By Sean Axmaker
January 24, 2006 - 12:23 AM PST
Paul Provenza doesn't actually get every American comedian to tell (or at least comment on) the filthiest joke in the world in The Aristocrats. It just seems like it. Comedians as diverse as Robin Williams and Steven Wright, Sarah Silverman and Tim Conway, Phyllis Diller and Drew Carey happily participate in Provenza's documentary (which he produced with Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame). In fact, the most glaring omission seems to be Provenza himself. "I like to think that this film is my version of the joke," is how he explains his absence in the documentary.
The Aristocrats is ostensibly a film about the filthiest joke in world, a kind of underground classic that comedians have told each other, each trying to top the other in increasingly outrageous and extreme improvisations. It's really about the creative process of comedians, as well a barometer of what audiences themselves find offensive and taboo. The tagline on the poster tells it all: "No Nudity. No Violence. Unspeakable Obscenity."
I sat down with comedian, actor and now director Paul Provenza the day before his film was to play at the Seattle International Film Festival. Since its successful Sundance premiere, Provenza spent much of 2005 on a barnstorming publicity tour in support of the film. I had caught him on his lunch break, but he invited me to sit down anyway. He shared his macaroni and cheese with me, I lobbed a few smart remarks his way (everyone's a comedian), and the conversation slowly came around to an actual interview. The following transcription doesn't begin to reflect how many times he cracked up everyone in the room, not to mention every time he laughed (I take immense pride in the fact that I made him crack up, though it became obvious he's an easy audience; Paul Provenza is a man who lives to laugh). But it does reveal his very serious approach to the art of comedy and creativity, and how much fun he had getting it made.
Why would anybody make a documentary about one joke?
You know, I really should have a pat answer for this.
Surely this isn't the first time you've been asked this?
It's not really about that joke. It's about creativity and it's about art and it's about all those things I really shouldn't say it's about. This joke was really just a way to express an idea. When you hear the joke more than a couple of times by different people, you start to get a sense that this demonstrates something, and we always talked about exploring that idea. This joke is the perfect joke to do it with because of the improvisational hunk in the middle and the fact that it's a simple structure and also the fact that so many comedians know it but it's not part of anyone's act. It's a level playing field. That's really what's it about. The joke was really just a way to explore these other things. We knew some cool shit would happen cause it's the filthiest joke in the world, but that's not the reason we did it.
It certainly did add the enjoyment of it and the notoriety of the documentary.
Yeah, but that really just came along with it. The most important thing that emerged was, by making it this joke and the fact that this joke is the filthiest joke in the world, it sort of freed people. It just broke down all the barriers and so people were a lot looser. When you're told you can make a mess, who knows what kind of creativity can happen. And the other thing that came up was the notion of what it is that makes something offensive and not offensive. All those other layers of ideas about why are you're offended sitting there watching this or why we don't tell everybody this joke and just keep it amongst comedians - because we don't know how people are going to react. The things that come up from that are kind of interesting.
What effect did Gilbert Gottfried, who very famously "outed" the joke when he broke it at the Friar's Club Roast, have on the documentary?
Actually, for the record, we had been working on this before that and had shot Gilbert in private doing the joke about a month before September 11th. It may have informed his choice of pulling that joke out since he had been facile with it three weeks after September 11th. And also don't forget that the Friar's Roast is not really public.
And it was being shot for television, but obviously that joke didn't make it into the broadcast.
That joke was not going anywhere. [laughs] The other thing, it's not really a "secret" secret. It's not like anyone said, "Don't tell anybody." It became an unofficial inside joke just because you really go out on a limb when you tell this joke and you kind of want to make sure you don't have problems, so it wound up staying in the world. But when people say, "Are you violating some kind of code when you give it away?," nobody really thought about it that much. It just kind of pops up and down in people's lives. It's not like we're going to be hunted down by some comedy illuminati. The truth is that I don't know a comedian that wouldn't be happier to live in a world where everyone got the Aristocrat's joke. That's what we all want. We want to be able to have people understand just exactly why this is so funny. So it's not like we're really giving away any secrets.
