"We knew it would be absolutely hilarious and we thought it would reveal something about the art of comedy and the creative process and improvisation. And we figured some other things would come out of it but we had no idea that it would be as rich and interesting as it ended up being."
– Paul Provenza
Guy MacPherson: You're billed as the "film-maker" of The Aristocrats. Were you the director? Or what was your job?
Paul Provenza: Yes, I was the director. Penn and I are listed in all the literature and on the posters and things as film makers because, while I directed the project, it's just not right that Penn only credited as executive producer because his heart and spirit and vision and integrity are such a huge part of this. And he was astonishing to work with. And I'll never get a chance to make a movie like this again where the money man, the investor, is also of such a high level of creative integrity that all he would say to me is, 'Look, whenever we talk about anything in the movie,' he would always say, 'if there's any argument here, you win.' Because the last thing he wants is art done by committee. And so he was just amazing. Nobody will ever get an opportunity like this – and I certainly won't again – where the guy who's responsible for everything about the movie sits back and goes, 'You know what? It's not a personal enough vision. Please go further.'
GM: Were there many arguments?
PP: None whatsoever. Absolutely none whatsoever. But he prefaced them all by saying, 'If there is an argument, you win because I want it to be one vision. I don't want it to be done by committee. I don't want it to be compromised in any way.' So he was just amazing. So he is without a doubt a filmmaker of this project even though I'm credited as the director.
GM: He was there on a lot of the shots, too, wasn't he?
PP: He was there for almost every shoot and had a huge, huge effect on the final outcome because Penn loves laughing, he loves comedy, and everybody in this movie was either a friend or an acquaintance who's become a great friend since then. And the whole premise was we didn't want it to feel like we were making a movie; we wanted it to feel like we were hanging out with friends. And so while I was doing what I needed to do to get the movie done, he was loosening everybody up and having a great time. And the hardest part we had in editing was with him and his laugh.
GM: But that adds a nice feel to it, having his laugh.
PP: We couldn't get it all out. But I'm telling you, all you'd hear wall to wall was Penn's laugh if we didn't cut out a little bit of it.
GM: Whose idea was it originally, this film about a joke?
PP: It was both of us. We had talked about doing something like this for a while because we're both fans of the joke and we had heard people tell the joke and we always remarked on how it seemed like something else was going on with this joke. It meant more to us than it meant to anybody else who knew the joke. We would just talk about it a lot. We'd talk about different versions that we heard. And whenever either of us was with Gilbert Gottfried, we'd always try and get him to do it for other people. We just thought it would be really fascinating to hear a number of versions in a row. And then Penn got really, really deep into jazz and bebop, because he's also a musician – he plays upright bass - and he was really, really, really working hard and focussing on bebop and it struck him how we know about improvisation in jazz, we've seen different actors do the same theatre role, we've seen painters do the same still lifes, but we've never actually seen that in comedy because comedy, by definition, they wouldn't do the same kinds of thing, so we never get a chance to explore the notion of, well, what if the playing field is evened, what would each individual bring to it? And this joke was the opportunity to do that. We knew it would be absolutely hilarious and we thought it would reveal something about the art of comedy and the creative process and improvisation. And we figured some other things would come out of it but we had no idea that it would be as rich and interesting as it ended up being.
GM: So it's not just a movie about a joke being told a hundred different ways. There are so many other levels to it.
PP: Yeah, there are a lot of levels to it. We shot about 150 hours of footage. And I watched and watched and watched it and transcribed it all myself so I really got inside it and started to feel that there were ideas and themes that were emerging because each individual was just performing and having fun and hanging out with us, but when you look at 150 hours of it, you start to see certain ideas emerge and patterns emerge. So when we went to edit it, we tried to do the same thing: we tried to have all those ideas and patterns emerge for the audience as well. And in the aggregate, it became very revealing, certainly about all those things that we expected art and the craft of comedy and the value and importance and mystery of improvisation and about the individuality – how each comedian really can take the same dopey old joke and do something extraordinary and unique with it. But then it also became about culture, it became about taboo, it became about questions of taste and integrity and ideologies. It turned out to be something much richer that operated on so many more levels.
GM: It's improvisatory, but there's only so much you can do, isn't there? I mean, how base can you get?
PP: Actually, apparently not. There's not just only so much you can do. And I defy you to find where the end of the creative experience is. It's just astonishing how people go on and on and on. And every time you think you've heard it all and there's nothing new that can come along, somebody will come along and give you something new that you could never have imagined. It's absolutely remarkable.
GM: When did you first hear the joke?
