Provenza has long considered himself a “free-speech nut.” In fact, it was his interest in verbal liberties that prompted him to enroll at Penn with an eye toward law school. But the comedic impulse was even stronger.

“Ever since I was about eight years old, I used to watch The Ed Sullivan Show with my grandmother, who was from Italy,” the 48-year-old Provenza says. “After family dinners, we’d sit around and watch. I got hooked in very early. I loved Pat Cooper; he’s in the movie. Larry Storch, Phyllis Diller.”

He performed standup while a student at the Bronx High School of Science, taking the subway to the Improv Comedy Club in Manhattan, where late one night he performed in front of an emcee named Jay Leno.

When it came time for college, Provenza chose Penn (where he expected to major in philosophy with a minor in biology) rather than a school with an established theater-arts program.

“At the time, Penn was just developing a theater-arts program,” he recalls. “I asked what would be necessary to actually wind up with a degree. They told me, and I was able to take a leave of absence and study at the Royal Academy [of Dramatic Art] in London.

“I filled in all the gaps,” he adds. “After endless conversation, it was clear that I was serious. I created my own major. It seemed easier to fight the bureaucracy of Penn than go to a different school. I made tremendous friends and loved writing and performing with Mask & Wig, developing a community of people who were funny and smart and interesting. I wanted to figure out how to make it work.” He became the Wiggers’ artistic director.

“Mask & Wig was pretty special in my life,” he acknowledges. “Great scripts, really funny, interesting people—and of course, you get to dress in women’s clothes. My Mask & Wig buddies and I still are in touch to this day. A huge bunch of them came to The Aristocrats in New York.”

Provenza cobbled together a cadre of clever comrades from Mask & Wig, Quadramics, and the Penn Players.

“I started arranging little shows around Penn,” says Provenza, who lived in the Quad dorm Speakman freshman year. “I’d go to Hill House and say, ‘This lounge is empty on Friday night. Can we do a show here?’ We’d do shows—Ron Darian [C’77 EAS’77], Bob Myer [C’73], and Bob Young [C’74], who went on to write [for television], Bill Grundfest [C’76] who went on to write Mad About You, and a guy named Sam Domsky [C’78 D’82], who is now a dentist in the Philadelphia area.”

The dentist actually provided one of the more significant links to comedy.

“At the time, he was on a comedy team with his friend at Temple Film School, who was Bob Saget,” Provenza recalls. “He came, and we did shows at Hill, and we did shows at Houston Hall.”

Bob Saget, who speaks some of the dirtiest lines in The Aristocrats, recently commented in USA Today: “Sam and his friends went to Penn—I was too dumb to go there and Temple did have a great film program ... Sam and I did comedy in the dorms’ coffee houses, Pagano’s Pizza, and he is part of a group called ‘Mixed Nuts.’ They are truly hilarious and all could have gone into show business but chose to have normal lives and raise families.” (Asked if he had any good dirt on Saget, Provenza responds: “Say hello to him, and you’ll hear a lot of dirt on Bob Saget. He’s always been hilariously filthy.”)

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/28/05

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FEATURE: Is Nothing Profane?