It's unusual that it's not really a punchline joke. Except when Drew Carey tells it.
It's about the journey, which is what everything is about. Like Billy Connolly says: "Sometimes the punchline's in the middle, sometimes it's at the end, sometimes it's at the beginning. Who cares where the punchline is, just sit back and enjoy it." That's really what it is, it's about the journey. I love that someone comments on how we're so conditioned to sitcom humor, where it's set up-punchline, set up-punchline, that people forget that it's not... It's like saying painting has to be a particular type or everything has to go left to right in a painting or some bullshit. Huh? What?!
When Bob Saget told the joke, he walked out before he even got to the punchline. I'm sure many people who watched the movie never even noticed, because that wasn't the joke.
That's right, it's not about that. Sometimes it's about, like, what happens when Gilbert does it; it's about how people react to it. That becomes part of the joke. It becomes an Andy Kaufman-esque kind of thing where the joke becomes the fact that this person is going, "Stop, already!" It operates on different levels. It just kind of blows out the edges of the canvas.
So how long did you work on this film?
Four years. Four and a half, actually.
How much of that was editing and trying to create the structure that you came up with?
About a year and a half, non-stop. In a spider hole.
That must have been the hardest part. You have all this raw material, how do you actually create a structure that gives people a journey in the documentary the way the joke gives its own a journey?
That's where directing really happens, in the editing room. We had a hundred and fifty hours in the can and we still didn't know what the movie was. So, yeah, it was all about the editing, and Emery Emery, who edited this with me, is also a stand-up [comedian]. I felt like it was really important to have another comedy vibe in the editing room. First of all, because it's way easier to communicate shit about timing and rhythm to another comic, but also because it was all organic. We just watched shit over and over and put things together and we would all of sudden watch something we put together and just sit back and talk about it for a day or two days. What's that about? Where's that going? It was a complete process of discovery. We had no idea what we were doing until it started telling us what it was supposed to be.
And then we started dealing with the technical things: keep it moving forward, give it a nice pace and rhythm, find where the peaks and valleys are, figure out how to transition from one idea to another, and then, from within all of that, maintain the integrity of the individual performers' rhythm and pace and their personalities and not let those get compromised for the sake of the overall rhythm and pacing. That was really, really challenging. It was so fascinating. We learned so much about everybody.
What's the comedians' reaction been to it?
They, like most people who hear about the movie, were like, "How can you possibly do this?" So it's been really cool to see them turn around and say, "Oh my God, you did it!" They really loved being a part of it and they all get that it's a love letter to the art form and creativity and individuality. Everybody's treated with consummate respect and there is no difference between Robin Williams and Gregg Rogell. Everybody is given the respect of an artist and they all get that and that's really important.
One of the things that intrigues me is that the joke turns the comedians into storytellers and then they just go off on their own. How many actually rehearsed that joke and how many of them just flew with it?
I can tell you that there are only two people I know of that actually rehearse it. And the fact that they rehearsed it and how it came out as they rehearsed it is part of an idea and they fit perfectly into it because of that. But for the most part, nobody rehearsed it. In fact, a lot of really interesting things happened on the spur of the moment. For example, when we were going to shoot Steven Wright, his key card wasn't working in his hotel room door, so his girlfriend said, "I'll go down to the front desk and get another key card." But it was Las Vegas, which is like a 45-minute trip to go from your room through a mile and a half of slot machines to the front desk and then back again. So we're waiting in the hallway, waiting in the hallway and time's going, and he's got other stuff to do, so I said, "What if I put you at the end of the hallway and just shoot you down the hallway?" And he goes, "Oh, that would be cool, kind of like The Shining." [laughter] So he went down to the end of the hall and that's probably why his version is what it is. Very much like The Shining. It's very psychotically violent.
And you have comedians who have never heard the joke as well.