PP: I heard the joke when I was just a baby comic. I was probably maybe twenty or something like that. I'd just started doing standup a year or two before that. I actually have an emotional connection with the joke because I associate it with that time in my life that I found a sense of community and found what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And I found this great sense of, 'you know what? I'm not alone. There are other people who look at the world a little
differently than I do.' So it happened at a very special moment in my life. Which may be why I've always had a fascination with it.
GM: Any idea on the joke's origin?
PP: Nobody knows for sure but we have reasonably placed it back to the mid-19th century, first hand. There's a gentleman in the film named Jay Marshall who actually tells the joke for the first time – the first time you actually hear the joke in the movie. And Jay Marshall just passed away several weeks ago sadly at the age of 94. And he was a living, breathing showbiz encyclopedia. He was in Vaudeville as a child. He was from the world in which the joke takes place. And he remembered hearing it as a little boy, as a six- or seven-year-old in Vaudeville from the old guy at that time who remembered hearing it when he was a kid. So first-hand account we were able to at least place it back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Which is pretty far back for a joke that's making audiences laugh today. But probably nowhere near as far back as it actually goes. And it's impossible to find out how.
GM: And probably back then it would have been way more of a shocker. I mean, it still is and I'm sure you'll have people walking out of the theatre but standards have changed.
PP: Yeah, yeah, but you know what? In ten years there'll be things that people are able to use that will shock people or push their boundaries in some way that we can't imagine right now. And that just keeps going on and on.
GM: Someone in the film took a racial slant with it, and that was the one where you go 'oh geez, you can't say that!'
PP: Yeah, and that's interesting because back in the middle of the nineteenth century that probably wouldn't have worked in the joke. It's like a living, breathing animal; it changes and evolves.
GM: As an outsider, I was having a little trouble believing the concept that there would be this joke that comics only told to comics, like a secret handshake or something. Because there are so many filthy comics and you can hear practically anything on stage. So why would this have been kept away from the general public for so long?
PP: It wasn't kept away from the general public by design, first of all. Also let me clarify any misconceptions about this. You don't hear comedians doing old jokes anymore. The art form's shifted and moved away from that 50, 60 years ago to where people started actually crafting their own material and using their own voices. So it's just not a natural thing to hear a comedian get up on stage and tell a joke-joke; a joke that you would hear at a party or something like that. They write their own material; they do their own routines. So it's not a joke that you would hear on stage by a comedian; it's just a joke that comedians have told each other backstage after late nights of shows and hanging out with friends and sometimes it comes up and it becomes this little thing. And not all the time anyway. It's not something that comedians think about or work on. It's just Penn and I thought this little piece of minutia that most comedians wouldn't think twice about could reveal something interesting because it had this longevity and this ubiquity. Nobody really gave it any thought or attention. It wouldn't mean that much to anybody. But when one hears the joke and when one goes outside the rarified world of comedy – musicians also love this joke, by the way, which kind of makes sense when you see it because musicians and comedians, we're different from the rest of the world – but when you hear this joke and you try and tell it outside that rarified world, you learn pretty quickly that that's really, really dangerous. Because you're not going to tell this around the Thanksgiving Day turkey. This is a thing that you have to feel comfortable and safe doing it, so it stayed among the world of comedians because we know that we don't have to explain ourselves. Whereas it's not really made it out into the general public because the levels at which it operates aren't immediately obvious.
GM: So who is the film for? Is it for the comedy nerd who just loves standup – and by the way, it's great to see a film with all these standups from many generations.
PP: Yeah, that's a really wonderful thing that happened, isn't it? So many people got on board that it became, as George Carlin called it, a snapshot of the art of standup at the turn of the century, which is just wonderful. Yeah, that's really great. That's a great part of it. And what an opportunity to hang out with all of them as we're making this. But... I'm sorry, what specifically was your question again?
GM: Who is the film for?
PP: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, we made the film for ourselves. We had feelings and thoughts about this and we had a vision. And Penn allowed me to explore my feelings and vision on this and keep it very, very personal. So it was really made just for the two of us. And we were successful enough in elucidating that love and that respect for comedy and the craft and the art and all the people in the movie. And anybody can get that. I mean, who's Moby Dick written for? Is it written for sailors or whalers? Or is it written for oceanographers or pirates? Who's it written for? It's a similar kind of thing. It's just a true story about a human experience that happens to be a rarified world but things that we all relate to are there. And that's the other interesting thing about it, because while it's filthy and it's obscene and it's vulgar without a doubt – we want to make that clear to everybody because the last thing we want is for somebody to go into the movie that's not going to enjoy themselves; we do not want people to go and expect their minds to be changed about this. If somebody loves a good dirty joke and loves having a good time and getting loose and down and dirty, they will love this movie; if that's not someone's cup of tea, they absolutely should go see something else – but, having said all that, when people see the joy that's happening in this film and they see the love of art and craft that's going on and the freedom that people are celebrating and revelling in, that speaks to everybody. As obscene and vulgar and vile as the language in this film is, we think of it as a love story. Really. And we're not kidding. Seriously. Name a movie that has no sex, no violence, no conflict, and no hostility whatsoever.
