Last August, as rioters set English cities ablaze, comedians addressing the violence were conspicuous by their absence.
With a few notable exceptions, scarcely any stand-ups in Edinburgh deviated from their scripted hours to respond to the incredible, unfolding events south of the border. Noting that Scotland was too damp to sustain incendiary rage was enough for most.
Appearing at the Fringe for the first time in eight years, however, Greg Proops could attest to how angry crowds can become, especially if it was "a really square festival audience, just squaresville". He thinks back to a one-off, late-night show he performed with fellow San Franciscan Scott Capurro. "They f****** hated us," he sighs, "because we weren't cute and funny. Scott finished by calling them 'inbred ginger retards'..."
When did Proops – with his nerdy, nasal tones, throwback quiff, retro spectacles and scarcely ironic hipster greetings – become so abrasive and challenging? How did an American – best known for the light-hearted charades of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the much-loved, transatlantic improv show he self-deprecatingly alludes to as "two 40-year-olds pretending to be raptors hailing a taxi" – come to deliver 2011's most coruscating and compassionate commentary on the English civil unrest? The answer: by announcing that he was The Smartest Man In The World.
Proops's podcasts (available as apps and at www.gregproops.com), where he so brilliantly analysed the riots, have made him required listening. The Smartest Man In The World is a solo performance, with the loquacious Proops imparting more than an hour of fresh material to a live audience each week. He brooks no dissent, drinks copious vodka and dumbs up rather than down. His sprawling monologues range wildly, from amusing personal anecdotes to informed satire on current events, and from scurrilous castigation of politicians to an abiding passion for ancient history. Overlooked figures in the arts and sport are lionised, and there's a question and answer session. Although a benign dictatorship, it's wonderfully inclusive, with audiences demanding more information on topics he's covered in previous Proopcasts.
With no interest in baseball, you can be enthralled by snapshots of the old negro leagues and delight in Proops's championing of an era when the star players were all on steroids; snigger at his delicious impression of Jeremy Irons reading Desmond Morris; then be touched by his avowed admiration for singer Harry Belafonte's civil rights campaigning.
Speaking from a North Carolina hotel room, today Proops perceives himself as correcting the balance and misinformation of mainstream media. "It's not my job but it's my predilection and desire to talk about the stories that don't get talked about, women's issues and minority issues that get no play. Watching American news, they never call it a war on women here, but that's what's being conducted. When Rick Santorum is on TV every week, saying married couples shouldn't use contraception, espousing his insane, medieval homophobia, racism and sexism, there has to be a counter somewhere."
The 52-year-old is incredulous that "kids" [in their 20s] are unfamiliar with Gil Scott-Heron. And that the barman at last night's recording "loved being made to feel stupid", because he'd never heard of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
"You know Syria has got really intense, because after a year, American news is finally covering it," he seethes. "People are tired of this mainstream s***; television and radio is ghastly and the public can smell the corporate meeting. When you watch a show with Simon Cowell, you know no human touch has been near it, that they've carefully engineered the outcome and picked those they're going to humiliate. We live in an age of information glut, but so many people don't question what they're spoon-fed or bother to search for themselves."
Making these podcasts has made Proops "fall in love with comedy again", notwithstanding his "boredom with the prevailing conservatism of the world. I don't want comedy to be Bridesmaids 2. I'm not denigrating Bridesmaids but, enough already, let's stop pretending women are incalculably different to us. Seeking out podcasts, listening on headphones, it's like an intimate, specific conversation. People respond if it feels from the heart. I'm as neurotic a human being as lives, and I have my faults. I'm a drunk. But people really like that."
If George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks were comedy "philosophers", advocating a way of life and changing the world by exposing people to new ideas, Proops is the "dimestore" version, or rather "an archivist of the arcane".
"I've found that the more arcane and bizarre I get, the more they like it. I never counted on two things: the number of people who actually hated Whose Line? and that the more obscure and up my own ass I go, the more they respond. Which is the exact opposite of what a manager or agent would tell you: that people want to hear about what they know."
Like the aforementioned iconoclasts, Proops experimented with mind-altering substances and believes it improved him as a comic.
"Taking psychedelics is a third-eye-opening experience, as Hicks said. In high school it was really popular to take acid and mushrooms, but I don't take any kind of powerful drugs now. I won't say I don't get high or drink. But I don't take E or anything like that. Because the podcast is an incessant tangent, it's not a detriment."
He won't lament Carlin, Pryor and Hicks passing before the podcasting age. "I mourn the fact that they're not around: what Hicks would have said about Bush and Cheney for eight years is 17 albums worth of material. But contrarian that he was, he would have f***** his internet career, saying, 'Everyone's doing a podcast, I'm not going to.' Someone should have interviewed him every week about what was going on. All three of them were geniuses and so adaptable. But the one who would have really flourished is Lenny Bruce. He got bored if he wasn't telling it differently every night, and a podcast caters to that kind of mind."
A comedian since his teens, Proops increasingly finds himself "hanging out with the crowd. It's changed the way I relate to them and it's not like the distance I try to maintain in stand-up." He's amazed at how much personal information he has shared. "There's honesty in the podcast that the stand-up sometimes can't bear, and now I'm trying to get that to the same level of veracity. I talk about the Occupy movement in my stand-up now, which I didn't before. Having mused over it so much in the podcast, I was finally able to think of some jokes. I never guessed that anything could challenge stand-up. I always thought I had the right job. People say 'find something you love and do it', but now I'm cheating on my first love."
He's delighted to be returning to the UK, "because to Britain's credit, you take stand-up seriously as a craft". He spent five years in London during the decade of Whose Line?, before a further four on the American version, and remains close to his co-stars. Still touring with Ryan Stiles, he'll be staying with Josie Lawrence in England and considers Richard Vranch his best friend. "It's sad and sick but we're all really good mates and love each other. When I went up to Edinburgh I fell in with Paul [Merton]'s group and [Phill] Jupitus's group. I don't know if you need to be friends to be good [improvisers] but it just happens that we are."
In November, he reunited with Whose Line? creator Dan Patterson and fellow alumni Colin Mochrie in London to shoot the improv series Trust Us With Your Life for American broadcaster ABC. Featuring guests such as Ricky Gervais and Serena Williams, the show, in which the cast act out a celebrity's life, has yet to air in the US. But it seems inconceivable that it won't arrive here soon. Before that, Proops plans to podcast from India, Morocco and Hong Kong, the show's whimsicality dovetailing with his wanderlust.
"Excuse me, I really am a pontificating bag of wind!" he suddenly apologies. "I found the perfect job. I never knew it existed but, horribly, podcasting has given me the opportunity to be a blowhard. Not only are people putting up with it, they're demanding it!"
Greg Proops Is The Smartest Man In The World is at the Tron on March 29 at 10pm, as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival. He also performs at The Stand, Glasgow, on March 30 at 7.45pm.