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Greg Proops on Donald Trump’s cognitive decline and the proper way to eat hash browns

Greg Proops on Donald Trump’s cognitive decline and the proper way to eat hash browns
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: Roberto Ricciuti (Getty Images)
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In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

Greg Proops isn’t just a renowned stand-up comedian, improviser, and podcast host. He’s also one of the most “Oh, that guy!”-inspiring entertainers in recent memory, someone whose distinctive style, voice, and hyperliterate raconteur tendencies have made him an indelible presence in everything from Whose Line Is It Anyway? to the voice of the pod-racing announcer in The Phantom Menace to host of the delightfully trashy—albeit short-lived—early-2000s reality dating show Rendez-View. These days, along with regular Whose Line performances and his stand-up act (his most recent comedy album was 2018’s The Resistance), Proops keeps busy with his podcast The Smartest Man In The World, which he has been doing since 2010 (along with his non-fiction compendium The Smartest Book In The World, released in 2015), as well as regular TV and voice work.

We recently spoke to Proops via phone while he was promoting the new indie thriller Shepard, available now on demand and via streaming, about a bullied teenager who finds inspiration in a mysterious and violent new father figure. The comic was more than happy to hold court on the topics of our 11 Questions, offering up his thoughts on Donald Trump’s cognitive decline, the importance of writing your jokes down on paper, and why he would want Robert De Niro’s help burying a body.

1. If you made a candle, what would it smell like?

Greg Proops: Wow, that’s a good question. I’m fond of orange, myself.

AVC: There are so many different varieties of orange—do you have a particular pungency or potency you would like?

GP: There’s a certain orange that grows on the street corners of Seville in Spain—when you walk down the street, it’s intoxicating. You see it in planter boxes and you see it on corners. The Seville orange is a particularly romantic one, I think.

AVC: Do you remember the first time you encountered it?

GP: Well, my wife and I went to Seville a long time ago, and it was quite hot—it was the middle of the summer—not the time you’re supposed to go, I think you’re supposed to go to Seville in the spring—but I remember sitting outside at night. You could smell it—even around the corners. The whole block smelled like Seville oranges. As Marlon Brando said in Apocalypse Now, “Paradise on earth manifested itself in the form of oranges.”

2. What’s your favorite album from high school?

GP: Oh, gee whiz. We were thinking about this the other day. I guess if it were just pure airtime, it would be Ian Hunter’s [self-titled] solo album that has “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” on it and whatnot. He was in Mott The Hoople and he had long curly hair and glasses, and so I felt that I could really get into his look—I always wanted his look. [Laughs.] And he always wore sunglasses, which I thought was really groovy chickens. It’s a rock ’n’ roll album, but very glammy. Mick Ronson, who was in David Bowie’s band, and later in Ian Hunter’s band, is the guitar player on it and he was awesome.

I also really liked Earth, Wind & Fire’s—the one with “Fantasy” and “Serpentine Fire.” Is “Serpentine Fire” on All ’N All? There it is. That’s the one because it’s got the statues of Ramses. And the giant pyramid, which I would look at endlessly—mind you, I think I was just out of high school at this point. There was a little jam on it and it was quite good. It folded out and inside there was all their pictures and their horoscopes and shit, which I always loved, when it was imperative for people to tell you they were a Scorpio or whatever.

In those days, I lived in an apartment with my parents, and I had a stereo, which everybody had then, and you had all your records sorted out, you know, and I had a record cleaner, which was a weird little fabric thing. Sometimes a handheld one and then you’d just hold it on the record, and then there was even spray sometimes. And you would hold your albums very carefully on the sides with your hands and not put your fingers on them—you stopped doing that at about 12 or 13, when you learned that you needed to care for the records so they wouldn’t skip all the time. The Ian Hunter record had a skip at the very beginning of it that I was so familiar with, when I finally started to hear the song without the skips, I was looking for the skips, you know what I mean? Your records had a distinctive skip. For me it goes doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo—hup! [Makes record skipping noise.] Right at the beginning.