It's weird. It's not like some hard and fast rule that's part of your licensing to be a comedian. Paul Reiser was telling me that Nathan Lane had never heard the joke. Nathan Lane is a font of old jokes and he had never heard the joke. It was a weird thing. I think Kevin Pollack said that he had never heard the joke, which is surprising, and then you turn around to somebody else, like Billy Connolly, and it's like, "Oh my God, that joke changed my life."
Were there comedians or people that you wanted to get in but were not able to?
Johnny Carson. It was his favorite joke. It's legend how much Johnny loved this joke. In fact, Buddy Hackett did it on his show once on commercial break and timed the punchline just in time when they came back, and so for the next five minutes you just see Johnny losing it and the audience going absolutely nuts and that's all your seeing on camera, people laughing hysterically. Johnny just loved the joke and we had asked him if he would do it, and he said that he thought it was a great idea, he would love to see the movie, but that when he retired he really retired, and it's true. The only other time he was on camera since he retired was when he was honored at the Kennedy Center. But he really wanted to see it, so we had arranged to show it to him after Sundance and he died while we were at Sundance. Which is why the movie's dedicated to him, among other reasons. So Johnny's a big one. And also Buddy Hackett, who was very sick and died while we were shooting.
Steve Martin went from saying yes to saying no, saying yes, saying no, back and forth again, but he's one of the few people that we asked that we ever asked twice. One of the caveats we gave ourselves was to not convince anybody to do it. We wanted everybody to really want to do it. So if somebody said, "I'll think about it," or somebody said, "Call back next week," we just never called back. Except for Steve Martin, because a lot of his friends were telling us that they were telling him to do it, that he should it, he would really have a great time. So he would call back and say, "Yes," and then he would call back and say, "No" again.
We really didn't want to have to convince anybody. We wanted everybody to want to do it and I think that really comes through in the movie. I think you're seeing everybody having a great time, even people who don't like it, like Pat Cooper and Richard Lewis and Bill Maher. They hate the joke, they thought we were crazy for even doing this. So we said, "Well, you can just do that," and they went, "Okay," because we thought that's exactly what we should have, people really being genuine. So it turns out that the people who think we were idiots were actually so fuckin' funny about the fact that they thought we were idiots that they made it work, so the joke's on them.
Was Bob Saget torn at all about wanting to tell the joke, knowing his reputation as a television actor, but also knowing his reputation on the college comedy circuit, where he's known as being particular foul?
The joke is not that Saget is foul, the joke is that people think that Saget is anything like Full House or America's Funniest Home Videos. He's been trying to kill that dragon for years. He says he thinks this is the first time he's ever really been captured on camera. I said that's because there are laws against this kind of thing.
But he had no qualms, he was totally into it. He thought it would be a blast. He called me the other day and he said, "This is incredible, what's going on between the notices I'm getting in this play [the off-Broadway production Privilege] and everybody calling me saying, 'Oh my God, you're so funny in The Aristocrats, we had no idea, now we like you, we used to hate you,' and all that stuff." He's like, "I don't know what to do, it feels like all my dreams have died, I need a new dream. I know, I'll tea bag the new Pope." [breaks up the room] He really is fucking hilarious.
I hear you guys cracking up off camera all the time throughout the documentary.
We really were just hanging out. We weren't actually making a movie at any point through this process. We never set up any lengths, we never had any pretense of actually making a movie, so we just cracked up at the shit that made us laugh, had a lot of conversations and stuff like that.
America's Funniest Comedian's Home Videos.
Pretty much. Which is why, you know, sometimes when you read a review that talks about it - it's shot really poorly and lit really horribly and all that - you just go, well, yeah. Some of these things we just have to get in and out in fifteen minutes because they had another show or they had to get to the airport or something like that, and for some of it we had all day to hang out. We thought whatever we sacrifice by not having perfect lighting, we gain by not having perfect lighting, by not caring about that. Everybody's guard would break down. I guess it's kind of obvious, but to actually experience the difference was really, really interesting. A lot of people would start and be like... like Whoopi. We went in to do Whoopi and Whoopi had prepared something, a very presentational sort of thing, and we didn't use any of that in the movie. But eventually it all broke down and she started hanging out and talking about, "Well, what I would do is this." So I say in the movie, "Well, why don't you do that?," and she does and, you know, that's a half hour later.
