Published on August 1st, 2011 | by Sharilyn Johnson


The Green Room’s schticky situation

I’m going to start this mini recap of Saturday night’s Green Room taping at Just For Laughs in Montreal by pointing out two things.

Scenes from The Green Room taping, including the removal of Tony Clifton (bottom right). Photos by Sharilyn Johnson & Robert Smith.

First, I’ve said this before, but sometimes it feels like Paul Provenza was put on this planet just to create things that please me. The Aristocrats. Satiristas. And now The Green Room, one of my favorite shows on television right now.

Second, I have to feel very strongly about an idea being just plain bad before I dedicate an entire article to it.

I was ecstatic when Paul mentioned the tapings on Twitter a few weeks earlier. I’d seen The Green Room as a live show at the festival back in 2007, and was in love with it even then. Comics sitting around talking about comedy, just being comics. What’s not to love?

Having secured coveted tickets to the first of two shows, I was thrilled to hear that the lineup would include some of my favorite comics: Caroline Rhea, Bill Burr, Russell Peters, Lizz Winstead and Colin Quinn.

Saturday morning, I picked up the daily schedule from the info desk at the Hyatt (a detailed outline of every single one of the day’s events, photocopied on colored paper and stapled in the corner, a JFL tradition from since before my time). Added to the lists of guests for both shows was Tony Clifton.

Oh, that’s cute. At best, that’ll be cute.

For anyone unaware, in 25 words or less: Tony is an asshole drunk lounge comic/singer character, portrayed originally by Andy Kaufman and subsequently by former manager Bob Zmuda and others. (Although they probably would want me to put the word “allegedly” in there.)

The basic premise is that he provokes. Meaning, he acts like a dick, and people getting pissed off about it is supposed to be evidence of its genius. Or something.

Andy Kaufman was a big deal, and groundbreaking at the time, and some people are still fascinated by him. That’s great. But the Tony Clifton character – or more importantly, its existence – has little to no relevance to even the most comedy-savvy of my generation. The premise that he MIGHT be a real guy was played out decades ago. We know he isn’t, and the expectation that we’re supposed to still be intrigued by the uncertainty of this is a little insulting.

The Green Room is at its best when it’s real. I don’t mean serious, I mean real. It gives a slightly amped-up version of what people would experience in an actual green room full of comics, just being themselves: smart, funny, and passionate.

For the first half hour of the taping, Paul’s guests weren’t allowed to be that.

Tony was mic’d and seated behind the rest of the panel. The interruptions started almost immediately, with Tony jumping in every time a guest started to say something interesting.

The dirty jokes he interjected with were funny. Horrible, but funny. That wasn’t the problem, as you may have read elsewhere online.

The issue was the fact that this killed the conversation’s momentum, and got to the point where the entire production felt like a waste of everyone’s time.

Eventually, Provenza “called over his security guy” and they “escorted him out” and he “put up a fight” and was “wrestled to the ground” and other theatrics so obvious that they require quotation marks.

Sigh. I’m bored.

It was just plain unnecessary for what The Green Room is.

For those of us engaged in a lifetime love affair with comedy, The Green Room is like great sex. Tony Clifton killed my comedy boner.

Between this, and how all five panelists were almost never on stage together at the same time (walking out in a huff for long stretches became a running gag), I have no idea how this episode will cut together. There was good conversation taking place post-Clifton, but they won’t be able to edit around it even if they wanted to (I can guarantee they don’t want to). For the first time in this show’s run, I can honestly say I’m glad it’s only a half hour program.

Paul is an incredibly smart guy, and I don’t doubt he has a sound justification for trying this. I wish I’d had a chance to catch up with him at the Hyatt afterwards to learn what that justification was, and why he himself was seemingly the most entertained out of everyone when Tony was being dragged out. Chances are, it would’ve ended in me saying “ok, I can respect that.”

But as it stands, I’m a firm believer that The Green Room should stick with actual comics and the occasional industry type.

I bet Bob Zmuda would make a great guest.

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

12 Responses to The Green Room’s schticky situation

  1. Cat Lemieux says:

    Thanks very much for your perspective & insight Sharilyn. I feel very much the same way, after seeing the taping. Despite the discomfort it also felt like an honor just be in the audience an bare witness to this “experiment” in Green Room comedy history. 2 days later I still can’t get over the awe… LOVEcat PS= You’re a grrrrreat writer and look forward to reading more from you mademoiselle!
    PPS= What did you think of the second show taping???

  2. Sharilyn Johnson says:

    Thanks Cat!