I also listened to—horribly—Aerosmith’s Rocks quite a lot. “Back in the Saddle”’s a hot one. That one leads off the aptly named Aerosmith Rocks. Which had a terrible cartoon of them playing giant guitars on the album sleeve. Very poorly rendered, but hilarious. Much in their lives, I think, induced by a delusional mania for cocaine.

3. What conspiracy theory do you think is the most plausible?

GP: Oh, well, I don’t know if it’s a conspiracy theory or commonly accepted knowledge that the Russians are tampering with the election as hard as they possibly can. On both sides.

AVC: That’s an interesting one, because you get very public debate about it, which, especially in mainstream press, is rare for conspiracy slash mainstream theories.

GP: Right. I mean, the whole “deep state” theory is complete nonsense and hogwash—that was just created by Republicans to never have to answer a legitimate question or do anything that requires them to help people ever again by being able to accuse the other side of being some weird deep state conspiracy against them, which there isn’t. 

But the Russia tampering is very legitimate on both sides. I think whether or not Bernie is unwitting, we could discuss the grades of that—whether they’re using stuff from the Russia playbook—absolutely there’s bots and trolls and ganging up on journalists and booing opponents. All that weird shit we always see at the 45 rallies where he doesn’t seem to have any substance or truth to anything he says, he just screams a lot. And then we’re still evidently putting Hillary in jail as of last week?

To me, that’s all Russia. That’s a very—I mean, you know, it’s an old handbook. It goes back to… my goodness, any fascist regime. Certainly Goebbels would have said, “Accuse your opponent of what you’re doing.” Which 45 does constantly. He says people are shifty, and they’re crooked, and they’re bad cops, and they’re pigs, and they’re bad people—and he’s all of those things. Constantly accusing the other side of the exact things he does. Oh, and also the racism, the sexism—that’s all part of the package. They think. “We’re playing to a bunch of guys” and the women who are welded to the guys because they want protect themselves—I think that’s what we’re talking about here. Guys really like the idea of never apologizing, and being able to get away with violence, and being able to demonize their perceived enemies, whether they’re women or honest people or hardworking people. Guys want to be really lazy and violent and sexist and horribly racist. And I think the Russian playbook on both sides gives them a real chance to exert that. So that’s a theory I would say is certainly valid. I’m not saying that Russia’s controlling everything, I’m saying they’re interfering as much as humanly possible.

And the reason you know they are is McConnell won’t pass any laws to keep them from doing it. And there’s a stack of them on his desk. Because they feel, in this last gasp of the patriarchal paradigm and the corporations frantically circling the wagons as it were—to mix 15 metaphors into one—that they can’t win without cheating. That if everyday, actual people voted—everyone in America voted—there would never be a Republican in office.

If you’ve seen 45 lately, he has explosions in the middle of his crappy rallies where he can’t say stuff. The other week, he was trying to rank on Rosie or something, and he went, [In Trump’s voice.] “And she was [Makes unintelligible noises.]”

AVC: It’s so uncomfortable to watch.

GP: His cognitive decline is fully on view. Here’s a conspiracy theory to add to that! Why isn’t the press covering that… that he’s incoherent and cannot tell the truth. He’s dragging his right foot behind him, he’s clutching the podium like it’s for dear life. When he stands, he has that weird stance where his arms go out to the side and he leans forward. He’s afraid to fall over backwards, which is a complete sign of dementia.

And when he sits, he holds the table as hard as humanly possible. When people come in to the Oval Office to be sycophantic and fawning, he doesn’t stand up, whereas you noticed Barack Obama was always standing and so was Bush because they’re really healthy and fit. And he’s obese and is on, I think, a dazzling variety of mood elevators and stimulants and whatnot. So I think that his cognitive decline—his inability to tell the truth is astonishing. What’s that line? He would lie about the time just for practice. He doesn’t want to tell the truth, he projects constantly, and he slurs and is on drugs in public appearances and the press just can’t bring themselves to say it.  