It really is without artifice; it really is just hanging out. Nobody's got an agenda, nobody's trying to sell anything, nobody's trying to look good, everybody's just doing their thing, just trusting us. We took that really, really seriously. We didn't want to violate anybody's trust, we didn't want to take advantage of something that somebody had said or done, that if we slightly altered the context would be a great thing for us. And you'll see that on the DVD. You'll see the context that everybody was in and it's amazing, because we're really just showing all of our cards. When you see the time we spent with each individual, you get the complete context and everything becomes clearer.
It's a real window into the way these people see humor, to the way they tell jokes. It's like it captures their entire essence of storytelling in one story.
I think so and it's because we didn't ask them to do that. We just asked them to tell the joke or talk about the joke and then just be who they are in that context and all that other stuff gets revealed. And by the time you get as many people as we got involved, you get this cumulative effect of, "Wow, this is what it's like to be in this world and these are the things they concern themselves with and these are the things they don't concern themselves with," and it proves to be really revealing, I think. So it's not really be about this joke. Yes it is, very much - I feel it's safe to say it's the definitive work on this joke - but it's really not about this joke. The joke is just really a way to find all the stuff that we didn't know we wanted to find, but we knew we'd find something.
Can this joke really make it's own gravy?
It depends on who's telling it. Carlin's version sure does, doesn't it?
I thought that was an inspired way to open the film. Carlin starts talking about the joke and he illustrates it by the way he's telling the story. You feel like you're in a George Carlin story and at the same time it's an illustration of how this Carlin works, and it sets up the entire movie that way.
Cool, I'm glad you saw that. That's what we felt. And the interesting thing about Carlin's is it's very, very extreme and it's six minutes in, so for the next 84 minutes, you got some places to go. We start off with shit in your wife's mouth...
His is the fecal side, it's all excrement and rooting around in it on the floor...
The other interesting thing about that is that it's actually pretty close to what we call the textbook version, which is by Jay Marshall, the older gentleman, who is responsible for the only written record of the joke. Which is that the guys come in, shit on the floor, the kids come in, they wallow in it. And Carlin's is really very, very close to that because it's only about shit, whereas everybody else, they bring in the family, they bring in incest, they bring in bestiality, they bring in all these other things. But Carlin's is really very, very pure and it's one of the few tellings in the movie that are as simple and pure as the textbook version. Yet they couldn't be worlds apart, so that's why Carlin's right there. Here's the joke introduced in its textbook form, just clean and clear, and then here's George Carlin doin' something real close to the textbook form, but it couldn't be more different and that's the entire movie right there. Those two tellings right next to each other are the entire movie.
So where do you stand on the issue, fecal matter vs. incest?
Ahhh, the fecal matter vs. incest dilemma. [laughs] I think every day it should be different. Depending on the mood you're in and what you ate the night before.
When you were making it, did you have any hope that it would get any kind of release?
We truly had no goal in mind. We really, truly thought we're just going to see what happens and see what this reveals. We thought that the wildest, the most extreme thing that would happen would be that we'd have something real fun to give to our friends and show to some people and maybe some real comedy geeks would buy it on a website somewhere. We didn't know if it'd be twenty minutes or an hour or whatever, so all of this is just gravy, and the beauty of it is, we really made it for ourselves. We really didn't care what anybody would think about it, and I think that any time you just do that, someone is going to care about it, because it's real. Penn puts it great. Everybody talks about how filthy and rude and obscene the movie is, so he says, "You know what, it's filthy, it's rude, it's dirty, but it's only movie you'll ever see with no nudity, no sex, no violence, no conflict." It's a love fest. It's so interesting to us that people find issues with it because all it is, is just a joke.
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"We truly had no goal in mind."
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A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and StaticMultimedia.com. His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.
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