Pure filth

Film makers Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette talk about their movie The Aristocrats - a documenary about the world's dirtiest joke

Can you explain the joke that’s the subject of The Aristocrats for those who haven’t heard it?

PENN: You get to hear it a lot in the movie, so why ruin it here. It’s a pretty easy structure. Get as dirty as you can, and end with The Aristocrats.

PAUL: The joke is a simple, textbook construct: It’s what’s known as a “switch,” and it’s the most obvious, formulaic type of joke there is. It takes you really far in one direction, and winds up suddenly in the completely opposite place. That’s where the irony is.

The setup is easy, the punchline is always the same . But the middle section… well, that’s a blank canvas. Anything goes. Anyone can do whatever they want with it, and that’s where it gets really interesting. The only “rule” for that middle section is: it has to be really, really offensive.

How and when did this joke start?

PENN: No idea. People have often tried to find where jokes start and unless you’re on the Internet where most jokes are stolen from Steven Wright or George Carlin, it’s pretty hard to even take a guess. The whole idea that this joke goes back forever may just be an urban legend particular to professional comedians. But, it seems like a good guess that professional comedians have always enjoyed jokes too dirty for their audiences.

PAUL: It has been suggested that the joke goes back to a time when the aristocracy had real power and the joke existed as a satire, or a genuine political statement. I doubt that this is true – but I so want to believe that there was some feudal Lenny Bruce railing at the power structure of the day. That is an idea that pleases me… But I doubt it.

How did this joke spread?

PENN: It’s a really dirty joke with a clean punchline. It allows it to be referenced out of context for a little wink. A few movies have started scenes with the punchline and David Letterman has used the punchline out of context as a little in-joke. Of course, we couldn’t get rights to any of that.

PAUL: It’s a chance to roll around in the mud and not care about making a mess. It’s like finger painting and not worrying about getting anything on your clothes. It has this childlike freedom to it. For a culture outside a mainstream worldview (most comedians have gravitated to comedy by virtue of being “other”), it makes sense that it would grab hold. It just seems to spread virally. It’s also a fun challenge to outdo one another. And the fact that people outside of showbusiness rarely encounter the joke also gives it an unspoken sense of being a kind of secret handshake which I suspect adds to its allure.

When were you personally first exposed to the joke?

PENN: I don’t remember, but American comedian Gilbert Gottfried, left, claims he told it to me for the first time. If it was Gilbert (and I have no reason to doubt it other than Gilbert being a pathological liar), then it’s no wonder I became obsessed. Gilbert’s telling of this joke is like Miles Davis inventing modal jazz.

PAUL: In my early days in stand up, when more established acts found out that a newcomer had never heard the joke, it often became a kind of initiation ritual to tell them the joke. I remember a gang of comedians gathering around a table in the bar at the NY Improv and huddling around as they told me the joke for the first time. People shouting to others, “Hey, Provenza’s never heard the Aristocrats. Get over here.” It was a moment that defined a camaraderie that has been part of my life ever since.

Why was it important to you to document this joke?

PAUL: In all honesty, we just thought it would be hilarious. We did believe it would reveal something about art, comedy, the creative process, culture – though we were never really sure exactly what exactly any of what was revealed or illustrated would be. That it so beautifully captured this rarefied world surprised and delighted us. Most of it surprised us, actually. So we started out exploring individuality and unique perspectives, but ended up with a feeling that is completely communal, as well.

How did you first start filming?

PENN: This wasn’t shot like a movie. We borrowed a couple consumer video cameras and then finally bought a couple. We bought a consumer wireless mic (seen in all the shots) and called friends.

I’d see that Steven Wright was in town, I’d call him and Provenz and I would grab another couple of friends and head over to his hotel. No lights, no make-up, and very little action. The tone of the movie is exactly right because it’s just buddies of ours talking to us.

We’ve all done a ton of TV things and once a crew comes in and sets one light, powders someone down, it becomes work. This was a couple goofballs with cameras just turning them on a laughing. One of the hardest parts of the final sound work was editing out Provenz and me laughing over every take. We were just having a blast.

Because friends wanted to come along, we had no real cameramen but lots of cameras. Anyone who was around, ran a camera. Some of the shoots had five cameras on it just because people wanted to hear the joke. The 90 minutes we used is the tip of the iceberg. I think we have almost 50 hours of unique footage - that’s not counting different camera angles of the same moment. Almost everyone did 20 minutes of others jokes and monkeying around, and we used about a minute of each comic in the movie.

PAUL: There’s more than 50 hours. I don’t know exactly how much because I can’t bear to count it. I transcribed every bit of it myself. There’s A LOT more than 50 hours. When we were shooting, some people just told the joke, and then had to get on with their busy lives and we were done in 15 or 20 minutes. Others just kept going and going and enjoying themselves.