4. What’s the first time you were disillusioned by politics?

AVC: Because you picked a political conspiracy, it segues smoothly into our fourth question.

GP: Oh, kittens. I grew up in the Bay Area, right, I’m from San Carlos. I thought that everybody were sharing, caring liberals because the Bay Area is a super kind of, “Hey, we like everybody”. And when Nixon beat Humphrey, I was 8 years old. And George Wallace ran, and split the Democratic Party into two. And that was sort of the ultimate goal of the Dixiecrats in the ’50s and everything. And I remember being bummed out that Nixon won because Wallace got a whole bunch of votes—the whole South went for him. And that’s sort of when they turned into full-time Republicans. White guys in this country have never really voted Democrat since then. Lyndon Johnson was the last—I think—Democrat that white guys voted for. And since then they’ve really gone the racist route as hard as humanly possible. Reagan, Bush, you know. Both Bushes. And I remember being so fucked off at 8 that I was, like, “I want Nixon to be dead.”

And we had a lot of assassinations then. So it wasn’t out of the question. We had to draw pictures of Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King in our classroom, you know. Because they were being shot, one after the next. It was a very terrible year. That was disillusioning. Then, of course, Watergate is when I realized that there were a lot of people pulling for Nixon. And that’s when I started to get the drift at 13 or 14 that the cynicism ran a little deeper than I ever could have possible imagined it did.

5. Who would you call if you needed help burying a body?

GP: Oh, my goodness! You know, the picture—this is off the back of the Shepard picture, this movie that I’m in—there is in fact a body-burying scene in it.

I think Robert De Niro. Because he’s a gourmand, and he knows a lot about art, and I think he would get high and try to make the best of it, really. Because he has to—I’m sure he’s thought about it. He’s done it enough in movies. In real life, never, of course. His father was an artist and he’s an effete kind of guy. But I’d love to knock off a bottle of wine with him and have to then, you know, hash over the moralistic details over a fuck-off plate of gnocchi.

6. What’s your favorite Halloween costume you’ve ever worn?

GP: In 1985 or ’86 I was doing a—I was in a comedy group in San Francisco called Fault Line. Get it? We did a Halloween show, and I dressed up as the dead doorman of the Clift Hotel, which is a fancy hotel in San Francisco. Someone or somebody had a Clift Hotel doorman hat, so I started with the hat, and then I wore this horrible fright wig, and I whited my face out like I was dead, and then I had a tuxedo jacket and stripey, Witchypoo socks and boots and shit. And I think I introduced myself as the former doorman of the Clift Hotel. The name was Skip. I’d been dead for 50 years or whatever. That was my favorite one.

And then my wife, she dressed as Natalie Wood one year—she went and had her hair done at an old-fashioned salon in a ’60s style, and she wore a Natalie Wood dress, and a net with a bunch of sea creatures hanging off of her. Sadly, I believe I wore a safari outfit that year with a pith helmet, which is the stupidest… My other favorite one, since you asked: In college, I didn’t have any money or any wherewithal, and one year—I had these yellow celluloid glasses with brown tinted lenses—this is how much ego I had then, I was thin—I went as James Dean. I stretched a T-shirt like it had been ran over with blood on it, and I wore a little James Dean jacket and turned-up jeans with penny loafers. And I carried a steering wheel with me to the party. From a ’50s car—I found it, or somebody popped one up or something. So I walked around with a steering wheel, because everybody comes up to you at a party and goes, “Who are you?” And I’m, like, “James Dean, man. I was just outside at the Paso Robles.”

7. If proximity to your industry was a moot point, where would you most like to live and why? 

GP: Well, I love San Francisco. I’m from there. It’s changed a lot, that’s the problem; it’s super douchey. It got really tech bro-y, which is a bummer, because they don’t go out. They like to call Postmates or whatever, play video games. But I still love it there. I love West Marin, too, but I don’t know that I could live there. I have a natural aversion to any place that’s all white, having come from San Carlos. That bled it out of me. [Laughs.] I also lived in London and I love Edinburgh, Scotland, as well. But if we’re talking about a dream place… I don’t know. South of France, maybe? That seems really nice. I’ve been there a couple times and I quite enjoyed it.

