As with backstage conversation of any sort, there's a lot of showboating and petty complaints on Showtime's "The Green Room With Paul Provenza." This being a gathering of comedians, there's also plenty of the outrageously offensive — as Provenza, director of the notorious dirty joke film "The Aristocrats," invites viewers to his show, he warns those who "have ever been offended by anything" to stay away.
But for every story that peters out, there are moments of insight, thought-provoking debates and hilarious anecdotes. And invariably with comedians, a competitiveness develops that can be both generous and cutting, either of which is worth watching.
The show opens with its headliners — the first episode features Drew Carey, Eddie Izzard, Larry Miller and Reginald Hunter — all happy to be discussing the nuts and bolts of their craft rather than their latest roles or deals. Their success also offers a good foil for Provenza, who establishes himself as a comedic Everyman, telling stories from his cruise-ship days — never mind that he now has this show on Showtime.
Subsequent episodes don't quite capture the same effervescence, but each has its own distinct personality. Roseanne Barr, Bob Saget, Sandra Bernhard and Patrice O'Neal discuss the contradictory nature of good comedy — that it should make as many people cringe as it makes laugh — and Barr, with her hair an admirable silver, serves as a true éminence grise, defending her choices and summing up her worldview in a single line — "I hate hope" — which is just as validly political as it is hilarious.
Behind their carefully mortared wall of words, comedians are, for the most part, sensitive souls. And though they try to play nice, moments do arise. Paul Mooney and Bobby Slayton argue about racism, and Tommy Smothers admonishes Penn Jillette for his relationship with Glenn Beck and Fox News. The looks on both men's faces as Jillette realizes that Smothers is really angry make for one the more poignant moments on television this year.
The women are few and far between. The conversations often descend quickly into the X-rated — to no great effect beyond what humor there is in seeing oldsters such as Robert Klein and Jonathan Winters talk dirty (call it the Betty White Syndrome). But for every perhaps ill-chosen pedophile joke, there is an answering moment of truth-seeking — is the F-word ruining comedy, has obscenity become beside the point, does success compromise a comedian by its very definition, is political correctness the ultimate form of censorship?
For all its digressions into obscenities, over- or under-worked material and more than occasional chest pounding, "The Green Room With Paul Provenza" manages to pack a considerable intellectual punch into a half hour.