    I hear what you’re saying. I’m sure someday, when I’m sitting in a rocking chair in the Old Comedy Bloggers Home, saying I was there for that will impress everyone at the arts & crafts table. But right now, I’m just sad that I didn’t really get to see the Green Room as its authentic self. (whoa, Oprah moment)

    I unfortunately couldn’t stay for the second taping, because I had to rush back to the hotel and then to Marc Maron’s WTF taping. I haven’t heard much about it from anyone, which I find odd. All I know is that when I got back to the Hyatt bar, Tony Clifton was there and Paul Provenza wasn’t. Maybe they didn’t keep him on for the late show, as advertised in the daily schedule.

  3. Provenza says:

    I went a bit meta on that show. Here’s the scoop: First of all, Bob Zmuda created Tony WITH Andy Kaufman. (Bob was Andy’s muse, writer and co-conceptualizer for Andy’s entire career.) It was always intended that Tony have a life of his own – Tony opened Andy’s shows – sometimes it was Andy, sometimes Bob. And sometimes Tony Clifton would heckle Andy onstage. It was all part of the reality/illusion game Andy played so well. So, Bob Zmuda doing Tony IS, essentially, Andy doing Tony. They were both the real character, and the character still exists despite Andy’s death – not by an impersonator, but by one of the original Tonys himself. Still with me?
    Now… With Russell Peters, Bill BUrr and Colin Quinn on the panel, I knew we would be talking about crossing lines, the randomness of those lines, and where lines are regarding race, PC culture, and other hot buttons, and of course, context. Tony Clifton is all about not having lines and being as offensive/provocative as possible. The character is meant to be hateful and an awful human being — and the context he appears in is usually the most inappropriate (See his appearance [played by Andy] on Dinah Shore in the early 80’s: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsT9Mc_eh_o )
    When I invited Tony to come and be in the audience, we planned nothing. I told no one what kind of extremes he might go to, I had no idea what exactly would happen myself. The only conversation I had with Tony was him asking, ‘what can i do on the show?’ and my answering, ‘just be Tony, and know that Tony can be as much himself as he likes.’ SO what actually happened was completely spontaneous, and neither I nor anyone else knew what was going to happen or what was happening at any moment. Even the guys who threw him out didn’t know if they really were going to have to throw him out. They were not even sure how to handle the situation. They didn’t know he would fight back, which was real, and they were really trying to get him out as quickly as possible. The tussle was real, not staged in the least, and Tony didn’t know how rough they would get with him, or that we would even end up throwing him out. So…
    Tony Clifton, behaving badly as he does, being racist and vile and pissing off comics essentially then became a backdrop to the whole conversation. We could talk about those things all we wanted, but I wanted to have those very things present in the room for all to experience through the lens of the comics on the show, and through the lens of audience members as well. I wanted uncomfortableness to be palpable, and as a side note, for an audience to feel what comics feel when hecklers do what they do, and what an uncomfortable area those kinds of comments are for people who parse them day in and day out in their craft. Every comic’s response was genuine and in the moment – and alternately hilarious or frustrated, just as I expected. The dynamics that developed on that show are very complex, genuine and spontaneous– and serve as meta comment on the discussion we were having. I wanted viewers AND we comics to also FEEL the stuff we were talking about, not just hear each other talk about it. Colin Quinn let me know early on, subtly, that he knew what was going on and got right away why it was going on. Watching him get ‘inside’ it with me, in contrast to the others, adds yet another layer of complex dynamic to it all. It wasn’t a staged thing, it was completely real, despite the character being fictional (but also not – a very Andy K space to be in), and the comedians were now out of the comfort zone as they discussed the things that take audience’s out of their comfort zones. Every response was real, unfiltered, authentic and palpable. It’s a somewhat different experience of a Green Room, but in many ways a much more valid, authentic and unexpected one than any other episode. None of us knew what would happen next – which is true for every show – but this time it felt… dangerous.
    THAT was fucking hot.

  4. Provenza says:

    Also – Tony Clifton is MORE than ‘an actual comic’. Tony Clifton is an actual COMIC PREMISE. A living, breathing conceptualized premise. The opportunity to have that in The Green Room is a no brainer. He absolutely belonged there, and the discussion about him there is a perfect one to have.

  5. Sharilyn Johnson says:

    I can respect that. (See? I knew it!)

    You don’t do anything without a lot of thought and analysis behind it. That’s just how you roll. And that’s what made me frustrated when the result was so unsatisfying for me as an audience member. I knew that whatever the intent was, I a) wasn’t perceiving it, and b) it was getting in the way of what my perception of show’s overall intent is.

    I still think it got in the way, and it doesn’t change how I feel about the experience on Saturday night. (Though despite that, I’m admittedly very interested to see the end result, and what people’s reactions are to it.)

    Thanks for the explanation. You continually challenge the way I think about comedy, and that’s not easily done.

