By Jonathan Marlow
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.
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