Guarantee: You won’t see a film funnier than The Aristocrats released in 2005. The premise is deceptive, and looks rotten on paper: One hundred comedians are filmed performing and discussing the filthiest joke in the world, known as The Aristocrats. Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, who made the film, understood that the reality would transcend the concept, and they have put together a hilarious film that is also a fascinating look at the very nature of comedy and what is funny. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The two sat down with some select New York City press on Monday. Penn’s a big guy – I’ve seen him perform with Penn and Teller a couple of times, and had briefly met him, but it’s not until you’re sitting next to him for a half hour and your hand disappears into his (and he grabs his balls and shakes them at you) that you realize how big the guy is. And it’s when you’ve been listening to him talk for a while that you realize why Teller is silent – he has no other option.
Paul Provenza managed to hold his own, though. The stand-up comic and actor (remember his stint on Northern Exposure?) gave Penn plenty of space when he was getting steam built up, but he was always able to get his two cents in as well.
At this point I’ve done a lot of roundtables and one on ones for CHUD. Everytime I start to get jaded and bored with the whole thing, I end up at an interview like this one. I hope you enjoy it.
And by the way, to get the full The Aristocrats experience, check out this filthy, nasty soundboard, with clips from the various tellings of the joke (you can get a glimpse of how brilliant Bob Saget’s version is): http://www.thearistocrats.com/soundboard/
Q: The film is directed by Paul, but Penn worked on it as well. How does the directorial aspect of this work?
Provenza: It was a fist fight.We worked it out by way of sheer force.
Jillette: And he brought a knife.
Provenza: Penn and I conceived it together and Penn’s sheer artistry and integrity and passion are rife throughout it. It just seemed like it was a film by the two of us from moment one.
Jillette: I have a strong feeling that one thing that’s wrong with most of the movies I hate is that they’re done by committee. All a committee could ever agree on was beige. I wanted to make sure that there was no doubt that, if push came to shove, it would be one person’s vision and not a compromise and not something else. I said very early on that any disagreement we had, Provenza would win. Automatically. Even if we couldn’t articulate what was wrong.
Penn and Teller have a different relationship. We work through everything and make sure we agree on everything all the way through. I didn’t think that was right for this, so my deal was different here. I said I would give my opinions, talk to Provenza, but any time he said, “Ehhh,” the decision would be Provenza’s.
Q: How did you know you had enough material?
Jillette: Apparently we didn’t, we shot 140 hours! That’s a ratio that I think is worse than Apocalypse Now, isn’t it, in terms of how much shows up on screen? And we almost killed Harvey Keitel doing this movie as well.
We shot 140 hours and then, if you have any doubt the kind of person you are honored to be in a room with, Paul Provenza went through all 140 hours on his iBook. He transcribed every word of it himself, and in doing so memorized it, and kind of juggled around that 140 hours until he spit out the 89 minutes that were in the movie.
Provenza: I took a lot of showers and had a lot of fever dreams. You look at this stuff non-stop for months on end, it’ll warp you.
Q: That sounds like an editing nightmare. How do you take that stuff and make it work?
Jillette: 18 months, wasn’t it?
Provenza: Yeah, about. Emory Emory, who I edited this with, is a terrific editor and also a stand up comedian, so we had a lot of shorthand. It was quite wonderful. We actually cut a lot of the comedy with our eyes closed. We wanted to listen to the rhythm of it, the music of it. Once it actually sounded like what it was supposed to be, I’d turn to Emory and go, “I’m gonna get lunch, you make the picture work.”
The interesting thing also about cutting it is that we had to cut it for a 90 minute film, it had to forward moving, the ideas had to emerge in the proper ways, we had to have the proper pacing and flow, yet we still had to maintain the integrity of the original performer. We didn’t want to compromise anyone’s rhythm or pace or style in any way. It was this elaborate three dimensional chess game. But boy it was fun. And very revealing. I started to figure things out about the way people worked that I didn’t understand previously. I learned a lot.
Q: Was there anyone you wish you had been able to get for the film?
Jillette: There’s two answers to that question. We didn’t find out why people didn’t do it. We asked people we knew, told them about the project and the people that said yes right away are the ones that are in the movie. The ones that said I’ll get back to ya, we never called back. If you’re inviting people to a fun party to monkey around – we’re not procuring talent like a desperate studio that’s about to go under. We’re just a couple of guys with regular cameras and we could afford to say, OK, no.
That being said, there were 40 people that wanted to do it, and we wanted to have do it and were all set to go but we have other jobs. Provenza’s touring, doing stand up, doing acting, all this other stuff; I have the magic show in Vegas. We weren’t able to get to Lorne Michaels, Mike Nichols, Stiller and Meara, Conan O’Brian. They were all on the list of, Yeah, let’s go, but we couldn’t do them.
