Episode 613: Greg Proops, Reggie Watts, Myriam Gurba

Air Date:
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Myriam Gurba outdoors
© Geoff Cordner

Comedian Greg Proops talks about his hilarious album, ‘French Drug Deal.’ Also, comedian and musician Reggie Watts shares his memories of growing up in his memoir, ‘Great Falls, Montana.’ And Myriam Gurba on her thrilling, no-holds-barred essay collection, ‘Creep.’

Featured in this Show

  • Greg Proops is the only comedian who matters and will never lie to you. Just ask him.

    Editor’s note: This article contains content that may not be suitable for all audiences.

    Our first attempt to talk with Greg Proops found him behind schedule on the road in Indiana. But, a few hours later, Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” found Greg in his cozy hotel room somewhere in central Indiana.

    We talked with Proops about his new stand-up comedy album, “French Drug Deal.”

    Proops is famous for his improvisational work on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” So, we wondered how many of his stand-up jokes were improvised.

    “I improvised all of them,” he told us. “I went in with an idea of what I wanted to talk about, and then we recorded over a weekend during the New Year’s holiday in San Francisco at the Punchline. I had a chance to do the set four or five times, and we recorded four. I extrapolated from each one, did different things, and honed it. But I made up the whole album.”

    The story behind ‘French Drug Deal’

    The title of “French Drug Deal” comes from a scene Proops witnessed in Paris.

    “It was after a big football game, and the French played Morocco,” he said. “The French police, as they often do, overreacted and had 20,000 officers on the street. I don’t know what they thought would happen; maybe that the Moroccans would riot. When the French win, they don’t go bananas. They smoke and pretend to sing songs they’re not very good at.

    “The French won. And we were standing on the street, and a burgundy SUV, I swear to you, came bumping down the street playing ‘Le Marché’ at top volume. Suddenly, the window opened, the person inside handed someone on the street a bag of weed, and the SUV sped off.”

    Chicken in Hawaii

    In addition to stories about strange drug deals, Proops shared tales of encounters with fruit bats in Australia, Caribbean bats in Jamaica and being ignored and derided by chickens in Hawaii.

    “We went to a food truck called Pork Heaven, and I ordered the pork,” Greg said. “My wife said, ‘I’ll have the chicken.’ If you’ve ever been to Maui or any island in Hawaii, there are chickens everywhere. I mean, it’s like they’re roaming freely. Even Hawaiians will admit that there are too many bloody chickens. There were chickens around this food truck, scratching at our feet.

    “The guy in the food truck said, ‘There’s no chicken.’ I said, ‘There’s chicken pretty much everywhere. Why don’t we knock one of these out and see what you can do? Put some curry on it. Let’s go.’ So, as we ate our lunch, which was pork, the chickens gathered around us and were like, ‘Not this time, bro, not this time.’”

    Black and white photo of Greg Proops with pink and green letters for his comedy special
    Photo courtesy of Greg Proops

    White people and politics

    On “French Drug Deal,” Proops also talks about other topics, including why white people are so angry.

    “Several pundits wrote that they felt Biden should step down. I guess because Biden’s doing too good of a job, or they’ll say Vice President Harris should step down. But they can’t quite put their finger on why they don’t like Vice President Harris.

    “Suddenly, they’re mad at her. Kamala Harris was sworn into office. Senators Ossoff and Warnock from Georgia were sworn into office, a Jewish man and a Black man. Then, white people attacked the Capitol. And it’s not a coincidence.”

    “I think white people really can’t believe that the world is being taken away from them by white Jews and Black people all at once. They’ve been told for a year that no matter what happens, they would have won, right?

    “When he (Trump) didn’t win, they couldn’t handle that. So, what would make white people happy? I mean, white people are in charge of everything.”

    Comedy should ‘question what’s going on’

    Comedy has come a long way over the years. Once acceptable, many subjects are now considered tasteless.

    “I’ve been around a long time and think many young comics are fantastic. When you go to clubs, you can’t get away with racist, sexist nonsense like when I started in the early ’80s in San Francisco,” Proops said. “Chinese driver jokes and gay jokes don’t play anymore.”

    “Having said that, plenty of redneck nonsense is happening out there. And I don’t think supporting the dominant paradigm is what a comic is supposed to do. I think you’re supposed to question what’s going on. I don’t think Lenny Bruce died so that I could hear podcasters go on and tell people not to get vaccinated.”

    It could be that the spirit of Lenny Bruce smiles down on Greg Proops and his comedy as he continues to question what goes in the world with a humorous bent and, of course, always telling the truth.

