Paul Provenza to Relaunch The Green Room at SXSW

Dan Dion

Paul Provenza is a consummate comics' comic. The longtime standup (Leno, Conan, Kimmel) and actor (Empty Nest, Northern Exposure) enjoys exploring what makes comedic minds tick, and for ten years has sought to let audiences in on the process. With Penn Jillette he released The Aristocrats, an insta-classic capturing 100 performers putting unique spins on the documentary's eponymous dirty joke. He and photographer Dan Dion compiled the book ¡Satiristas!: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians. Most recently Provenza directed Kelly Carlin's autobiographical one-woman show A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up with George, and since early 2012 has co-produced international spur-of-the-moment sensation Set List: Stand-up Without a Net.

For two seasons, Showtime's The Green Room with Paul Provenza captured the experience of witnessing disparate groups of comics--one episode, for example, featured Judd Apatow, Bo Burnham, Marc Maron, Ray Romano and Garry Shandling--explore both professional and personal common ground. For the first time since September 1, 2011's final episode, Provenza will host another Green Room grouping: as as-yet-unannounced lineup Monday, March 10 at South by Southwest.

Tell me about The Green Room's comeback. It hasn't been in the public eye much since the Showtime series.

It started as a live show, mostly at festivals, most notably Edinburgh [Festival Fringe]. I've wanted to do it again but haven't had the people to; just the logistics of it. I think Austin will be a great place to do it. It's a really fun live show, and as I said, it started as a live show. In fact, the series was basically trying to capture the experience of the live show, so it's going to be amazing to do.

I remember you doing Green Room at Just for Laughs for a few years.

Did it a couple years at Montreal, and I think three years at Edinburgh. Montreal was the site of one of my favorites, and I only wish we had a TV deal at the time, because we did one show in the Ste. Catherine Theatre, which I think is 99 seats or something like that. It started around 11:30 at night, and I have no clue when it ended. It just went on and on, because the show was Lewis Black, Billy Connolly, Louis C.K. and Eddie Izzard, and then a handful of the Kids in the Hall came up to hang out. So it went on until, like, 3 in the morning. It was so fun.

I tried to get in to that and was turned away because it was packed.

Oh God, it was amazing. Everyone was walking out, going, "Oh my God, I can't believe I saw that!"

After SXSW, are you looking to do more live shows, maybe reapproach TV? What are your plans for Green Room following the festival?

It depends, because the whole thing about The Green Room is the combination of talent. It's not enough to just have a handful of great comics. What I need, and what excites me about it, is putting a handful of comics together who are particularly interesting. Either they'll rub against each other in some way, or there's just something going on in that particular combination. In fact, when we were doing the series we scrapped entire lineups because somebody dropped out, because it's about the combination, and I was left with, "Eh, something about this feels like it's just going to be us sitting around talking. Whereas this combination feels like something interesting; interesting vibes and responses are going to come up." So it's not always been logistically perfect to do it live, but there's enough people at SXSW who I think come at things from very different viewpoints and angles, so it will be fun.

The Bo Burnham episode was a really good one for that.

Yeah! So you know, it's like a giant puzzle of putting the right people together. I always say that trying to get comedians to be natural is front of an audience is like trying to get pandas to mate in captivity. Everything has to be just right.

In terms of after the festival, is there anything officially on the books? Are you doing Green Room at Moontower or the Melbourne International Comedy Festival?

I don't know, but if we do, we'll probably do it sort of off-the-radar; probably just do it for the sake of doing it. Because again, it's so hard to lock in all the specifics. I don't want to put any pressure on anybody or myself or the festival. But I would like to do some in Edinburgh, and maybe one or two in Melbourne if it works out. But that's the thing about the show: When we did it on a regular basis in Edinburgh and a couple other festivals, it's scenarios that...I knew so many people in Edinburgh that I could depend on to be there on a particular day and stuff like that, so we could put together really interesting groups of people. I'm not doing the show for the sake of doing the show. It's when the right groups of people can happen, then it's like, "Oh, that's a show we should do!"