He may not actually be the smartest man in the world, but Greg Proops has a near-photographic memory for the San Francisco comedy scene of the past.
He can recite other comics’ acts from 30 years ago, recalls in detail the drugs ingested for each band he saw at the defunct concert venue Winterland and can describe the Muni bus routes to comedy clubs that have been closed for decades.
“When we had any money, we’d take a taxi,” Proops says. “Because taking a bus to a gig is a real wake-up call to the cold frosty bite of poverty, which we were living in then.”
But for a comedian who so readily embraces the past — “groovy” is still a word he uses often — Proops has adjusted for the present as much as any comedian of his generation. After an eclectic career of stand-up comedy, acting, sketch comedy and voice-over work, his “Smartest Man in the World” podcast has become the center of his comedy universe.
Proops will record an episode live Thursday night, July 20, at the Punch Line — the first of five appearances over three days at the North Beach comedy club.
“I’ve never been happier,” Proops says, during an hour-long San Francisco Chronicle podcast interview. “I don’t have to deal with regular show business as much. I can take it to different places. … I won’t go to a comedy club if they won’t let me do the podcast one of the nights. And some of them are still resistant, if you can believe that at this late date.”
After moving to the Bay Area from Los Angeles in elementary school, Proops spent most of his formative years in San Carlos, where he walked his Chronicle paper route because the streets were too hilly for a bike.
That 1970s gig was a drag — he dropped newspapers off at San Carlos High School first so the girls wouldn’t see him lugging paperboy bags — but he received an early morning radio education with entertaining hosts who included Russ “The Moose” Syracuse and Jim Lange on KSFO.
“(The paper route) made me realize that individual entrepreneurship was going to be my future,” Proops says. “That working for a giant company would not be the way to go.”
As soon as his friends were old enough to drive, he was always drawn to San Francisco. Proops performed at small clubs, including Holy City Zoo starting in 1982; joined the Faultline improv group; and by the 1990s was headlining the biggest San Francisco comedy clubs.
“Nothing was more important to me than headlining here,” Proops says. “I remember doing Comedy Day (in Golden Gate Park) in 1992 and thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve really made it.’”
But the best gig of his young life — a spot on British TV’s “Whose Line is it Anyway?” — was in England. Proops cold-called comedy clubs in England and Scotland, booked a month of shows, and moved to London. That began an eclectic TV and film acting and voice-over career, including the U.S. version of “Whose Line Is it, Anyway?,” voicing the children’s TV character “Bob the Builder,” and appearances on everything from “Flight of the Conchords” to “@midnight.”
Proops lives in Los Angeles now, reliably traveling for stand-up shows in the Bay Area a few times every year, including a late-December residency at the Punch Line that includes New Year’s Eve.
Proops lists the changes in San Francisco since his comedy beginnings, naming a cigar bar, favorite breakfast spot and wife Jennifer’s favorite boutique, all of which recently closed.
“The biggest change, of course, is the tech thing. And that so many places that I love have been douche-canoed beyond measure,” he says. “People stand in line for ice cream in neighborhoods where you once ran to your bus because you don’t want to be stabbed to death.”
But his rants, like his comedy, have a bemused edge to them. Proops embraces the past with a retro personal style and manner of speech, but he doesn’t dwell in it.
“The Smartest Man in the World” began in 2010 with conversations about Ayn Rand, the ACLU and Jerry Brown. The podcast has become his favorite part of his work. He’ll eschew the green room and mingle with the crowd before a podcast show.
“Podcast people are devoted,” Proops says. “They come for a reason. They know why they’re there.”
The podcast fits into his improv-heavy comedy style, where Proops was always comfortable to stay off the rails and riff with the crowd (hecklers beware). Even if you saw his set two nights in a row, it didn’t feel like the exact same act. And his podcast work, even more than his comedy, is filled with stories from his Bay Area comedy roots.
After a half-hour Chronicle podcast interview that stretches into the 65-minute mark, Proops seems to just be getting started.
“We haven’t talked about Days on the Green yet,” Proops laments.
Like so many other subjects, it can wait until next time he comes through town.
Greg Proops: 8 p.m. Thursday, July 20; 8 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. Friday, July 21; 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. Saturday, July 22. $25. Punch Line comedy club. 444 Battery St., S.F. www.punchlinecomedyclub.com
Listen to the entire interview on the Big Event podcast: www.sfchronicle.com/podcasts
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