And then there were the heartbreakers. I called Buddy Hackett. Buddy Hackett understood it faster than we did. He gave three or four versions of the joke, he told other jokes, he cheered for us and said it was great and then he said, “I’m old and sick, I can’t do this.” That’s a heartbreaker. Rodney Dangerfield, the same day, the same hotel room, on the road, on the phone, right after Buddy Hackett just brought me to tears with how great he was and how great he was for this project – Rodney Dangerfield did the same thing. He gave two or three versions. I’m not the kind of scumbag like Michael Moore who tapes all my conversations or they probably would have given permission to put that in. But that wouldn’t have been right either, that’s not the right spirit.
And then Johnny Carson – and this was his favorite joke. I was writing him emails and he was just digging it, and talking about it, and we had a date to show it to him right after Sundance. He wanted to see the DVD. Many people in the movie talk about Carson being the one who told them, they just loved it. I didn’t ask him to be in it because he was retired. That would be showing disrespect for decisions he had made. He didn’t retire like some people retire – he just retired. As classy as a man has ever been. You don’t need me to tell you how great Johnny Carson is.
So Johnny Carson, Buddy Hackett, Rodney Dangerfield are in this movie in our hearts. We just don’t have any footage of them.
Q: How do you feel about AMC banning the film?
Jillette: The guy at AMC is an unsuccessful PT Barnum, Houdini guy who wanted to use the press to get himself a little ink. It’s just pathetic. He thought we’d play along. He thought, “OK, I’ll be the beacon of moral judgement and you guys be the oppressed artists and we’ll have this little feud and have a good time.” That’s all said in his press release in code, and you guys all saw it. It’s this pathetic hand job of trying to say, “Look how important I am.”
He picked a movie – the only movie – that doesn’t have a studio behind it. He wouldn’t say, “I’m not showing War of the Worlds because it burlesques 9/11,” because Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg and the company will take him down. They can do it easily.
Provenza: “We can’t have this dirty joke movie, we have to have room on our screens for Irreversible, with depictions of violent anal rape.”
Jillette: It’s just transparent and it’s pathetic. It will hurt us a little bit financially because you shouldn’t drive an hour to see a movie, and AMC does have some cities where they have the theater. People shouldn’t have to drive that far to see a movie, they’ll see it on DVD. But to try and pretend, for people to use the words banned and censored, is offensive to all the people of the United States of America. This isn’t a government issue.
There’s nothing more American than the dirty joke. George W Bush tells dirty jokes, he tells them to Kinky Friedman, and Kinky tells them to me. I get them second hand. NASCAR drivers tell dirty jokes. Every Fourth of July barbecue in this great country of ours had dirty jokes told over it. “Hey listen, while these wieners are cooking, come over here. These guys walk into a bar…” That’s happening all over. It’s everybody’s job to use everything they can to sell a movie, but I have too much respect for PT Barnum and Houdini to watch this dickless wonder in Kansas City try to play their game and play it badly.
I think we have to very clearly, for political reasons and for moral reasons, state what happened and not go with his hype and his word “banned.” What actually happened was a needle dicked man with sexual dysfunction, desperate for attention, tried to destroy the greatest filmmakers of the 21st century and failed.
Provenza: It’s important not to exaggerate.
Jillette: Can we just say that? Without emotion. No emotion whatsoever. Can we just have the press state that without hype? That’s all that happened.
Provenza: And it’s just a rumor about the Ebola in the popcorn.
Jillette: Yeah, that’s not true! Journalists in the other room said there was some horrible sickness at AMC theaters and some scientist has named it Ebola-AMC. That’s what a guy said in the other room.
Provenza: We would never throw that out there.
Jillette: No! If people want to go to a theater where the popcorn can make them desperately ill, that’s their right in America, isn’t it?
Provenza: That’s what makes this country great.
Jillette: He’s a shopkeeper. He’s a mercantile shopkeeper, to be redundant, who has his little shops and now he says, “Oh I’m not carrying olives!” And the country goes, “Good for you!”
Provenza: And in the joke they take olives and shove them up his ass.
Jillette: Full sized ones.
Provenza: Which I think are called extra large.
The whole rightward Christian swing and all that stuff – it’s really interesting. You guys are media –
Jillette: Don’t call them that to their faces.
Provenza: It’s all your fault really. It isn’t really true. It’s a propaganda thing and by pushing forward the notion that this Fundamentalist swing and this Christian agenda is catching hold, people are self-censoring and artists are worrying and people are holding back and not celebrating the freedom that exists. It’s not true! If any of that agenda were true, pure and simple, when you check into a hotel room how come the porn is $9.99 and they give you the fucking Bible for free. That gives you everything you need to know about what’s going on.