  • For Reggie Watts, making people laugh has been a life hack

    If you’re having trouble remembering all of the things Reggie Watts has done in his remarkable career thus far, fear not. You’re in good company. Even Watts himself has an uphill climb remembering all the trailblazing pop culture he’s been a part of.

    “It’s just, I’ve done so much stuff, you know. Like, so many things I’ve experienced, and I just wanted to get it down in writing so that people at least don’t think I’m crazy,” Watts shares with Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”

    “Sometimes I listen to myself, and I’m like, ‘That’s impossible. No one’s going to believe that I did all that stuff,’” he says. “I hang out with a lot of younger artists, and they’ll be talking about some hero of theirs. I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah. I used to hang out with that guy.’ Or, ‘Oh, yeah, I did that.’ Or, ‘I was there at their final concert.’ ‘Oh yeah. I was here when Kurt Cobain died.’”

    Watts has captured as much as he could in his memoir, “Great Falls, MT: Fast Times, Post-Punk Weirdos, And a Tale of Coming Home Again.” He explains this book may not be enough, though — that it could be just the first in a potential series of memoirs.

    “This book only covers really up until about high school, and it kind of brushes a little over Seattle a bit, and New York a tiny bit and in L.A. But I’m probably going to release books on just Seattle itself and New York itself because those are intense, crazy times, as well,” Watts says.

    Even just the early years of his career pack in a book’s worth of anecdotes. Watts served as the frontman for the avant-garde, Seattle-based indie band, Maktub, during the height of grunge in the mid-1990s. He left music (kind of) to pursue improv comedy. He ended up performing with the famed improv troupe, Stella, featuring Michael Ian Black, David Wain and Michael Showalter.

    This was all before he became known as a looping musical genius, turning out literally one-of-a-kind stage shows. His improvised, live (sometimes crowdsourced) songs and comedy also led him to become the band leader for the former late-night show, “The Late Late Show with James Corden.”

    For Watts, his risk-taking, gut-trusting approach to life began in his adolescence in the titular town of Great Falls, Montana. The Watts family — consisting of Watts’ Black father and redheaded French mother — relocated to Montana from Madrid, Spain, when Watts was 4. He said that there was a bit of a culture shock.

    “I think people thought we were weird. It took them a little while to get used to us. But, you know, over time, like all people in Great Falls or small towns, really anywhere in the world, they get used to you because you don’t pose a threat, and you’re not jerks,” Watts said.

    Watts sped up that process by disarming the local kids with friendship. Even though that helped, he said it didn’t always protect him from being exposed to the uglier side of small-town living and dealing with racist undertones.

    “I was definitely affected by it in the moment, even though like in the early times, I didn’t necessarily know what it meant,” he said. “I just mostly just saw it as their loss. You know, it’s like you can say whatever you want to say. The intent is supposed to hurt me, but it doesn’t really hurt me.”

    So Watts doubled down on his disarmament through friendship and laughing campaign.

    “I tried to make friends, joke around, just get on the good side of everybody. The more people that you have that liked you, the more people will stand up for you or they won’t mess with you. That was only my tact. Just make friends with as many people and be very likable,” he said.

    When Watts entered high school, he leveled this social experiment up even more. Spurred on by a summer viewing of John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles,” Watts adopted an idea to take an active role in every one of his school’s social cliques.

    “I loved all the characters from all the different social classes. And so, I just thought to myself, ‘Wow! I think high school could be a really great adventure, and I’d like to try to experience as many of the social classes as possible,’” he said.

    Watts joined the football team his freshman year, so he could hang out with the jocks along with his usual group of friends. He would repeat this tactic every year, deliberately joining the student government, band, orchestra and art cliques. It’s no surprise that later in life he was able to segue seamlessly from comedy to music to host to performer so easily.

    After school, Watts found himself in Seattle during the grunge era. He had helped form and front the soul, rock, R&B, trip hop group, Maktub. He says the band was named after the Arabic word for the phrase “it was written,” inspired by the novel, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

    “We were influenced by Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine,’” Watts said. “I was such a rock head. I loved Soundgarden so much. I was a huge Soundgarden fan, and so I wanted to sneak in some rock into that project, and everybody was down. So, we started infusing some of that in later albums. But yeah, it started out as kind of pop soul.”

    It was during this era, while touring with the avant-garde jazz group Wayne Horvitz — 4+1 Ensemble, that Watts made a discovery that would become his calling card on stage.

    In an effort to minimize the gear and maintenance he’d have to deal with on the road, Watts purchased the portable Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler guitar pedal. He said it changed everything.

    “It’s a delay modeler. So, it models every kind of delay you can imagine from the beginning of tape delays all the way to modern digital delays,” Watts said. “It was like this compact little, tiny machine that could hook whatever I wanted into it.”

