The Aristocrats comes clean about the fine art of being dirty
An interview with comedian-turned-director Paul Provenza
By Devin D. O'Leary
Stand-up comedian Paul Provenza and his pal, magician Penn Jillette, didn't set out to make the filthiest film ever shot. They simply wanted to gather up a bunch of their show biz friends and document them performing their own twisted take on an infamous, antiquated insider joke, the punch line of which is simply, “The Aristocrats.”
The free-form joke allows comedians to make up pretty much anything they want--the dirtier the better, preferably--with some comedy vets able to stretch the routine to more than an hour in length. In The Aristocrats, audiences are treated to everyone from Robin Williams to Phyllis Diller to Bob Sagat to the kids on “South Park” delivering their own warped versions. Each unique take gives insight into the mind that dreamed it up.
The resulting film (with Provenza as director, Jillette as producer) has generated both controversy and a rabid cult audience. The Alibi took the opportunity to chat with Provenza before the film's nationwide opening.
How did this film come to you? Did it start full-fledged as, "I'm gonna make a documentary about this one joke"?
Pretty close. Penn [Jillette] and I had been fans of this joke. We've heard a million people do it and always found it interesting that it's so vastly different. But that had fallen by the wayside and Penn really got deep into jazz. He's like a major jazz cat now. He plays upright bass in a one-hour preshow jazz show at the Penn & Teller show every night with Mike Jones, one of the greatest bebop piano players in the country. Together they do serious jazz.
When [Penn] started to get into jazz in a big way, we were hanging out and talking like we normally do, very pretentiously, about all kinds of subjects: politics, philosophy, art, pussy, you name it--comedy, music. He's talking about improvisation and he's talking real arcane questions: How much does technique help, how much does it get in the way, what's genuine improvisation, what's recapitulation, etc. I don't know anywhere near as much about jazz as he does, but I was thinking, “You're talking comedy. Everything you're saying is comedy.” We started talking about the similarities between improvisation and comedy and jazz. And then we thought, “You get to hear jazz musicians do the same song, and that's always a cool thing--different interpretations and stuff. You never get to hear comedians do that, because any comedian worth his salt will stay miles away from a joke that somebody else is doing.” So we wanted to know what it would look like if we literally took a “song” and had all these minds of comedy just “blow changes over it,” in the jazz vernacular.
When you went out and started talking to comedians about it, did anyone say, “That's a bad idea. You don't want to do that”?
Well, not about the joke itself. The joke is an inside joke not by any sort of rules. There's no Comedy Illuminati. [Laughs.] They're not going to come hunt us down for revealing the joke.
You hope not.
I hope not! Maybe I don't know about them. It was an inside joke only because it's a safe place in the world of comedy to do a joke like this. The first time you tell this joke outside of an area of like-minded people, you find out pretty quickly it was probably a bad idea. You don't tell this joke over the turkey at Thanksgiving. And if you told it around the water cooler in the office, I think, these days, it's actionable. So it remained an inside joke, because we didn't have to explain ourselves to each other in the world of comedy. Musicians also dig it because it's hung on in the world of music too. A lot of musicians know the joke. Other than that, if you're gonna tell this joke, you gotta be really careful who you're telling it to. So that's why it's a de facto inside joke.
The reason we chose the joke had nothing to do with the fact that it's filthy. That really is very secondary. We chose it because of its structure, because it lends itself to this jazz-like interpretation with that big open middle there. ... That wide-open space meant that anybody could do anything they wanted with it. So that's why we chose the joke. ... There's no other joke that really fits that bill, that's so ubiquitous that everybody knows it and also has this improvisational aspect to it. ...
A real exercise was in examining the idea of the singer, not the song. What makes an artist unique? What is it about all these comedy stars and performers that make them who they are? It's not the joke, so then it's something else. So that was really our exercise.
Of course, the profanity ends up being the top note for some people. That's the thing everybody talks about, but it belies the real stuff that's going on, which--gratefully and life-
At the same time you are fielding some controversy, getting banned in an entire theater chain.
Yeah, but you know, that's been our lives. Ever since I was a kid there was somebody who wanted to get me in trouble because I was having more fun than they were. And our response to this is the same as it's been since we were 10 years old: It's a joke!
Even your advertising makes fun of it: "No Nudity, No Violence, Unspeakable Obscenity."
Yeah, well, that's an obvious thing. But here you have it laid out in such a way that makes it really difficult to avoid. It's not the Sex Pistols. It's not a bunch of people who are ostracized by society and are living in some dark netherworld. This is a movie filled with America's TV dads and people that have made us laugh for years and years and years. And it almost, at some point, seems a bit churlish to get upset about it, because all they're doing is having a good time. Nobody gets hurt. It's just talking heads. That's, of course, the obvious thing about all this nonsense, about the language in the movie. That same theater chain that refused to show us was running Irreversible, that film with about 15 minutes of violent rape depicted in it. They'll run all sorts of things, but a bunch of people telling a dirty joke is too much for them to handle.
