COMEDY / Outsider trading: James Rampton meets Greg Proops, an American in Barrow-in-Furness and the latest graduate of the Whose Line academy

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The Independent Culture
Greg Proops is an American stand-up perplexed by the British. 'It's your apologetic nature that's so weird,' he muses, 'that over-developed sense of embarrassment. On the London Underground, there are these signs that say, 'If you don't pay your fare, everyone is gonna look at you'. The idea of that as an ad campaign on, say, the New York Subway is ridiculous. They'd just shout, 'I don't care who's looking at me, I'll shoot 'em'.'

Proops, whose first British tour starts on Friday, trades on his outsider status. In his stage- show, he laughs at how bizarrely fussy the British are: 'I could make a verbal slip in the shower, and the phone would ring with someone correcting me.'

But it is the much-derided Brits who gave the sparky stand- up his big break on Whose Line Is It Anyway? (He is just one of many comedians to have graduated summa cum laude from the Whose Line academy.) Proops - no relation to Marje - was working with Mike McShane for Faultline, a San Francisco improvisation troupe, when he was recruited by Whose Line producer Dan Patterson on a Stateside talent-spotting jaunt. At his first appearance on the programme, in 1989, Proops was gripped by 'pure terror'. 'All you can think about is how your performance sucks. You have nothing in your mind; you get up and all you can say is, 'Er, hi, I'm Greg'.' The comedian with the trademark thick-rimmed glasses soon overcame these first-night nerves to become one of Whose Line's most accomplished show-offs - sorry, improvisers: 'I found that the way to keep from freezing between scenes was to make fun of Clive (Anderson, the host). The crowd gets on your side, they don't want you to fail, because then they'd have to sit through two hours of boredom.'

He made the switch from scriptless to scripted performance with a solo stand-up show at last year's Edinburgh Festival. His rat-tat-tat scattergun fired at targets ranging from the Punic Wars to Keanu Reeves. But, relaxing in a City of London pub, Proops is at pains to point out that he is no straight, stand-up gagster; not for him the old routine of set-up, punchline, tag-tag- tag. 'I'm not a joke-style comedian like Jack Dee or Jo Brand. It's much easier for me to have an idea, then I come on and blather about it for ten minutes.' In his Edinburgh show, he spun a complex web around the apparently simple incident of trying to make himself understood in a local fish 'n' chip shop.

When the occasion arises, however, he can throw away the script and 'riff' with the best of them. Latecomers are given a working-over only matched by Dame Edna. At Edinburgh, he improvised a captivating routine around the fact that his microphone had failed.

His off-the-cuff abilities will no doubt be called upon during the forthcoming 27-date tour. Bucking the trend set by certain rock-stadium comedians, the self-styled Buddy Holly / Proclaimers / Elvis Costello lookalike is going well off the beaten track. 'I'm playing Barrow-in- Furness,' he reveals. 'If they don't come out in Barrow, then I know that I have no career whatsoever, because - and I'm just guessing here - not a lot goes on there. The venue is called Forum 28; they didn't even name the place - it's like The Prisoner.'

In defiance of another comic trend, Proops will not be demanding a fortune for his shows. 'I'm not gonna charge pounds 18 because I couldn't get it. Besides, I'd have to do something really entertaining for that much; I'd have to rub jelly all over myself and have it licked off by otters.' Now, that is a performance that would really suck.

Greg Proops's national tour opens at the Manchester Royal Exchange (061-833 9833) this Friday

(Photograph omitted)