Filth sells! | Interview with Aristocrats director Paul Provenza

Filth sells!

Interview with Aristocrats director Paul Provenza

It’s changed Hollywood attitudes and altered the landscape of stand-up comedy. Not bad for a 100-year-old dirty joke – and the film a couple of enthusiasts made around it.

When stand-up Paul Provenza and comedy magician Penn Jillette decided to tape their comedy pals telling their version of The Aristocrats, an industry in-joke that’s been around since vaudeville, they had no expectations of anything coming from it.

But the film has so far grossed $6.4 million at the US box office – making it the 11th biggest documentary of all time – and a week after its release on DVD in the States it still hangs near the top of the sales charts. And now, they say, it has changed the sort of films that are getting distributed, as well as people’s attitudes to stand-up.

‘It came as a very pleasant surprise,’ Provenza told Chortle from his base in Los Angeles. ‘When we first thought of this film, no distributor wanted it because of the content. They didn’t think it would play to the mainstream.

‘But people have been telling dirty jokes forever – and it ranges from the Harvard professor to the pig-farmer.’

‘Originally distributors thought it would be lowbrow, appealing to frat boys and Howard Stern’s audience. But it was accepted by the documentary crowd, who treated it respectfully. The New York Times was especially useful, talking about it as an art film.’

But there’s no escaping the fact that The Aristocrats - or the Debonaires as it was historically called in Britain - is one very dirty joke. If you haven’t heard it, it starts with a family showing up at a talent agents, demonstrating what they do, and ends with the anticlimactic punchline: ‘And what do you call this act?’… and the father says, ‘The Aristocrats’.

The joke is contained in those four innocuous words ‘demonstrating what they do’, spurring on the notoriously competitive comedy community to try to outdo each other, improvising increasing levels of depravity as the joke unfolds. The gag is in the telling, not the punchline, as the scores of contributors to this movie – including the likes of Robin Williams, Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly and the South Park team – can attest.

Was anyone afraid of being so foul-mouthed on screen? ‘Everyone you see on the film said yes straight away,’ says Provenza. ‘If they said “no” – or said “call me back”, we weren’t interested. We didn’t return any calls.

‘So many people wanted to take part. After four and a half years, I had to say stop – even though we had another 30 to 40 major names that had committed to doing it. I had to say no.’

‘The editor Emery Emery and myself just kept saying, “We can’t cut this out, this is so funny.” But then we’d just have to shrug and say “DVD extra”.

‘So there’s another two hours on the DVD: people who didn’t make the final cut, like Terry Gillam, and people doing alternate versions, like Bob Sagat. There’s also a feature called Behind The Green Room Door which is of the comedians who went on and told us other jokes – we wanted it to be like a wander through the backstage area.’

But he insists he wasn’t blowing some big comedy secret by taking the in-joke into the wider world. ‘It’s not Masonic,’ he says. ‘There is no comedy illuminati to upset. It’s just that you could hardly tell this joke at the watercooler at work, which is why it remained among comics.’

But The Aristocrats is not quite on big, dirty joke. In retelling the gag time and again, in different styles, Provenza and Jillette, right, are really examining the art of joke-telling.

‘We used the filmmakers’ adage: show not tell,’ says Provenza. ‘We might set an idea up with a statement, but then we illustrate it by showing what people did with the joke. The movie was about the joke and everything else – the mindset and the process of comedy – that stuff just emerges.’

The gag has been around, as best as Provenza can ascertain, at least since in the late 19th century. The vaudevillian Jay Marshall, who died last year at 94, recalled on film being told it when he was treading the boards as a child star of six or seven.

But the joke moved with the times, reflecting the society it was told in. ‘It went through evolutions,’ says Provenza.

‘It became this twisted, dark, baroque thing in the early Seventies after the cultural shift of the Sixties brought counterculture to the fore: it was the time of National Lampoon, of Derek and Clive, of Richard Pryor breaking through and building on all the things Lenny Bruce had begun. Comedy became a lot more transgressive.

‘Now people are getting very intellectual with it, or giving very political versions. I heard one version that took place during Hurricane Katrina.’

The movie’s torrent of foul language caused some in Hollywood to baulk, most notably the AMC cinema chain, which banned it from its screens – but the backlash has not been fatal.

‘The ban meant that in some markets if you wanted to see it you’d have to drive 30 miles. But that’s only helped DVD sales,’ says Provenza.

‘One of the biggest stores over here had to be cajoled into taking the DVD; but then its entire stock sold out in two days. Nothing talks like the dollar.’

And the fact the film has done so well has repercussions for others in the business, Provenza believes.

‘We couldn’t have done this in the Hollywood system,’ he said. ‘It was all done on personal contacts.

‘Yet while there’s all this talk about censorship, that’s bullshit. They’ll put out anything that people want to see.’

He then gives a list of movies that have got the green light after The Aristocrats, suggesting they wouldn’t have been considered before: ‘Sarah Silverman got a major distributor for her movie Jesus Is Magic on the back of The Aristocrats; Eddie Ifft, as he travelled the world, asked people what they thought of America and Americans; Jeffrey Ross made a film, Patriot Act, about going to Iraq and performing for the military and Tom Rhodes is working on a film about his experiences.

‘Before The Aristorcrats, all these would have seemed to stand-up-orientated. But suddenly studios are saying this might just work; that there’s a world outside the mainstream.’

There’s another knock-on effect too: ‘People are also waking up to the fact that there’s a whole world that doesn’t get on to TV – and not just because of language – but, say, religion, you can’t mention that.

‘Yet it’s never been more important to talk about it; the whole world is about to go to war based on “my imaginary friend can kick your imaginary friend’s butt”.

‘This doesn’t get exposure, but in stand-up you can hear these things. Stand-up is making a resurgence away from the mainstream and reviving what had been for years dying artform over here.’

Provenza, of course, wants to ride this new wave himself. He’s shot some ‘personal’ and ‘fascinating’ footage of British-based Aussie stand-up Brendon Burns over a turbulent year. Though he hasn’t yet worked out how to make those ups and downs tell a story.

In the meantime, he’s plugging away at another British-based comedian Atlanta’s Reginald D Hunter, whose sitcom Black Out Provenza is championing.

The programme, co-written and directed by John Gordillo, had the black Hunter take over night-time soul of a liberal white woman. Channel 4 made a Comedy Lab pilot of it, but declined to pick it up ‘But I’ve taken it to some producers over here, and they’ve gone nuts about it,’ Provenza said.

Censorship or no, it is, probably, far more palatable to broadcasters than The Aristocrats: the sitcom would ever be,

The Aristocrats was released on DVD on Monday. First published: January 31, 2006

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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