Comedian/Genius Greg Proops on why comedy has become cruel

proops_tj4ogyComedian 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.”

Unknown-2Proops, 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.

MV5BMTQ5NDg1NzU1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDQyODgxMTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_“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 Talkdebuted. 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?”

griswoldsvacation_main“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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ARCHIVE PICK: Curator Mickey McGowan on the star-studded ‘Playing by Heart’ (1999)

Playing_by_heartJuggling an enormous cinnamon roll and a cup of hot coffee, I make my way to the table where Mickey McGowan has already set up camp, pouring his own cup of herbal tea from the weather-beaten thermos he carries everywhere he goes. Sitting down, I stir my coffee. He sips his tea. I push the little red button on my tape recorder.

“I was delighted, ” I quickly confess. “Almost shocked. Weren’t you?”

“Oh, sure! It was wonderful,” enthuses McGowan. “It gave me a warm thrill of nostalgia. It reminded me of going to the movies in the 1950s, when it was still a magical experience.”

He sips his tea. I tear off a piece of my roll.

Thus begins our ritual. We’ve been observing this same series of cozy elements–the café, the coffee, the tea, the conversation–since first we met six years ago, at the very same neon-and-chrome movie megaplex at which we rendezvoused today. What’s different this time, is that the film McGowan and I have just seen (the star-studded, relatively enjoyable Playing By Heart) is not what has inspired this spirited verbal exchange.


Instead, we are captivated by what took place just seconds before the film began, when the wide-open screen–featuring one slide-show advertisement after another–suddenly went dark and–as we sat watching in surprise–the curtains slid elegantly shut. After a short pause, the lights in the theater faded, the curtains ceremoniously opened again, and the coming attractions began.

Unknown-1“It was beautiful,” McGowan recalls. “Seeing a curtain open. It was nice to be reminded that once upon a time every movie began with that curtain rising up before us. It heightened our sense of anticipation. The curtain’s rising was always a very special moment.”

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Playing by Heart featured captivating performances by a young Angelina Jolie and a blue-haired Ryan Philippe.

McGowan, an accomplished display artist, is the cultural commentator and curator of Marin County’s legendary Unknown Museum. An ever-evolving archive of pop-culture artifacts from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the museum earned itself an international cult-following before losing its home a decade ago. All the artifacts are now in storage, awaiting rebirth in a new location.

“Obviously, some theaters still use curtains,” I remark. “But most theaters use those pre-show advertisements interspersed with dumb trivia questions.”

McGowan nods, “The experience of going to the movies is completely different now. Remember being shown to your seat by an usher in a uniform? With a flashlight? You were treated like royalty. It was always grand and magical. Remember making projectiles out of folded popcorn boxes? You never wanted to sit down front because you’d always be whacked by something.

“That’s how it was at the Paradise and the Loyola in Westchester, Calif., where I grew up,” he recalls. “The Loyola was a gorgeous art-deco classic. It was wonderful–single screen, balcony, lush, gorgeous. I saw Psychothere. Love Me TenderIt Came From Outer Space.

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One of the surprises of ‘Playing by Heart’ is the adorable but bumpy romance between Gillian Anderson and Jon Stewart (yep, that Jon Stewart!), who plays an architect who fall sin love with the too-hurt-to-love-again Anderson.

“I visited my home town last week,” he continues. “I was doing the ‘roots’ thing, going back to see the house I grew up in, the school I went to, all of that. It’s the first time I’d been back in years. I went to find the Loyola. It’s been converted to professional offices. And the Paradise Theater is gone. Completely.

“At a moment like that, you feel three things at once,” he explains. “You get this rush of experience and nostalgia, mixed with a sense of dismay and an awareness of change, combined with a feeling of acceptance and a Zen attitude of ‘Life goes on.’

“Nothing lasts forever, you know,” he adds with a resigned chuckle.

As I slowly work towards the matrix of my cinnamon roll, McGowan–after a short tangent on the subject of drive-in movies–pours himself another cup of tea.

Unknown“On the other hand,” he murmurs, in a voice that suggests he’s about to offer an alternative viewpoint to his own, “perhaps the experience of going to the movies hasn’t changed as much as we’re saying. The basic experience is pretty much the same, isn’t it? You eventually get to a seat, you’re in a darkened room with a group of other people. It’s like going to church, but the worshippers all buy snacks in the lobby. The screen is still our altar.

“The movies are still sacred.

“In some ways, one could argue that going to the movies is even better today,” he adds, verging on a total about-face from his initial stance.

“How could anyone argue that?” I politely demand.

“Well, the screens are better today,” he points out. “The projectors are better, the sound systems–THX and Dolby and all the rest–are better. The seats are more comfortable than ever. Once the lights go down, the experience is possiblypossibly better than it was.

