The Green Room With Paul Provenza premieres tonight at 10:30pm EST on Showtime.
Paul Provenza, the man who directed The Aristocrats, has traveled the world for years performing, studying, and curating comedy. Suffice to say, he's met a few friends along the way, and runs an annual show at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal in which he invites some of those pals into a small theater for a late-night chat. It's a conversation among friends and comedy disciples, and it just so happens the audience is there. He calls it The Green Room, and when it's "performed" in the middle of an epic multi-week fest for a room full of industry insiders, comedy superfans, and fellow stand-ups, it's a hit. But where the live show works its magic by being inviting, the Showtime adaptation has too many factors keeping audiences at a distance.
Green Room kicks things off with a grainy black-and-white segment where you're banned from getting into a theater, but Provenza swoops in to save the day. He invites you downstairs where "a bunch of comics are hanging out, and if you're cool, you can come." You're whisked down the stairs and through a restroom into the main event: a soundstage set up in-the-round with four comics, plus Provenza—in the middle of a conversation. I understand the intention: They want you to feel this sense of discovery, that you've stumbled onto something you're not normally privy to. But minus the context a festival would provide, the intention is lost. Instead, we're immediately asked to figure out what's going on, and who these people are. It's not to say I don't know who Provenza, Eddie Izzard, Drew Carey, Larry Miller, Reginald D. Hunter (not as much as the others) are in general, but some simple wind-up is necessary to set the stage for how these guys are going to interact, how the show is going to progress, and how Provenza is going to keep things going.
I've said the word "show" a lot so far, which feels almost wrong on principle. This is meant to be a conversation series, obviously. Though obviously, c'mon, there are TV cameras, microphones, and an entire studio audience, so it's inevitably going to feel like a "show" whether they like it or not. And that's fine. But the show-like elements in The Green Room once again distract more than they help. The conversation is heavily edited to keep things bouncing along, so often a comic will finish up a story, leave only the briefest moment for a laugh, and another one's already talking. A lot of comedy shows do this. I've seen it countless times before. And, again, I understand: finite amount of time, much larger amount of jokes, some don't go well, etc. TV basics. The problem, though, is that the human brain is a finely tuned bullshit detector; those cuts take me out of the moment, ever so briefly. It wouldn't be much of a problem if it didn't happen all the time, but it's especially noticeable and distracting on this show, which is ostensibly supposed to be the loosest, most free-flowing conversation imaginable. It's not so much that the topic changes, but more that the show suddenly shifts and they happen to be on a new topic. It'd be nice to go for depth instead of breadth.
When the magic happens, though, it's all the more noticeable. At one point, Larry Miller tells the tale of the worst gig he's ever done, and the other comics sit rapt with attention. The audience is still as each detail unfolds, timed to Miller's casual cadence. The story's given room to breathe, and when he gets to that final punchline, the laughs explode. At another point, Miller points out that real stand-up can only take place in real clubs, and Izzard takes offense. He wants to play arenas, he says, so he uses video cameras to create what he calls "Big Intimacy," or a way for everyone to feel like they're getting the goods. It's an interesting take on the commercialization of stand-up that everyone contributes to. These moments are worth sticking around for, if only it weren't so hard to find them.
- If you tuned in simply to see famous people being funny, well, you might be a little disappointed.
- Provenza's pickle story is also a gem, some great perspective on comedians opening for bands. Or, comedians opening for anyone, really.