AVC: You’re okay with the lack of language skills?

GP: Well, that’s the thing; you’d eventually have to learn, and that would force me to improve my crappy French so that it’s better. Maybe it’s cliché to say the south of France. I just said I want to live in a diverse place, and, hilariously, the south of France is one of the more racist places in France. [Laughs.] And West Marin is very white. It’s like a fantasy land. In the south of France, we went to these little villages called bastides. There’s no McDonald’s—it’s little bistros and little bread shops. There’s a village where the Marquis De Sade’s castle was, and it lies in ruins above the village and, below it, there’s a little pub called the Marquis De Sade. And it was just fantastic. I was with my wife—we just drove around and drank wine and got high. It’s like a dream more than a life.

8. How did you learn about the birds and the bees?

GP: Horribly, my dad sat me down once to give me the talk, which I really didn’t want, because nothing’s more horrible than listening to your dad talk about biology. So I sort of picked it up as things went along. When I was little, we had sex education in school and you had to sign off on it, and I’m not kidding—you had to bring a note home, and your parents read it, and it said they’re going to teach how everything works. And my parents signed off on it and allowed me to have it—I can’t remember if any of the kids at school didn’t take it, but it was very clinical and hilarious. It would be, like, “The spermatozoa comes out of the penis and goes into the woman’s uterus, which is located behind her vagina.” [Laughs.] It was so clinical that it made you never, ever want to have sex or talk to anyone again in your life. So I had to sit through that shit. That was not that illuminating.

AVC: So you had to do it twice—you had to do the school/clinical version, and also have your dad talking about it?

GP: Yeah. My dad’s one was vague. And not particularly informed. And then, you know, the usual, fumbling attempts at school. The learning curve’s pretty high for guys. Guys never really get the picture, I don’t think.

9. What’s the pettiest hill you’re willing to die on?

GP: Oh, that’s a good one. [Sarcastically] Gee, I’ve given that no thought. Well, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man that I am striving not to become, there’s a couple things that I hold the line on. I think that when you write comedy, you should write it on a piece of paper. And then practice it, and then write down your jokes on a piece of paper. I use the computer like everyone else—I’ve taken an informal poll over the last 10 years at comedy clubs when I work with other comics. And I say, “Let me see your book.” And everyone, almost to a person—I think maybe one guy in Bellevue, Washington, didn’t—carries a little notebook with them. And I don’t care if phones can perform comedy for you—some people say they’ll think of a joke and then say it into their phone. And I was using my phone the other day to write a couple jokes down that I was listening to on a tape. I think that you have to write down comedy on paper in a book in order to be a comedian.

And I would wager that, if you talk to the big comedians—whoever you consider to be a big comedian—Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, or Chappelle, whoever—I will tell you, they have a book. And that it’s not entirely organized, and that there are scraps of fucking cocktail napkins in it, pieces of hotel stationery. A guy asked me years ago, “Could you do that?” I forget what magazine it was, The Penguin or something. So I gave him four random setlists from four different stationeries from four different hotels from several countries, and I’m, like, “This is how it’s organized: in a big, wadded-up folder.” I have drawers next to me right now, full of wadded-up paper stuffed into folders. That is the petty hill I will die on: Take your computer and your phone, and stuff them. Comedy’s organic and it has to be written and then spoken.