Billy Connolly was going to squeeze us in for an hour before rushing off to make a flight, and ended up changing his flight and hanging out and laughing with us for hours, and his lovely wife making us all lunch. We often forgot we were making a movie when we were shooting.

We shot over a period of about two years (and then some while we were already cutting) and cut for about a year. We shot various times in LA, Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, London and a few other places, I think.

It was all very scrappy and underground and we didn’t care about perfection in the least. We wanted it to be honest and convey the real nature of the shoots – in hallways, hotel rooms, dressing rooms, people’s homes, coffee shops… wherever.

We always believed that content would be king, and we’d just do the best with anything else like lights and background. If the sound is tough to hear because of planes or noisy nightclub activity in the background, well that was part of the experience, so what the hell? That was our attitude, and I think it contributes to the looseness and unselfconsciousness of so many of the performances.

Were all the comedians keen to participate?

PENN: The ones that weren’t eager aren’t in the movie. We didn’t have an agenda. The movie was made for people who thought it was funny to have all these people get dirty with the same joke. There was no reason to convince anyone – we were just making it for the people in it. If someone didn’t want to do it, they wouldn’t’ be good in it. Most of them said yes before I finished asking. Everyone in the movie got the joke and the movie.

PAUL: It was astonishing how so many people “got” the idea right away. Everyone in the film wanted to be in the film. Some of them thought it was insane, but were willing to tell us that on camera and get involved anyway. We thought that was perfect. People telling us how ridiculous the joke or the idea of documenting it was would be so perfectly illustrative of the comedy world. I think that the fact that we embraced people giving us shit about it just freed people from any feeling of anything being “right” or “wrong.”

One of the comics in the film says he thinks this joke has had such longevity because it makes even seasoned comics nervous when they begin to tell it. Did any of the comics you shot become bashfu?

PENN: Jackie Martling asked if he could curse. I guess I forgot to tell him that it wasn’t for [American public service broadcaster] PBS. Comics are used to being dirty. They’re used to having fun. “Bashful” is not a word you’d use for anyone in the movie. There were some that didn’t want to tell the joke in the movie and they’re not in it. My guess is they would have sucked anyway – fuck them.

PAUL: Some comedians by their personal natures aren’t comfortable with that kind of language or vulgarity (not all comedians are alike, you know). So they interpreted the joke in a way that maintained the irony of the joke without the things that made them uncomfortable. That, of course, is the crux of the movie – “it’s the singer not the song.”

Steven Wright went in a very Steven Wright way with it – instead of being sexually vulgar, he interpreted it in a psychotically violent and absurdist way – and he stays within the classic “switch” structure flawlessly. It was essentially the joke as if he himself, in his inimitable style, had written it originally.

He is just one example of many in the movie. It was as much about people not wanting to be dirty as those that wanted it to be as dirty as possible. For some, there is a counterintuitive challenge to making the joke work when going the opposite way with it. Jake Johannsen talked about the joke and why he is the wrong person to tell the joke. The brilliance of that idea is that in doing that, he essentially tells the joke without telling it.

It never ceased to amaze me how people could avoid being rude and filthy in the most clever ways and still maintain the integrity of the joke’s ideas. That is why they are brilliant at what they do

What do you think is most essential component to include in the mid-section of the joke?

PENN: Having heard more versions than anyone in the world except Provenz, I have to say, nothing. Nothing is essential. Everything is optional, and that’s why it’s exactly the right joke. You need to be funny to tell it. Everything else is optional.

PAUL: Nothing whatsoever is essential. It is truly anything goes. Wendy Liebman is a case in point. She does the joke completely backwards - conceptually, it’s a palindrome, if you will, of the joke. The act consists of nothing out of the ordinary. And she has what I consider to be one of the funniest versions I have ever heard. It’s all about being creative.

How often does this joke really come up among comedians?

PENN: It’s always late at night. We were the first to make people tell this joke in broad daylight. That, in itself, is a deep and sexy crime against nature.

PAUL: Its ubiquitous nature seems to be fading a bit since my early days, but I think we may have stopped that slide to oblivion.

As I mentioned before, it sometimes has the feeling of initiation. Sometimes, it comes up academically, which is a context in which many great old jokes come up (“You never heard this one?” “That’s like this other one…” “I heard it this way...”) That is exactly why as we were shooting for this movie, we also ended up with dozens of other jokes that the artists were reminded of, or for which they have a fondness. Once you go down that line, it’s hard to stop.

There is also the aspect of it being a joke that not everyone gets. Comics love that.

