By Jonathan Marlow
August 5, 2005 - 5:47 AM PDT
The Aristocrats is a runaway hit, currently pulling in more per screen than any other movie out there. Jonathan Marlow talks to Penn Jillette about how he and director Paul Provenza came up with the idea and about the origins of the Penn & Teller partnership, his past movies, his radio show... and magic around the world.
You've made a dirty, dirty movie...
Uh huh, yeah...
We talked at Sundance about this but now it's for the record. The notion began at the Peppermill in Las Vegas between you and Paul Provenza. How did you decide to step in as Executive Producer of The Aristocrats?
Well, you know, it's funny. There were no labels at first, we were just two guys making a movie. We talked for hours and hours about improvisation in music and improvisation in comedy, which is where this whole things starts. The dirty part really comes in later, almost as an afterthought. The real substance was the culture of comedy and improvisation, and we talked about that for a long time and we shot lots of it for a long time. Then it got to the point where we put it together. It had to be directed. I'm a nut about things being done by committee, although I've worked in partnerships a lot - probably more than anyone. I don't like anything that leads to compromise. I think the only thing a committee can ever decide on is "beige." So when it became time to make real artistic decisions...
Provenza and Jillette at Sundance
Of course, making the phone calls, who's going to be in the film and also getting the idea for the movie are obviously artistic decisions. Even walking into the room and what questions we ask are artistic decisions, no doubt about that. When it came to stuff that wasn't happening in real time, I guess you could say, it kind of came down to a vision, so to speak. I really didn't want it to be the two of us wrestling together to get something that would please both of us completely. So I said to Provenza, "You be the director and in any sort of disagreement we have, in any push, you automatically win." I was putting the money up, such as it was, not a lot, but I was putting all the money up for it and I was kind of making all the phone calls and getting all the people together and I was kind of leading the interviews. Right when I said Provenza should be the director, at that point, the organization and that stuff fell to me, so I was automatically the producer. As time has gone on, those roles, which seemed so arbitrary and artificial at first, have come to be pretty accurate. Oddly accurate. Provenza wanted the credit to be "a film by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza," because the ideas are so shared. But it certainly is directed by Provenza.
With a "band" this size, so to speak, some soloists are not as good as others. Sarah Silverman, for instance, makes the joke her own by personalizing it, making it simultaneously perverse and sexy. Other people take the joke in a completely different bawdy way. It's quite a... a fiasco.
The audiences now seem to appear to be reacting pretty strongly to it. It had the highest per-screen average of any film released last week!
Of any film released this year! Yeah, it's pretty shocking. We made this movie for comics and, because I have a lot of musician friends, musicians. So we thought it was a movie for comedians and musicians. We showed it to a few more people than that and we discovered that more people are interested in the ideas. It's also a really funny movie, because we have a hundred of the funniest people in the world in it!
That doesn't hurt at all. Let's go back a bit... at what point did you decide to intersect comedy and magic? This goes back to your street performances in Philadelphia with Teller?
That goes way, way, way back. I started out as a juggler. So the intersection of skill and comedy really came before the intersection of magic and comedy. I didn't really have any interest in magic at all. I wasn't really very interested in comedy. I was always really interested in ideas. A lot of times, I would rather hear about a movie than see it. If it has nice, rich ideas, sometimes the ideas are so important that you don't need to see the movie. I'm a real nut about books because I think they are sometimes clearer than the other forms.
Penn & Teller
Teller made a very strong argument, when we first met, that the idea behind magic, which has always in our lifetimes been, "Ooh, if I had real magic powers, this is what I'd do," which is stupid. If you had real magic powers you wouldn't be floating a woman, you'd be curing AIDS and dysentery. That aside, that whole, "I had a little dream last night and this is what it looked like," or, "Ooh, I have super powers! Imagine that!" had no interest to me at all.
Teller said that he thought magic was essentially intellectual because you saw things one way that you knew were actually another. If you put that on the surface as opposed to try to conceal that... You know, other magic acts tell you, "Don't think about how it's done," and we tell you, "Think about nothing but how it's done. Think about nothing but questioning us and being skeptical." That intellectual idea really grabbed me. That's what, I suppose, made me a magician. I already did lots of card stuff. The skills stuff that overlaps with juggling, I already did.