    Watts explored the seemingly limitless creativity and fun you could have with the Line-6 looper on stage between sets with both Maktub and the 4+1 Ensemble. He discovered this technique of creating songs on the spot could be a fun approach to comedy.

    “People really liked it. Like, it was pretty instantaneous,” he said.

    Watts would invite people up on stage to crowdsource songs and fun.

    “The whole ‘invite them up scene’ back in New York in early 2000 was just all a bunch of sweethearts. You know, sweetheart, brilliant, weirdo, genius people. And it was great. It was nice to be accepted,” he recalled.

    It’s not surprising Watts was able to coalesce yet another diverse crowd. In fact, that seems pretty on brand for him.

    Great Falls, MT” is available from Tiny Reparations Books.

  • Myriam Gurba's 'Creep' is a haunting essay collection filled with horror and humor

    Editor’s note: This article contains content that may disturb some readers.

    Myriam Gurba is a writer and artist. Her true-crime memoir, “Mean,” was a New York Times’ Editor’s Choice and was named one of the “Best LGBTQ Books of All Time” by O, The Oprah Magazine.

    Gurba is back with an incredible essay collection called “Creep: Accusations and Confessions.”

    In her blurb for Gurba’s book, former “BETA” guest Rachel Kushner said: “Gurba is tender but tough, and her book gleams with voluptuous horror, historical rigor, and astonishing psychological depth.”

    I knew I had to read this book when I noticed that her publisher described it as “Myriam Gurba’s informal sociology of creeps.”

    I love that description, and maybe that makes me a bit of a creep. But I hope not. So, I asked Gurba to join us to talk about her collection and if she could define “creep” for us.

    Creep, defined

    “Creep is a vast bucket. There are all sorts of figures and phenomena that can be placed in that bucket,” Gurba told Wisconsin Public Radio’sBETA.”

    “I am using it as a shorthand for abusers and oppressors. However, I do think that every human being has creep potential. We all have a little creep sitting inside of us just itching to come out and play. And so part of the project of the book ‘Creep’ is to invite readers to look inward and to identify that inner creep and take inventory of our own participation in what I call creepdom.”

    Gurba explained that these creeps, as she defines them, exist both along a continuum and a spectrum. To illustrate, she used Halloween to describe a type of “joyful creepiness,” sort of similar to the Gothic persona she found interesting as a teenager.

    But in her book, she deals with “serious creepiness.”

    The opening essay is called “Tell.” Gurba said that the title can be looked at in several ways.

    “We have a narrator, and she is telling, so I’m almost positioning the narrator as a tattletale of sorts,” Gurba explained. “She’s telling stories she perhaps shouldn’t be telling. I’m also invoking a story, a legend that was developed by Beat (Generation) writer William Burroughs that involves the domestic violence killing of his common law wife, Joan Vollmer. So it’s an invocation of both of those phenomena.”

    Getting personal

    One of the many fascinating things about Gurba’s writing is the way that so many of her essays start with personal anecdotes, and then they gradually shift to explore historical events.

    “I structure my essays this way because I’m very strongly drawn to chronicling in the first person,” she explained. “The first person comes easily to me. And so, when I have this first-person entry point into an essay, I attempt to establish some sort of rapport with my reader, with my audience, through a personal anecdote.”

    When Gurba taught high school, she often started lessons with a personal story in order to get her students’ attention. It’s a way “to trick them into learning.”

    “And then I’ll situate it with the larger histories to demonstrate how I, as well as my family and other figures who are close to me, are embedded within these larger narratives and histories,” she said.

    Gurba has said it’s her “gallows humor” and “insult comedy” that allow her to write about trauma.

    She said she long avoided writing about — or downplayed — trauma she experienced. She talked about one instance where she was sexually assaulted by a stranger — a serial attacker — when she was 19 years old. She said it took until about her early 30s for her to begin acknowledging what happened to her.

    “My having survived that attack had a profound imprint on the trajectory that my life had taken,” she said. “And I decided to sort of buckle down and really look into the abyss. And I found the abyss staring back at me.”

    To help her explore what happened, she started reading other survivor narratives.

    “I found people narrating with a shamelessness, a seriousness, and almost with sort of like a reverential tone. And to me, that seemed grotesque. Like, how can we write about one of the most heinous moments of our lives in a sacral tone?” Gurba said.

    “And so what I began to think was, why not narrate survivorship using grotesque humor as well, given the fact that I think humor is horror’s closest stylistic relative,” she said. “And so I began narrating sexual assault using humor and I found that afforded me a certain level of protection.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Greg Proops Guest
  • Reggie Watts Guest
  • Myriam Gurba Guest

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