Jillette: Eminem had the top album in the country last year. There’s no censorship. The rap guys are running with it and doing great. You have ten thousand people on the Christian Right who like to write letters and you have a hundred thousand people in Hollywood who want to feel like they’re Lenny Bruce, who want to feel like, “Oh we’re being oppressed.” The truth is they’re only oppressing themselves and the truth is those ten thousand people are only writing letters to each other.
I get so disgusted with people who say, “You know the people of France were laughing at us for that whole Janet Jackson Superbowl thing.” Well guess what? All of America was laughing at it! It’s at most one Nielsen rating point that are playing this game and the rest of us really do live in the land of the free and assume freedom of speech. There is no way we’ll say, “Oh we’re victims, this is the movie that can’t be seen!” The fact is it can be seen easily and the fact is you’re talking to us and the fact is it’s not rated because Dan Glickman said the MPAA was voluntary and – we believed him!
The MPAA is just a cartel of mediocrity.
Q: At the beginning of the movie you say that it wasn’t initially meant to be a political movie, but it evokes politics by its very nature.
Provenza: We set out to just have a great time with some really funny friends telling a really filthy joke and anybody who likes that sort of thing is welcome to come and join us. We’re not trying to change anybody’s mind. There are a lot of people for whom this is not their cup of tea, and you know what? We have no quibble with that. My mom would not enjoy this movie.
Jillette: My sister. They shouldn’t see it.
Provenza: This is just something for people who like this kind of thing, and that’s that. We didn’t set out to do something political. Of course we weren’t so naïve to think that somebody wouldn’t take this and use it for their own agenda because that’s the way those people operate. But for us it’s just sitting around having great, great laughs.
Jillette: There’s nothing more political than assuming freedom of speech. Fighting for freedom of speech is not nearly as political as what the rap guys are doing, which is just assuming freedom of speech. The hip hop guys are the guys who just say, “Oh, we have freedom of speech.” They don’t fight for it, they don’t argue about it, they don’t say anything. Eminem, 50 Cent, those guys don’t sit around going, “How do we get with the ACLU?” They just have the #1 record say anything they want and we should all just stand up and cheer.
I mean, this is really the Founding Fathers’ dream coming true, that AMC can choose not show it and we can have it seen anyway. The marketplace of ideas is doing so well and freedom of speech in this country is not in any way sick. The Christian Right in this country is desperate. They’re losing people, the whole religious movement is going away after 9/11. The non-religious population of this country is over 20% – that’s astonishing. When a group like that, that has been so powerful in the past, starts to lose power – whether they’re Christians or Muslims or Jews, if anyone can still tell the difference – as they get desperate they clutch. When they clutch it’s not pretty but it’s not a danger.
Q: The AMC guy is trying to take the moral high ground on this, but do you have any indication that the people in the Midwest object to the film?
Jillette: NO! We’ve had screenings in Hollywood, we’ve had screenings in New York, and they go great. We’ve had screenings in Texas –
Provenza: One of the best screenings we had was in Texas and in Columbus, Ohio. The press there has been saying things like it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s been quite the opposite, and that’s why somebody makes a fuss. If it did come and go, or as Michael Medved says, “I refuse to be outraged!” And we say, “Perfect!” Ooh, he really showed us.
Jillette: I’m just sick to death of the two coasts treating the rest of this country like they were idiots. We are the best educated, we are the most free, we are the most technologically and morally advanced people that have ever lived on the planet. Not to the exclusion of the rest of the world, that’s where we are in terms of modern thought. I’ve sat in so many rooms with guys in Hollywood who say, “Yeah, this is a fine idea for you and me Penn, but when you get to those idiots in the Midwest-“ and I go, “Oh by idiot you mean guys who can fix cars, program machine code and do surgery? Those are the idiots and we in this room, who can’t do anything, we’re the ones that are –“ The fact of the matter is that if you go to, pick whatever state you want to use when you express your racism – which is what you use when you use horrible terms like white trash and redneck – Pick that state-
Provenza: The “flyover states.”
Jillette: And go to that state and see how long it takes you to find someone smarter and hipper than you. I bet it doesn’t take more than ten minutes. They’re everywhere.
Q: Let’s talk about racism for a minute. The screening of The Aristocrats that I saw was here in New York, and the audience was going nuts. I thought you guys were going to actually cause this one old lady to die, she was laughing so hard. Then the film gets to the part where some comics tell racially tinged versions of the joke, and you could feel the audience seemed to take a step back, and maybe not laugh as hard.
Provenza: That brings up a really interesting point. One of the greatest forces in censorship – I’m using the term a little more colloquially than Penn likes it used – but one of the greatest contributors to forcing people to compromise their visions and their words is the liberal left. PC doctrine is the most offensive thing to comedians ever. It’s more offensive than if the government stopped us from doing something, because then we would have something specific to rail against.