10. What pop culture or art do you turn to when you’ve had a bad day?

GP: I love old movies. We have a film club that we do where we show old movies. We’ve done a couple where we show movies from the 2000s, that’s about as close as we’ve got to today. Normally they’re every decade before that. Jennifer, my wife, does most of the curating on that one. Tonight we’re showing Ridicule, which is a ’90s French movie. And then last month we showed What’s Up, Doc? The screwball comedy. We’re at The Arrow in Santa Monica now. Babette’s Feast—beautiful French film from the ’80s. Ministry Of Fear, which is a very Hitchcockian thriller that’s directed by Fritz Lang. We try to pick films that are pertinent to the time as it were. With occasional jumps in for just good fun, like What’s Up, Doc? Because we don’t want to drive anyone away—everyone’s aware how shitty things are. [Laughs.] So old movies are my first go-to. And then my second go-to is binge-watching the three series I love more than life itself, which is Killing Eve, Deadwood, and Rome.

And I read Roman history books and Greek history books constantly. Not because I think the Romans were good people. It’s just diverting for me. It’s like a different kind of fascism, you know what I mean? I don’t know: Somehow reading about fascism from 2,000 years ago makes it funner than reading about current fascism. [Laughs.] I can get into Augustus and Julius Caesar and Livia and then find solace in it. People paid for their senate seats and then dissolved great bodies of democracy in order to be a fucking emperor and keeping that going for a thousand years and it was really not—and a giant slave state. My wife’s always, like, “You’re just a fascist waiting for this to happen again.” And it’s like a comic book for me.

11. If you could find out the day you’re going to die, would you?

GP: Oh, golly. No. To quote Caesar, right before they assassinated him, he was at a dinner party. Someone said, “What’s the best way to die?” when the topic came up and he said, “Unexpectedly.”

AVC: You have zero interest in knowing the exact date.

GP: No, no, no. Not at my age. The body count’s too high already.

Bonus 12th question from Yassir Lester: “What food item do you wish was available at every single place you ate at?”

GP: Ooh! Hash browns. I love them. Well, baguettes—French bread would be awesome everywhere—but hash browns because certain breakfast places, you look at the menu and it says, “Oh, we give you breakfast potatoes.” And breakfast potatoes are never hash browns. Sometimes they’re chopped up potatoes that have peppers in them that aren’t very good. Sometimes they were prepared a great deal earlier in the century, and you’re being served them now as a memory of potatoes.

I mean, I like scalloped, too—au gratin. I’m a big potato person: Look at me. But I think if you serve breakfast, you really ought to—there used to be this place in Cleveland called The Giant Egg, and everything came with hash browns. It was the basis of the menu, and then you variated on your own. You could go in there drunk in the middle of the night. There was also a place in Olympia, Washington, called The Spar, and The Spar has heavy, heavy hash browns base. And you kind of go from there.

AVC: Do you have a go-to method for your hash browns?

GP: Well, after you grate them, you have to really do everything you can to get almost all the moisture out of them. Because they’ll turn into a giant congealed gray lump if you try to cook them at home. You have to put them in a cloth and wring them out thoroughly, way more than you think you want to, which is why no one ever makes them at home. They’re much better from the bag that comes from the restaurant or whatever. A little green onion or whatever. You can go crazy with the cheese. It’s also the best hangover food. A lot of people say Bloody Mary, but I say, a big plate of hash browns and a couple eggs will get you back on your feet.

AVC: What would you like to ask the next person we interview?

GP: What object in your life can you not live without? For me, it would be a pen.

AVC: So not just a thing you like, but something you need to function as a person.

GP: It could be sentimental, too. It could be, like, a medallion your mother gave you or whatever. Now, as I get older and I can’t see, I have a magnifying glass on my desk. So I’m that old-fashioned. I wear a wristwatch, I write on paper, and I have a magnifying glass. [Laughs.] Like Sherlock Holmes. I also use the magnifying app on my phone, which I brought up to a crowd the other night at a comedy show. I was going to say that, too. I said, “Does anybody use the magnifying app on their phone?” And the whole crowd went, “No,” and I said, “Well, fuck you.” Okay, my eyesight’s shitty, I needed it.

My wife bought me this new thing that’s at my desk that’s a devil inside an inkwell. And when you open it up—his little devil head—there’s an inkwell inside, and on the front of it, it says vitriol. That’s what I look at when I write.