“And I suppose I’m glad they don’t throw flattened popcorn boxes anymore. There’d be lawsuits. Those popcorn boxes were lethal.”

The ritual is nearing an end.

The roll has been consumed. Our cups and thermoses are empty.

“Bottom line, though” McGowan thoughtfully concludes. “I think it was always the movies that made the magic, not the theaters. Even as a kid, once the lights went down, the movie itself was the final test, wasn’t it?”

“Well, I still miss the theaters,” I half-heartedly grumble.

“Oh, so do I,” McGowan nods. “But if you think about it, you’ll recall that it was the movies themselves that first made a believer out of you. The theaters were just the icing on the cake. I guarantee it.”

[Originally published in the North Bay Bohemian, 1999)

ARCHIVE PICK: Author Mark Vaz on ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (1996)

star trekWE HAVE ARRIVED early at the mall and are standing around in front of the massive 15-screen theater where is playing on four separate screens. Informed that the box office will not open for another 10 minutes, we wander about the mall as custodians install giant Christmas decorations.

Pointing toward “Santa’s Magical Village,” I inform my guest, Mark Vaz, author of the splendid new book Industrial Light and Magic: Into the Digital Realm (Ballantine; $80), that at this particular mall the Jolly Old Elf does not give candy canes to the wide-eyed children sitting on his lap. He hands them a sample bag of breakfast cereals and a book of coupons.

“That’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard,” Vaz responds. “I guess you’re never too young to be indoctrinated into the consumer culture, but that’s so aggressive it’s almost repugnant.”

Vaz has devoted the majority of his writerly efforts to the subject of popular culture and film, and to cinematic special effects specifically. He has contributed numerous pieces to the high-tech journal Cinefex and authored books on the history of Batman and on the phenomenon of trance channeling, and an earlier book on the films of George Lucas. In his latest work, co-authored with Patricia Duignan, Vaz has assembled an all-encompassing history of the North Bay­based ILM, nicely illuminating the creative wizardry of the world’s predominant special-effects company. Included, incidentally, are details on the effects from the previous Star Trek films.

MArk Cotta VazFirst Contact, the first Trek film to feature none of the original cast, presents instead the members of the popular Next Generation TV series. It’s a rousing adventure, with the crew battling the Borg, a frightening swarm of zombielike, cybernetic techno-punks that assimilate everything in their path and have set their sights on Earth. A subplot involves our planet’s “first contact” with aliens, an event that, in Star Trek lore, becomes the catalyst for humanity’s evolution toward peace and prosperity.

“The Borg,” Vaz laughs, sipping a pint of ale after the film. “I got the impression that they’re sort of a comment on our modern mass culture. Maybe the Borg are representative of what we feel is this impersonal culture that surrounds us–the government or the force of overpopulation. We tend to feel depersonalized by our culture, don’t we?”

Individuality versus the needs of the collective whole. This is a recurring theme in the Star Trek ideology. In this latest film, humans existing on the planet just before the extraterrestrials land are individual to a fault.

“I felt sorry for the aliens at the end,” Vaz commiserates. “Being subjected to our lousy whiskey and loud rock and roll.” When I counter that the visitors seemed willing enough to slam back a second shot of booze, Vaz bursts out laughing. “And there’s something odd about that,” he says. “We can say, ‘Oh, these aliens are just like us. They can relate. But why can’t we relate to them? Why can’t we sit and be quiet like they were doing?

Borg“But this movie was made by humans, trained in a human viewpoint. Our culture is very loud and brash and profane. It doesn’t embrace subtlety, at least it hasn’t recently. The nature of mass media is to get out there and to catch your attention, to be loud and boisterous. To act like everyone else.

“On the whole, with marketing and commercial tie-ins and cereal samples from Santa Claus and everything, we’ve already become the Borg! ‘Oh, I’m sorry–I can’t wear those jeans. It would be uncool,'” he mocks.

He takes another sip.

“Maybe the Borg are behind all this,” Vaz laughs. “Maybe if you get Donald Trump and all these people and you pull their face off, it will reveal a bunch of Borgs.

“Back to the issue of aliens making contact, I doubt we’d share our whiskey. I think you’d see abysmal behavior on the part of the human race.

Alice-Krige-Borg-Queen-Star-Trek-8-First-Contact-4“Even me,” he grimaces. “Just the other day in my house I killed a tarantula. Somehow it got into my house, and it was so creepy I had to kill it. And I’m the kind of guy who lets spiders have their little nests in my place. But all of a sudden this tarantula crawled by–so I dropped a stack of books on it.

“That’s the classic invasion scenario, isn’t it?” he asks. “The aliens come–they look terrifying–so we blast ’em!” He smiles, adding, “And the noble humans live long and prosper.”

[Originally published in 1996 in the North Bay Bohemian]