Do you think you have captured the filthiest possible renderings of the joke, or is there still room for improvement?

PENN: It’s the Olympics, there’s always headroom. Just because I can’t imagine it, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

PAUL: It will always grow and change. And it’s really like poetry. How many different ways can someone express love? You count the fucking ways someone can be offensive.

Are we moving toward a day when there’s just nothing offensive or shocking left to sa?

PENN: I think there’s always a way to find something. The movie deals with this. As sex gets more accepted, you have to move other places. The movie is about those other places. It’s such a great feeling to be shocked and offended. It’s one of the true joys of being human. We must never lose that.

PAUL: There are new things that become offensive every day. Stick around, I’m sure we’ll discover some together.

Were you trying to make a point about decency and censorship in the film?

PENN: Everyone in this movie is in love with language and comedy. It’s not a political statement, it’s a celebration. Everything in this movie would bother the censors who don’t love language and people having fun will hate this movie. That’s fine. We don’t want them to come.

Michael Moore seems to want everyone to see his movies, he seems to think they’re important. This movie is a celebration of life, humanity, language and freedom. And freedom includes the freedom to not watch other people having fun if you’re not. I don’t want anyone to see this movie who doesn’t enjoy being offended.

I don’t want to surprise anyone. This movie is too fun to be forced on people. People will bitch about this movie and hate it, but I hope they enjoy that too. I have lots of fun complaining about things I don’t like. It’s part of our service. The idea of freedom of speech is just great. It was created to protect freedom of speech for the serious discussion of ideas, but a perquisite of that, is people can talk really dirty and say offensive stuff if it makes them laugh.

This movie is more about the pursuit of happiness than it is about freedom of speech. It’s mostly people laughing and there’s nothing more beautiful in the world no matter how ugly what they’re laughing at is. And there will never be a stronger political statement than this movie. The pursuit of happiness is freedom; it’s the only reason to live.

PAUL: We weren’t trying to be political. But like any good art, it becomes political. Whether one wants it to, or not. We never address the politics directly in the movie, because not doing so would be the best comment we could make on the absurdity of the issues it raises. We’re just telling a joke.

In the section of the film that deals with Gilbert Gottfried’s telling of the joke in New York just three weeks after September 11, several people comment on the fact that his telling of the joke and the audience’s reaction felt cathartic. So do you think extreme vulgarity and crude humour can have redeeming social value?

PENN: Yes, always. It reminds us we’re human and that we’re alive. As I said, I don’t care very much what people are laughing at, I love to see them laugh. Yup, after the real horror on September 11, it’s more important than ever to remember that shock that doesn’t matter is fun. If we’re not going to laugh our asses off, then who cares if we get them blown off?

PAUL: There is a sufficient argument for its redeeming social value when anyone can find this joke shocking, as tens of thousands of human beings are being killed around the world for any excuse anyone can concoct to make that fact OK. At its very least, the ridiculous ongoing rhetoric about ‘bad’ words is a fuckin’ reality check.

“Vulgar” and “crude” are pretty subjective words. I’m sure my idea of them is very different from yours, whoever you are reading this. Which is as it should be.

When we stub our toes, we curse before we can stop ourselves. There’s a reason for that. Let’s not confuse social conventions and politeness with any kind of truth. Those are simply a construct to help us all get along.

I think there’s an organic need to take a shit in the punchbowl once in a while.

What do you hope audiences will take away with them after seeing this film?

PENN: I hope they laugh a lot. And if they’re pissed off, I hope they enjoy being pissed off. There’s not a reason on earth for anyone to see this movie that isn’t going to enjoy it. If you don’t like the first ten minutes, please walk out. The FCC [the American censorship and standards board] must be abolished and the way to do it is for people to turn the channel and walk out.

I hope people that hate this movie, can at least realse that it’s OK for other people to laugh at something you don’t like. Fuck, I hated Lord of the Rings. It offended me. I don’t even really like people that like that movie. But, you know, I don’t have to go. If people have fun with taboo words is going to bother you, don’t go see this – go see Lord of the Rings. (That’s another way of saying “go fuck yourself.”)

PAUL: One of my favorite scenes in a movie ever is in American Beauty. When that weird kid shows the beautiful young girl the video he shot of a garbage bag swirling around in the wind, and he talks about how gorgeous and moving it is, and he asks her to look at it and see anything else but a garbage bag. And he sits there just staring at it going around and around and around and his eyes well up and he knows everyone thinks he is just nuts, but he wants that beautiful girl to know who he really is, so he shows her that piece of video and is just wishing she could see what he sees, and suspects that she might.

I hope this movie makes that fictitious character really, really happy.

The Aristocrats is released on September 9.

August 31, 2005

First published: August 31, 2005

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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