GM: Well, there's spoken hostility towards members of the family.
PP: Actually, it seems to me that that family's really loving each other quite a bit. (laughs) A little too much, if you will.
GM: Maybe you should have that as a tagline: The Aristocrats: A Love Story.
PP: (laughs) It would be... But again, we wanted to be so clear. We didn't want to get fancy and we didn't want anybody to misconstrue what's going on here. If you want to come into the back room and hang out with our friends, the language is going to get a little rough and if you have no problem with that, oh boy are you going to be privy to stuff that is really special.
GM: I'd love to see the TV network version. It would be just the trailer, I guess.
PP: Actually, we did a version which at the time we were calling the Ashcroft version with all the curse words and all the things you can't say on television bleeped out. It's almost funnier than the movie itself. Swear to God, I'm sure there are satellites picking up Morse code. It's really funny... Penn Jillette, ladies and gentlemen!
GM: Paul was just saying what a tough guy you were to work for.
Penn Jillette: I am that. I am certainly that.
GM: So what's the controversy now with the film?
PJ: There's no controversy with the film. What are you talking about? Who?
GM: With the theatres...
PJ: AMC is one schmuck. One guy who got enough power to own a chain and then decides to pretend he's little junior PT Barnum, little junior Houdini, 'Oh, I can get some publicity for AMC!' And he (laughs) he decides, after showing violent anal rape in Irreversible and showing a burlesque of 9/11 in War of the Worlds, he'll put his foot down on this movie of people laughing and telling jokes and swearing a little. And you have to ask yourself, even in a totally non-cynical way, huh, he picked the one movie that came along that doesn't have a studio behind it. If he went up against Spielberg or those guys, they would punish him for acting like a fool. But no, we can't. We won't get another movie out ever probably. Maybe in three years. What are we going to go?: 'Oh, we're not going to let AMC do it because of that thing no one remembers three years ago.' So it's one guy thinking, 'Ooh, I'm in show business kinda because I bought the store. Maybe I could have a little fun with the press.' He's trying to be in the tradition of PT Barnum and Houdini and he's an impotent, rich, old man. (laughs) And we won't play in his game. We're supposed to go, 'Oh, we're repressed. Our movie can't get out' and go back and forth in the press. And he gets more famous and we make more money. And the answer is no. Whoever you are, we're not playing your stupid game: We made a movie, people like it and you don't have a monopoly.
GM: This is probably a good thing for you, isn't it?
PJ: I don't know. You do the math.... It might cost us some money; it might gain us some money. It'll probably cost us some but not a lot. And who cares? He has more money than us but we're happier than him and we have bigger dicks that work.
PP: And laughing a lot more.
PJ: A lot more.
PP: I guarantee that.
GM: The dedication to this film was for Johnny Carson. Why?
PJ: Conceptually because it was Johnny Carson's favourite joke and he's the most important person in comedy of this time. The more emotional reason is that we were writing emails. He was talking about this joke a lot and very much wanted to see the movie. And I had a date to show it to him right after Sundance and died during Sundance. It was an emotional connection and also a logical connection.
GM: You said you shot 150 hours, what was left out? Was it sort of the opposite – you put in all of the filthiest stuff and you take out...
PP: No, no, no. People did a number of variations on it. People did entirely different takes on the joke. As I said, we basically went to hang out with people; making the movie was secondary. And as we were hanging out with them, sometimes they would just go off on other things that weren't pertinent to the movie per se. And we wanted to give as much time in the movie to as many people as possible so we had to make certain choices. But there's an endless font of hilarious
stuff and real smart insights and really beautiful human moments by artists.
GM: Like I say, I enjoyed the fact that you had comics from all the generations. Did you sit down and come up with a list? Or how did it work?
PJ: No, you're just pretending, in all these questions, that this is being run by an organization, like every other thing, that there's product involved here. This is two guys that made a movie about their friends. Our list was based on who we had in our Rolodex. Now, that expanded by some people, like talking to Eric Idle and then Eric Idle says, 'Have you got Billy Connolly?' And we said, 'No, we don't know him.' He goes, 'Let's get him in.' I mean, very, very much... I mean, if you were twelve years old and you pictured how movies were made, and you said, 'Well, I guess you get a friend and you talk about it. Then you get some cameras. Then you go and get other friends. And then I guess you put some of the stuff in the movie.' That's exactly how it was made. There were no conversations with studio executives where they talked about acquiring talent; it was calling your friends. And that's one of the reasons – maybe the only reason – the movie is so good. It may have nothing to do with us. It may be just that we short-circuited the process that creates mediocrity.