That notion of the PC doctrine is just the kiss of death for any art, period, case closed. Of course it’s phenomenally well intended, no question about it. Perhaps that’s why you saw that reaction. But the truth is, to varying degrees, that’s a point in the movie where a lot of things gets challenged. It suddenly becomes not so funny for a lot of people when they’re forced to address – after this tirade, after this marathon of offensive ideas and thoughts – where they think they have no boundaries anymore and then something happens and it gets very, very interesting. It’s by design at that point in the film, because we’ve given you everything you need and now you have to second guess what it is that you’re feeling.
Jillette: The point of the movie is not that you shouldn’t have boundaries. Not at all. The point of the movie is that you should be aware of them, and play with them, and see what words can do.
Provenza: It’s interesting to find out what they are.
Jillette: The great thing about the AMC guy is his statement – albeit by an unsophisticated, mentally challenged guy – is a celebration of words. He has got a movie with no depictions of violence, no nudity, no sex at all, just people talking. And how refreshing is that? This is the same stuff you heard from Henry Miller. And the fact that words, after he has shown in his chain very clear depictions of violent rape, after he has shown that, how cool is it that just words can still do that? The Founding Fathers knew that words were this powerful and they still are, and in a great way this fool, this uneducated idiot, is at least telling the rest of us, “Words mean something to me.” That’s great.
And the fact that the audience can go from laughing hysterically to “Well, I don’t really know,” and it’s just words is a really beautiful thing. It shows us, especially the people sitting here who write for a living, that words still mean something. You’ve had a lot of Marshall McLuhan and people like that telling you they didn’t – and they still do.
Q: What are your boundaries?
Jillette: I have a ton of them. I don’t like anything to do with alcohol or drugs. I don’t like anything that glorifies that in any way. Anybody talking about getting drunk really bothers me, really makes me very uncomfortable. I have huge boundaries on religion. That sets me off more than anything. When anyone acts like it’s OK to have an imaginary friend –just a simple “God bless you” after a sneeze makes me apoplectic, and I think it’s pretty clear to Provenza that I’m not exaggerating.
Provenza: Luckily we’re on the same page.
Jillette: I have judgmental moral boundaries on all sorts of things. But then above that I will, even with those feelings, I will read the Bible, and I will read all sorts of Christian philosophers and Muslim philosophers and Jewish philosophers and Zen because I’m very interested in the way that side thinks. I think words are ways to deal with ideas that are very offensive to you, and to try and learn more about them. I will read about drugs and alcohol, but I don’t do them. I won’t even have a sip of beer, but I read Charles Bukowski. It’s words coming across those boundaries that make us civilized, and what was the idea of the Founding Fathers, which was to allow words to flow freely while still keeping boundaries for actions is a brilliant and wonderful idea that I think makes my life worth living.
Provenza: The specifics of my boundaries are different, but I also have very hard and fast boundaries. I’m proud of them and I think they’re decent and forward-thinking, but in art I have zero boundaries. Zero.
Q: South Park references 9/11 in their version of the Aristocrats joke – [check that out by clicking here]
Provenza: And Taylor Negron references January 3rd.
Jillette: And of course the whole Friar’s Club deals with that subject.
Q: Now, there are some people in New York who, even in a hundred years, will never think that’s appropriate, while some will think it’s hilarious –
Jillette: We deal with that very clearly. My interpretation of the movie is on a different side than perhaps yours is. I don’t think there’s any sort of, “We’ve gotten over this horror and now we can laugh at it.” I don’t think the movie makes any kind of statement like that at all, it’s just once again saying, “That’s real, this is art. That’s real, these are words.” Saying something about 9/11 is not the same as piloting the planes.
Q: By talking about bestiality, by talking about fathers fucking their sons –
Provenza: I have to tell you, when you say that, it gets me a little hot.
Q: I have a very sultry voice. There’s a belief that just talking about this stuff relieves some of the pressure people feel about the subjects.
Jillette: There have been so many studies trying to prove that, whether you’re talking about pornography or whether you’re talking about words (not that those are necessarily different things) or whether you’re talking about violence depicted on TV, there have been a zillion things on both sides that try to show that it gets people jaded to that and more open to actually engaging in things that are socially reprehensible. But there is a whole other side saying that’s cathartic, and that after you’ve done that you’ve opened it up to talk. Everything we’ve read –and I’ve tried to read a lot of this. I’m the only one who read the whole Meese report on pornography, all 900 pages. I read every word. I read all the stuff that comes out and it really seems like art and reality are two different things and don’t bleed.
You can get people who edit zombie films for 20 years of their life and they see a kid fall and scrape his elbow and they run to help just as quickly. And they’re just as bothered by it and also they’re not any more apt to help. We care about other people, and art is another thing.
Provenza: All that stuff just gets my goat. Everything that’s going on – we keep being treated like retarded 6 year olds. Give us a little more credit.