Published on May 13th, 2010 | by Sharilyn Johnson1
Satiristas Uncut, Part 1: The Labor
Paul Provenza loves comedy and comedians deeply, and is always keen to talk about the world he operates in. His enthusiasm for the artform – a rarity among seasoned comics – has spawned projects like the documentary The Aristocrats, and the longtime live show Paul Provenza’s Green Room which moves to television starting June 10 on Showtime. His new book Satiristas, is full of interviews with every comedian you can think of, and illustrated with stunning photos from Dan Dion.
Satiristas is a deceptively hefty read. The fat has been trimmed, leaving behind only the juiciest, grade-A slabs of insight. Provenza wisely assumes we know who these people are, and doesn’t waste space with unnecessary life story exposition. An economic summary with just the essentials serves to fill in a reader’s occasional blind spot. This is the textbook for advanced students of comedy, rendering a large chunk of a typical comedy nerd’s library obsolete.
The through-lines are fascinating, as are the connections from artist to artist. Robin Williams sings the praises of Stephen Colbert. Colbert talks about aping Don Novello, when he and a college friend would fire off Lazlo Letters-style inquiries. Novello in turn reminisces about his choice to use a character of a religious figure in his work.
Paul and Dan spoke about their labor of love on the phone from Paul’s office in Los Angeles.
THIRD BEAT: How did you guys decide to collaborate on this project?
PAUL: It all really sprung from Dan’s photography. I was working at the Comedy Store in Sydney and Dan had an exhibition of his work there. I had seen it the Just for Laughs festival and at Gotham in New York and various other places, and always admired it. So when I met him, I was like ‘YOU’RE the guy who does that amazing photography?” We just hit it off and started talking. It was that week in Sydney that we decided to work together. Dan’s work I think is so rich and he just gets a quality that’s not shticky it just feels real and he just treats comics with respect and gets something cool and interesting out of them. I thought if his photographic portraits are what they are, can I do verbal portraits that are as evocative and as revealing in subtle nuanced ways? The whole time we were together in Sydney, it was comedy non-stop. Brothers from a different mother in terms of what we loved and didn’t like, and all the things that got us goin’ in comedy.
THIRD BEAT: Where do you think journalists are at, as far as portraying comedians accurately?
PAUL: I don’t think most journalists get comedians. I don’t think they appreciate comedy in the same way. Most journalists when they try to write about comedy, they’re looking for an angle. So they’re looking for a conflict, or they’re looking for something that’s more than just taking it at face value. It gets kind of convoluted. The same as anybody in the audience, what somebody finds funny or doesn’t find funny is such a personal thing, and I think how comedy resonates with you is also such a personal thing. I think they impose their own agenda quite often.
THIRD BEAT: I find one of the worst ones is Oprah, actually. Whenever she has someone in comedy on her show, it’s the most cringe-inducing thing.
PAUL: In what way?
THIRD BEAT: She just treats them like trained monkeys.
PAUL: Oh yeah, that’s the worst. Where it’s like, y’know, jump up and be funny. Whereas if you didn’t do that, they’d be funny without even suggesting it, because they naturally are. The good ones are. The artful ones, anyway.
DAN: The problem is also with a lot of journalists is they’re encountered with a lot of biography and including that in a piece. It gets tedious that they have to give the bio all the time, who they are, introduce them to people who might not know who they are. Whereas what we did is we gave a biographical paragraph in front of each one and then never went back to that tone again.
PAUL: The interviews aren’t really interviews, they’re more excerpts of conversations. They’re certainly not interviews in a journalistic sense. Comic to comic, with any sort of those barriers missing, we just kind of chatted. And things would come up that I thought were interesting. Just like Dan would look at somebody, take a photograph, look at the photograph, and go “oh wow, this has a really interesting gleam in their eye, or the way they’re holding their body up, or their attitude being projected really says a lot about what I feel about this person or what they convey to me.” Same thing with the conversations, I would just find parts of the conversation where I thought wow, this is something particular or unique or interesting insight or something that’s kind of surprising. So it’s more conversational. It’s not a journalistic exercise.
DAN: It also speaks to Paul’s aversion to preparing for anything.
THIRD BEAT: I know you had to leave a lot out of the book. What parts were the toughest to let go of and how did you make those decisions?
PAUL: It was all a question of keeping all the plates spinning at the same time. As we went through all the various conversations, and tried to decide what to keep in, and “what is it about this person we think is the most interesting thing to express?” It was all about context. What the people around them said. What people talked about. It’s not a book about the issues, although a lot of people actually do talk about issues. It’s not a book about personal intimate histories or childhoods, but some people do talk about that. It’s not a book about the craft or business of comedy, but some people talk about that. With every person’s interview, I wanted to find something that somehow relates to all of those things, but they say it in their own particular way. So there’s something new or interesting in every person’s perspective. It became a situation of wanting to make sure every voice remained individual and clear.
In fact, one of the original ideas for structuring the book was more like a cocktail party, where you just sort of popped around from voice to voice based on the idea that someone’s expressing and people would give their thoughts or opinions on it. But you lose the very distinctiveness about each of the voices that way, and it just became about the things they were saying as opposed to who is saying that.
It’s a very complex sort of an edit and every time we made a change in one piece it impacted dozens of others. It’s a very painstaking and careful process. But what I tried to create is just quick, sort of imagine if you met these people really quickly and you had a great moment with them and a great experience with them. We tried to do that over and over. It just felt like we’d lose the interesting individuals by making it one big giant maylay.
THIRD BEAT: So how long was the process from –
DAN: Don’t ask! Do NOT ask.
PAUL: I think it’s a million years? Million and a half? I’d say three, three and a half years. It’s hard to say, because Dan was doing a lot of portraiture before we did the book, and kept doing it all through that. It was about three years from the time we began actively working together on it.
THIRD BEAT: On the website you mentioned you did some of the interviews before the book was conceived. Did you have any idea what you were going to do with them at that point?
PAUL: We actually didn’t use any of those, except Stanhope. I had shot some stuff for a potential documentary project, and there were one or two pieces from there that were easy transitions to it, but not much.
DAN: There were those UK guys.
PAUL: Yeah, we were also going to do a lot of foreign performers, people from the UK and Canada, because part of what we were hoping to get from the book is expose a few more people that aren’t necessarily that well known, but are doing really interesting work. But for time and size constraints we had to cut back on a lot of people.
THIRD BEAT: I think you have to do a sequel.
PAUL: I agree. But this time they should pay us upfront.