By Ron Cowan – Statesman Journal – February 3rd, 2007

      Think of being one of the guys who gets together for a Friday night poker game, a few beers and a lot of chatter.

      That’s about the same level of anxiety experienced by the members of the popular comedy event “A Night of Improv,” which comes to Salem on Friday for two performances, following two sold-out shows in January of 2006.

      “We just show up,” said Greg Proops, an American-born member of the group that started with the English and American TV hits, “Whose Line is it Anyway?”

      “We’re very relaxed. We don’t really discuss anything.

      “And we can drink up to the moment when we’re on and sometimes when we’re on.”

      It is improvisation, after all, and that’s not something you plan, although you do draw on experience, Proops said.

      “It has to be about there and the moment you’re there,” he said. “You have to serve that particular audience and that night, especially in our show, since we bring the audience up on stage.

      “You have to be ready to play. You (the audience) have to be ready to play with us.

      “It’s not work.”

      Ah, but it’s a labor of love, Proops said.

      “Whose Line is it Anyway?” started as an English radio show and moved to television, eventually migrating to the United States with its original cast and Drew Carey as host on ABC.

      The program spawned the live touring show, “A Night of Improv,” with four comedy performers and the concept intact: The comedians improvise a skit using themselves, an audience member, a fellow performer or a prop.

      The show is 90 minutes of comedy and song, with the public asked to bring suggestions because they can be asked to join the cast onstage.

      Cast members include Ryan Stiles, who was on “The Drew Carey Show” and is a recurring character on “Two and a Half Men.” He has his own improv theater in Bellingham, Wash.

      The other performers include Chip Esten and Jeff B. Davis, all from the cast of the comedy show. Bob Derkach on piano provides the musical accompaniment.

      Everyone has their own separate careers, including Proops, who does stand-up comedy solo and does a duo with Esten.

      The whole crew gets together several times a year for “A Night of Improv,” sometimes performing with Carey and additional cast members in Las Vegas.

      “I like this one the best,” Proops said of the Salem show. “With four people, there’s a real slamming improv show.

      “With this show you sit for no more than two minutes. It’s very energetic.

      “There’s no time for your mind to wander.”

      Stiles is more or less the head of the group and produces the show.

      “With Ryan, it’s like working with Babe Ruth,” Proops said. “He hits home runs.

      “I think he leads by example. Obviously it’s his bowl of rice. He invites us to go along with him.

      “I really believe he does it because he enjoys performing. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.”

      Proops has done improvisational comedy for both English and American audiences and says there is a difference.

      “When I do it in England it’s with all the English cast and crew, and their audience is extremely well-versed,” Proops said.

      “The English crowds have a little more of an audience ethos. There’s a slight different.

      “They’re always trying to cross me up with an English reference.”

      Oregon is very distinctly Oregon, by contrast, he said.

      “But I like Oregon,” Proops said. “We tour all over, and people are generally very cool (in a good way).

      “There’s not a lot of differences, and that’s the excellent part.”

      Proops, who was born in Phoenix, Ariz., and raised in a San Francisco suburb, studied at San Francisco State University and joined an improv troupe, attracting the attention of the producers of “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” after college.

      “I never took a class, any of that stuff,” he said.

      “I think it’s the crying insecurity, that you need someone to watch you to feel good about yourself. I need to perform.”

      That said, the improv show and stand-up are two different worlds of comedy.

      “Improv is the river, and it has to flow,” Proops said.

      “Stand-up is the laser beam, and I can do what I want.

      “I have serious thoughts occasionally. I use it in my stand-up.”

      Proops always has maintained a busy career of his own and not just in stand-up comedy.

      He is the American voice for the hero of the popular English children’s television show on PBS, “Bob the Builder.”

      “It’s fantastically fun work,” Proops said. “I really enjoy it. I can’t remember anything I said as dialogue; it’s for 2-year-olds.”

      Among other odd voice roles, he was one head of the two-headed character Bede, the pod race announcer in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” Lover Bear in Disney’s film “Brother Bear” and mad scientist Bernard in Pamela Anderson’s animated TV series “Stripperella.”

      Proops also has turned up helping Joan and Melissa Rivers cover the 2006 Oscars and the recent Golden Globes on the TV Guide Channel and helped produce and present “Drew Carey’s Sporting Adventures” on the Travel Channel.

      As a stand-up performer himself, he is sympathetic with “Seinfeld” veteran Michael Richards, who played Kramer, and his now-notorious use of a racial epithet during a stand-up comedy appearance.

      “I don’t believe in censorship of any kind,” Proops said.

      “Michael is a superb comic actor. He got a little upset; what he said was stupid because it wasn’t funny enough.

      “I guarantee there’s been worse stuff than that.”

      “The point of comedy is in some ways to offend people; comedy is as subjective as poetry.”

      Although he has made racial references, it was with a comic point, Proops said.

      “I wouldn’t use racial epithets unless I was massively supporting it with satire,” he said. “One must always keep a measure of control.”

      The audience is advised that the early show of “A Night of Improv,” which is sold out, is generally more family-friendly; the late show can get raunchier.

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