  6. James says:

    The real outrage is that Paul gave that dipshit Russell Peters an excuse to think anyone gives a shit about him.

  7. Sharilyn Johnson says:

    I’m not a Russell Peters fan either, but the fact that he sells out arenas means that he has relevance, and literally deserves a place at the table. (Besides: the guy gets a lot of people out to see live comedy who likely wouldn’t otherwise do so.)

  8. John says:

    Oh my goodness! James just totally took the words right out of my mouth, re: R.P. I had met him years ago, before he was a bigtime bigdeal. He was a friend of a coworker and she brought him by our work. I have pretty good instincts and immediately pinned him as an arrogant prick. Shortly thereafter, the Comedy Network was launched and I began to see his smug face on the endless promos and I used to think: “There’s that prick.”. My sister asked me to go see him with her several months back (sold out ACC). She was in disbelief when I said no.

    I was at JFLs for my 1st time last weekend. A friend of mine is a VP at a company he probably doesn’t want me to name. He was going with an associate. His associate had to leave on Friday. “Do you want to drive out (from Oakville) and take his Industry Pass…pretend you’re him?” “DO I?”

    So I went and thoroughly enjoyed myself. In fact, during the PFT show Sat nite at Katacombes I thought to myself (“Is this Sharilyn Johnson sitting in front of me?”…but I was too shy to ask. Right at the front-left of the stage? No?)

    I met Kevin H and Steve L from Broken Lizard at a bar and got my pic taken with them. That was cool. Prior to that, I was ecstatic to meet Joe Randazzo from the Onion at the panel discussion he did re: internet vids, etc. with the people from College Humor, Cracked and Break.com. It’s my life’s dream to write for The Onion and I’m friendly with a couple of the writers/editors from there on facebook (I know, I know…it’s not a ‘real’ friendship. Leave me alone!).

    I went to the Homegrown show (everyone was great) and the Talk of The Fest (with John Oliver, etc. They were all great). The best part was on Sat night, instead of going to one of the midnight shows, we just went to hang out at the bar at the Hyatt to look at famous people. My buddy apparently isn’t as up on contemporary comedians as I am (I’m into the alt-crowd….that’s why we’re both on AST Sharilyn).

    Anyway: as I drank beers I was thrilled to get my pic taken with Reggie Watts and Garfunkle & Oates and Colin Quinn. My buddy (who I had to explain who Tony Clifton was) chased after Tony to get his pic with him. Tony ignored him, despite taking his picture with everyone else.

    I was very happy with the whole experience and will be going back next year for sure (but, I imagine, on my own dime this time).

    POSTSCRIPT: Russell Peters was at the Hyatt that night too. Very curious how he was the ONLY comic walking around with 4 burly security dudes. Craig Ferguson walked around freely. Anyway, my companion just HAD to approach him to ask him something. So there we are with him, my buddy starts talking to him, reminding him of a connection they share, and Russell just has the smugest look on his face that I just culled the most class I could an announced “I’m going to go take a piss” and left them there.

  9. Sharilyn Johnson says:

    John, you just described every encounter that everyone I know has ever had with Russell. It’s uncanny. The entourage, the walking away mid-sentence, all of it. My only experience with him was during a phone interview several years ago, so he *couldn’t* just walk away from me mid-sentence. Lucky me?

    I was unfortunately not at Katacombes at all this year, so your intincts served you well! (Felt very, very bad for missing PFT — biggest regret of the fest.) Though I was probably standing right behind you after the online panel, talking to Joe at the front of the room afterwards? I think there were only two of us to do so.

    Anyway… I’m going to go take a piss.

  10. John says:

    HOLY CRAP! I was at the bar waiting to talk to Joe but some broad was yakking him up, and some other dofus was waiting after her.


    Seriously though, Jeez! We were right there! Alas…

    Re: PFT. You think he’ll be back at the Rivoli for the 2nd anniversary? I will if he is!

  11. Sharilyn Johnson says:

    Haha… that must’ve been some other broad at the bar! We split up before we made it that far.

    I suppose that at some point during our 5-hour drive back to Toronto, I could’ve asked Bob Kerr about PFT. I assume it’ll happen, though. It’s a win for everyone involved.

  12. April Lopez says:

    I met “Tony Clifton” at a convention in NJ this past April. I personally got to have conversations several times over the course of the weekend. His character is what it is. In person…he is actually funny….and i found him to be actually very nice and friendly. He also did his routine up on stage and was his usual Tony Clifton self. He was at the show….doing what he thought he was there to do…being the character “Tony Clifton”. Not everyone likes every comedy style…..and Tony Clifton is definitely not everyones favorite…..But to each his own…right?

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