor, and I’m not sure when it happened. There’s where I get off the train. I mean, I’ve always liked slapstick, and as a comedian, I try to use as much slapstick in my act as humanly possible, because I think it’s a valuable art form. I mean, it’s a rule of comedy that someone else’s pain is always funny. But there’s only so much we can take.

“I saw it happening on television in a huge way, starting four or five years ago,” he continues. “Every single TV commercial had someone being killed, or getting their hand caught in a machine. When did we become the world of hurt? Is there no room left for anything but cruelty?”

“Can it possibly go any further?” I ask. “Or will there be a return, at some point, to a kind, gentler form of humor?”

“I hope there will be but I really don’t know,” Proops says. “There’s a definite desensitization at work, and it makes me sad. People are nicer than that, I think. I don’t know, maybe I’m naïve. Of course I’m naïve. I choose to be naïve. I think it’s better than being hard and cruel.”

“Would you say that, maybe, gentler forms of humor cease to be effective after years of repetition,” I ask, trying to put my finger on the trend, “so that, to get a laugh, we need to turn up the intensity, and as a result, movies get more and more intense, and humor becomes more and more mean-spirited?”

“No, I wouldn’t say that, exactly,” he responds. “I’d say that Hollywood studios are reinforcing the economy of bullshit that these lousy writers are coming up with. It’s the kind of stuff studios will buy from writers, because they know it sells, so that’s all writers are writing, because they need to work. It’s basically a problem of studios distrusting the intelligence of their audience, and if you don’t give the audience anything else to choose, they will choose the crap.

“And then Hollywood makes more crap, ’cause they think that’s what people want. But guess what? I do a podcast where I talk and blather about whatever is on my mind for 90 minutes, like an old-fashioned radio show . . . and people listen. Lots of people listen. I show old movies in movie theaters once a month, and people come to them, and they enjoy them, and don’t flip out or anything. It excites them, and it’s contagious.

“Because it’s different,” concludes Proops. “And we can only handle so many superhero movies before we demand something else. And I don’t think that’s just me.

“Though maybe it is. I am naïve, after all.”

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