It's not some sort of sub-group, some sort of fractionalized, marginalized part of society that's enjoying this movie. Everybody is enjoying this movie. Everybody enjoys a dirty joke. The NASCAR fans, firemen, astrophysicists, Harvard professors: Everybody tells dirty jokes. So, this has turned out to be a perfect sort of moment to engage them in dialogue.
We didn't set out to make a political movie at all, which is perhaps the most political act of all. First of all, we're not fighting for anything with this movie. We already have the right to say whatever the fuck we want. Somebody else has to fight to take that away from us. And we're just going and enjoying and celebrating that freedom in a really joyful way. ... But we didn't set about to make a movie that was controversial or a movie that was alienating. We set about to just say to everybody, “Hey, we're having a grand time here and we are laughing our asses off and you can come and join us if you like.”
How long did the film take you?
We shot for about fours and a half years off and on, because I was off doing my thing and Penn with his show over in Vegas. We did all of this together, we tried to both be present for all the shooting. There's only a couple [scenes] that one or the other of us weren't at. We had to find little bunches of time in between our really busy schedules, and then we had to coordinate that with all these other people's ridiculously busy schedules. You know, they're all working pros; good luck finding them in the same place at the same time. We'd go for a month not working on [the film] and then all of a sudden Penn would have a week and a half off and I would arrange a week and a half off, and we'd get as many people together in that time as we could based on their schedules.
That's one of the things that's kind of a happy outcome about it: While it looks like a kind of encyclopedic look at the world of stand-up comedy, it's actually quite haphazard. Because of the reality of timing and schedule and access, a lot of really good friends of mine who are really big stars right now, I couldn't even get to them. It's layers of managers and publicists to go through to just get in touch with somebody, and then finding out they're in Europe. ... So most of the people in the movie are people that we just called directly ourselves or just ran into. Like Chris Rock, I ran into him one night; he was working at the Comedy Cellar in New York and I told him about it and he was like, “Yeah, sure I'd love to.” That was another two and a half years before we were able to get him in the can because his schedule was so crazy.
How hard was it finding an editor who didn't want to kill you?
He [editor Emery Emery] is a friend of a friend. He's a comedian. I never actually heard of him, never worked with him. When we did meet, we hit it off right away. Five minutes into our conversation, I found out that he was editing and I just went boing! “Oh my god, you mean I can sit in the editing room with another comic and look at this stuff?”
The real direction of the movie happened in the editing room. That's when we took 140 hours of footage and tried to make sense of what was happening. The footage for each individual person was very funny and really interesting, compelling; everybody had some really great things to say. What did it all mean? What did all those people together say? In looking at all the footage over and over and over and trying to intuit what's going on, I ended up transcribing it all myself so that I was intimately knowledgeable about all the footage. To this day, Emery says I'm like Rainman. To this day, he can mention a line and I can tell him exactly who said it and where on the footage it is. And in that process, I started to get a sense of ideas that were emerging in contrast, ideas that were emerging in concert and certain things coming up over and over again. When we sat down to edit it, we decided that we would cut for those ideas. We weren't cutting for the comedy per se. We had an embarrassment of riches in terms of funny stuff. We actually made some choices where we put some stuff in by people which wasn't necessarily as funny as other material that they had done for us, but it revealed more about a certain idea or illustrated something a little more clearly.
Were all the participants friends or did people came out of the woodwork to be involved once you started?
It's funny, the whole process was kind of like this series of concentric rings. We started with our inner circle of close friends, all people we were very friendly with, saying, “Hey, you wanna do this documentary thing?” We were getting such interesting responses and we were getting such great stuff that we started saying, “Let's get in touch with people we don't know that well and see what happens.” So we started calling our acquaintances and our comedy friends. They started getting on board, and then we started calling people that we didn't really know at all just out of the blue. And the response from them was so phenomenal, we ended up becoming friendly with a lot of other people. Then an interesting thing started to happen: We'd get a phone call from somebody saying, “Hey, I heard you were doing this thing. Boy, I'd really love to do it, it sounds like fun.” We had people auditioning on our answering machine, going, “Can I do it? I got a good version.”
A great example is Eric Idle. We're shooting Eric Idle and Eric's like, “Has Billy Connolly done this?” And we're like, “We don't know Billy.” And he was like, “Oh, Billy would love this.” So he calls Billy and three days later we're shooting Billy Connolly. It was too much. They're both gifted and have so many cool things to say. It was almost like what happens when you start doing comedy and you start to get to know people. People pick up on it and you find your circle widening and you find yourself with more and more interesting and different kinds of people.
The bond that we [stand-up comedians] have is meeting people who have gone onstage and engaged in this process with an audience. It really is unique. And it's different from any other performing art because you're talking, you're not just reciting lines from a play, you're not dancing, you don't have music to help you through it. It's just you and your mouth and your mind. And it really is a very vulnerable thing. Everything we say and do, we end up getting taken to task for. So it's almost like guys who served in the trenches in World War I: It doesn't matter if you were in the same division, if you knew any of the same guys, you just go, “Oh, you were in the south of France? I was in Russia.”
The Aristocrats opens in theaters on Friday.
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