GM: So these two guys just making a movie, did you dream that it would get to this stage?
PJ: We didn't have time to dream. We have other jobs! (laughs)
GM: How long was it in the making, by the way?
PJ: Four-and-a-half years?
PP: Closer to five at this point.
PJ: Five years, as I said. Five-and-a-half years. It would be about five-and-a-half years. Maybe six. About six years now?
PP: Uh, actually, we can narrow this down. We first shot in early 2001.
PJ: So it's like seven years. About seven-and-a-half years?
GM: Eight or nine?
PP: It could be about 14, I think.
PJ: My math has, we started the movie... The first one we did was backstage at the Sullivan show.
PJ: Actually, it was Talk of the Town. So that was '48.
PP: Right. But those kinescopes have not been preserved.
PJ: Well, we use some of the kinescopes. We use a little bit of the kinescopes.
PP: We used the Sam Kinescopes.
PJ: Some of the stuff looks like it's on kinescope.
PP: Some of it looks like kinescopes.
PJ: (laughs) Uh, four-and-a-half years. We started in 2001.
GM: Did you receive any resistance from your friends.
PJ: The French. The French resistance. (laughs) Uh, we didn't ask anybody more than once. We would call up and say, 'We're doing this movie. You have people who play jazz and improvise over the same song; we wanted to do the same thing with comedy doing The Aristocrats.' Everybody said yes before I finished asking. And those that didn't, that said I'll get back to you, I never called them again. It's not like we need people for the movie. We didn't need anyone; we needed everyone. It's kinda like if you met somebody and you thought they were cool and you called them up and asked them out for coffee the next day and they go, "I can't really make it." You don't say, "Why? Because you don't like me? Why? Because I'm ugly? Why?" You just okay and you don't call them again. Same thing with the movie.
GM: What was the final number of comics that made it into the film?
PP: Nobody's actually been able to nail that down. But it's about a hundred.
PJ: A little over a hundred. It depends. There's a lot of questions over you count the Onion staff as one or whether you count the Onion staff as five. And Southpark, is that two people or is that one? So it's around a hundred.
GM: Eddie Izzard said that he hadn't heard the joke before. There must have been some people in the film who you had to tell the joke to.
PP: And it was interesting because some people you'd just break it down and give them beats of the joke and they'd go, 'Oh, got it. No problem. See you tomorrow.' And then other people just wanted to talk about it. And that was really fun. That's what was going on with Eddie. Eddie was having fun with the idea of having just heard the joke and then trying to work his way through it.
GM: You also heard a lot: 'I don't get it.' Is there something to get, or is it just sort of the journey?
PJ: Well, I think that was a joke, the 'I don't get it.' If you're talking about Southpark.
GM: Well, not just Southpark. I think Izzard said that as well. And maybe a couple others.
GM: Are you sure?
PP: Izzard was screwing around with different punchlines.
PJ: I don't think anyone says it except the imaginary depiction of an 8-year-old boy. (laughs)
GM: When did you first hear it? I asked Paul.
PJ: I probably first heard it told by Gilbert Gottfried, but I'm not sure of that because once I was told by Gilbert Gottfried any other telling just flew out my head. But I heard Gilbert tell it many, many times. We're very good friends.
GM: Was he the highlight for both of you?
PJ: Well, highlight is such a tough word, you know? When you work on something like this, you need to fall in love with every second of it or you're a bad person, a bad artist. So there's a certain amount of discipline in loving everything. I think that for where it is in the movie, and intellectually what it does, Taylor Negron is my favourite moment. Gilbert is the most skilled comic. I think anybody would agree with that. I mean in the world, not in the movie. Ever, probably. And I really like Paul Reiser being funny while talking about being funny, breaking it down. I think that's, in a certain way, Paul Reiser is a very smooth microcosm of the movie. And I like that. You can't not like Otto & George. I like Eric Meade doing the mime because they're so far outside what people want out of this movie. I mean, that's the thing: this movie can be – with no studio money – can be so personal. I mean, do a little mental exercise and run through the movie and then picture a studio editing it: 'Put in more Robin Williams, less Gilbert Gottfried, what's the mime doing there?' And that's what you see with every other movie. I mean, go see Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which is another way to say 'Go to hell' in our culture.