Recently I had a long conversation with the director of The Aristocrats, Paul Provenza. We covered a lot of topics about the film and comedy in general, enough to make me regret that I don’t own a tape recorder, as my pen failed to catch all of our discussion. But what I did get was just grand. It’s all after the jump.
Provenza had just told his version of the Aristocrats joke in public for the first time. His rendition of the family’s bizarre act took place during a commercial break on Jimmy Kimmel, just as Buddy Hackett legendarily once did on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. The prospect made Provenza nervous, “I tried to talk them out of it and to run the South Park clip. I had heard so many versions, I thought it would be hard to make my own unique version. But halfway through I clicked in and found it.” (Provenza, who does not appear in the film, might include his Kimmel telling on the DVD.)
As to the language of the film, Provenza states, “Our currency is words. You can’t not use some words. So they’re hanging out with us and seeing us playing with the tools of our trade. The movie just lets you in on what it’s like to be free with language. It shows the creative process in complimentary and contrast. Essentially hanging out with us behind closed doors.”
With Provenza’s and Producer Penn Gillette’s laughter ringing throughout the movie, that love for stand-up community comes through. Provenza describes it as “the more individual you are, the more embraced you are. Comedians celebrate whatever nutty thing they find in each other. The rest of the world just demands they get in step.”
Thanks to The Aristocrats, that stand-up comic’s embrace of individuality (or at least profanity) has made Provenza’s professional life easier. With the release of the film, he can walk into his Hollywood meetings and say, “Sorry I’m late, you cocksucker. I had some shit on my dick and had to wipe it off.” The immediate embrace of filth allows meetings to get down to real talks. Executive are delighted that politeness isn’t brought into room. “Politeness is just grease. Drop it and we just all get along.” The film creates, “a place where everybody gets the irony. It’s just an incredible release.”
An example of how fantastic the film is at creating that technical appreciation is Sarah Silverman’s faux reminiscence of her days as an Aristocrat. “Sarah accepts the reality of that being an acting role and we watch her work backwards, talking about the role nostalgically. She fills in the back-story and experiences that emotionally – trying to put a brave face on the experience, going to a dark place and creating comedy. The audiences witness all of those things are happening at once.”
Though viewers are more comedy literate, Provenza points out that comedy suffers from audiences that believe that the show is about them. “Most people enjoy comedy that maintains their status quo. They’re just there to forget their problems. And it’s rather limiting. There’s a reason Doug Stanhope has a cult following.”
This is also partially because comedy has what Provenza calls “An existential dilemma – the recipient’s response defines it. If a song sucks, it’s atonal, on a Chinese scale, it’s still a song. Nobody says it isn’t.”
“But if an audience doesn’t laugh. It’s not comedy. Doesn’t mean it’s not funny. Just means I haven’t communicated it properly. If I find it funny and if it doesn’t work, what I have to do is find how to communicate it properly.” Still, Provenza quotes National Lampoon legend Michael O’Donoghue maxim, “Laughter is one response to comedy. It’s not the only response.”
To Provenza, for a comedian to be a great artist, he or she has to take the approach, “you’re here for me. I’m here for me. No one’s here for you. If you’re crafting comedy to make an audience happy, you’re not going to do comedy, you’re doing marketing.”
Though some assert in the film that you wouldn’t want a teller who added incest to the joke around your children, Provenza rejects the notion that the Aristocrats joke reveals anything personal about the teller. “I don’t get behind that. It doesn’t say anything about them as people but as artists. It tells you that they’re fearless.”
In fact, Provenza rejects the “old canard that comedians are fucked-up people. Artists have to go to the places that torture themselves. But the people who create art from that stuff are the healthiest because they make something from pain. I’d much rather hang around a bunch of comedians than anyone else.”
Still some walking out of the theater might wonder why Steven Wright‘s telling is so dark. “Steven Wright doesn’t have a predilection for killing women and children. We were in Vegas to film Steven in his hotel room, but he can’t get into his room. A guy we’re goes to run down to front desk. While we’re waiting, I get this urge to shoot right now. So I said to Steven, ‘Let’s just shoot in the hallway.” And he said, “That would be cool. It’s like the Shinning.” The context of the eerie hallway informed Steven’s telling. Provenza hopes to put more stories like this one on the DVD so viewers can appreciate the tellings the way the filmmakers do.
Provenza’s been heartened by the response so far, particular hearing conversations about the film that end “You just have to see it.” To Provenza, this means he’s done something unique. “What makes it art is it can’t be described in any other way.”
Riding on a wave of positive press, in some ways it’s possible The Aristocrats has been so well received because it’s a breath of fresh air in a society that seems to be getting more repressive. And though Provenza appreciates those feelings, he insists that the film is “not a poke in the eye. It’s just to have fun.”
“We’re not trying to change someone’s mind. We’re telling everyone up front, ‘unspeakable obscenity.’ It’s not my mom’s cup of tea. Nothing against my mom, but don’t come if it’s not yours. ”
Though the film’s language is obviously not family friendly, but the film may tie families closer just through laughter. Provenza related to me an after-film screening at the Jacob Burns Film Center – a screening he was concerned about as it would be the first non-festival audience that saw the film. But the Q & A was like “going through the looking glass. We were so lose and free with the audience.” A 17-year-old began telling the joke, including his own mother and sister in his rendition. At a critical juncture his father admonished his son. He said, “Don’t forget grandma!” “Now they can talk about anything,” Provenza marveled, “It’s unbelievable. Nobody walks out of a Disney movie changed like that.”
As a final note, Provenza has seen and enjoyed the Aristocrats Joke Database. “I’m especially fond of the jokes where you can tell that they’ve put their co-workers and uncles in them. They’re inside jokes only those people are going to get.” Readers who wish to enter The Aristocats movie contest, may want to limber up by submitting their version to The Aristocrats Joke Database.