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.
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