The comedy stuff, when I first started writing as a kid, the juggling stuff, it just seemed that whatever you call comedy... Provenza's very fond of quoting a Michael O'Donahue quote, which I may not get word for word, since I only heard it from Provenza... Michael O'Donahue said, "Laughter is a response to comedy. It's not the only response." I think that's a really important thing. I kind of fell into that area where you can do stuff that is either uproariously funny, slap-your-knee, but goes all the way over to the Andy Kaufman stuff, which is just so darkly intellectual and so quirky and beautiful. Not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, but still in our culture, gets put into comedy. When you get comedy and magic, you've really got a lot of stuff you can do and not fall out of your category.
There's an intelligence in your performances that builds on the advocacy of Harry Houdini, originally, or James Randi, more recently, and others. The idea of exposing the charlatans...
That just seems like such a deep part of the job and really was. I've been doing more reading on this lately and I was surprised to find that Houdini was less alone than I thought. At the time he was working, at the turn of the last century, there were a lot of magicians who sought, as their job, to expose, not only frauds in terms of psychics and so on, but also card cheats and stuff like that. Then, in kind of the later part of the 20th century, that's when it really falls away. When you get to the time we started working, when you get to the 1980s, you've been so informed by the 1960s. You've been so informed by the idea that anything I believe is true is true. All the magicians that wanted to work then kind of cashed in on that instead of thinking about what cultural tools they had to talk to people about cheating and lying and so on.
Was Teller always the silent partner?
Actually, Teller working silently predates anything we ever did together. When we first met, we were two separate acts on the same bill and Teller was working silently. He'd worked through frat parties and tough environments and found that, if he shut up, people would get sick of heckling him, essentially.
He was a close-up magician at the time?
He was doing, you know, small stage stuff. Neither one of us has ever done much close-up, although we're both big fans. We both play around with it an awful lot. I work on card tricks every day but we've never really been performers in close-up.
Penn & Teller
How did the series that you're doing for Showtime, Bullshit, come about? It definitely builds on the realm of exposing the deceivers, in this case, the charlatans of everyday life.
We've been pitching a skeptical TV show for fifteen to twenty years. Ever since Broadway, when people would first listen to us pitch, we'd be pitching a show that would be very skeptical. Every year we would go out and pitch it to four or five networks and every year they would all say no. Or every year they would really say, "Yes, of course. Why don't you do your skeptic show and have one thing that kind of, sort of, could be true, just to give it a cliffhanger." We'd go, "We can't do that." They'd go, "Are you sure of everything?" We'd go, "Well, of course not. But being not sure of everything, the little knowledge that we possess, does not mean we leave the supernatural hanging!"
That argument would go on every year as the executives turned over. We went to different pitches and then finally, Showtime, out of perversity, said, "Well, let's try to do a show that's different from everyone else's." Yeah, it does bleed a little bit. People try to tell us to do stuff that's more social and political. I really don't like to get too far away from things that you can at least in some way, if not prove, at least bring some evidence to. I don't really want to do Libertarianism versus Democrats. You're too much in the realm of "bullshit" automatically then, you know. We try to keep it, although it's not kept strictly to magic tricks, of course, we do try to keep it to things where we can get some empirical handle.
Then you also, not too long ago, did a variation on the same theme as a travel series...
That was quite a while ago, about 2000.
The Magic & Mystery Tour. Fortunately, it's like we're entering a period where we're overwhelmed by Penn & Teller in one way or another. There's a DVD coming out in September of the Magic & Mystery Tour, which I finally had a chance to look at last night. That must have been an adventure, traveling to Egypt, India and China.
It was also really, really hard. The conclusion we drew from that series was not really a conclusion that fit in with the series, which is that the best magic is in the USA! We saw some pretty amazing things. The idea behind it was to see magic that was not performed for tourists but magic that was really part of the culture.
That was the interesting part, getting so far away from... we went to places where... this wacky, nutty cliché, it's so funny to be able to say... we went to places in China where we were the first Caucasian people they had ever seen! My size, when we got 200 clicks out of Beijing, my size became all they could focus on. We had a great deal of trouble getting any interest in any sort of magic with anybody because it was just the fact that I was 6'6". There was nobody in the community really over 5'4". Some of those shots are just amazing. They were saying, we couldn't understand them for a long time, not speaking Chinese and them not speaking English, but they were saying something that they thought we would understand, but we couldn't. Finally, our translator said, "They're saying, 'Michael Jordan.' They think you're Michael Jordon." I felt so good about the United States of America that we have become such a melting pot that, in another part of the world, the differences between Michael Jordan and Penn Jillette are insignificant. I thought, "That's a pretty great thing." It was really great to get that far out of our culture. Especially in China. Well, all of them, China, India and Egypt.
"We have a hundred of the funniest people in the world in it!""It's been a lot of miles of hard road between then and now."
back to past articles
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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