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The Aristocrats: Taking Back Free Speech in a Theater Near You

by Chris Parry

Paul Provenza is a stand-up comedian, and it seems he’s a stand-up guy too. At a time in western history where saying the ‘wrong thing’ seems to be considered a crime worse than telemarketing, he has a very simple message for the censors… Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. His new documentary, The Aristocrats, is a 90-minute exploration of one single (filthy) old gag, retold by dozens of comedians, each time in completely different ways, with little to no expletives barred, and I’m more than happy to say that watching this film was one of the greatest times I’ve had in a theater. Nobody knows where the joke came from, and nobody knows how old it truly is, but every comedian knows it, and every one of them has a unique viewpoint on this legendary comedic tradition.

“Penn Jillette and I had told this joke back and forth continually over about ten years and it always broke us up, it was always different each time, and we’d retell versions we heard from other people, and it would crack us the hell up, every time. Every comedian puts his or her own spin on the thing, but it’s usually told after the show, among comedians, not as part of an act. So we got the idea that it might be interesting to film some of these different versions and put them all together, as a study, just to see how it varied. We talked about this for ten years, until one day we’re sitting in the Peppermill Diner on the Vegas Strip one day and suddenly Penn just says, “Hey, have you got room in your life to do this?” I was like, what - now? Sure, okay. So we got some cameras and called some friends and they were all into it. So we just started shooting.”

But the art of filmmaking is not one that is so easily stepped into, as an afternoon with Terry Gilliam would soon illustrate. “Gilliam did this awesome thing where he didn’t just tell the joke, he told it cinematically, with shots and scenes and, oh my god, it was unbelievable. He went for like an hour, he was loving it, and that’s when we realized the audio wasn’t on. We’d been shooting with like a camera in one hand and the manual in the other, and we’re turning pages with our teeth, so a lot of the early stuff was just unusable because of technical issues. But we saved it for the DVD, so it’s okay. We figured out a way to make it work.”

What followed those early hiccups was four years of interviews, phone calls, cross-country flights, cups of coffee, and more laughs than my stomach could actually handle over the course of ninety minutes. Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Saget, Jon Stewart, Carrot Top, Richard Lewis, Lewis Black, Kevin Pollack, Jason Alexander, Sarah Silverman, Rita Rudner, Gilbert Gottfried, Phyllis Diller, Andy Richter, Drew Carey, Emo Phillips, Hank Azaria, George Carlin, Mike McKean, Harry Shearer, Billy Connelly, Carrie Fisher, Eddie Izzard, Eric Idle, Andy Dick – even the characters of South Park and a mime (seriously!) – add any other thirty comics into that mix and you’re still missing tons of people that are captured on film telling this joke. But while one joke told many times over may seem boring, nothing could be further from the truth, because this is the filthiest, nastiest, most scatological gag ever told… and it’s never the same joke twice.

“We have Jay Marshall in the film, and he’s like 96 years old, seriously, and he remembers hearing this joke when he was six or seven back in Vaudeville, and he says that even back then it was considered an old hack routine. I honestly don’t know when the joke began, but you’ve got to think it’s REALLY old if Jay Marshall heard it as a child. To think it’s still around and still being told is pretty incredible.”

The Aristocrats is not your traditional documentary. It truly is a one gag flick, and yet it could well be one of the most important documentaries of our time. No, seriously.
In the 60’s, Lenny Bruce talked filthy and was arrested for it, but the fact that he did so gave others the strength to do likewise. In the 70’s, Richard Pryor pushed the envelope, and inspired others to do likewise. In the 80’s, Eddie Murphy became a superstar by discussing sticking a GI Joe up his ass as a child. In the 90’s…? Seinfeld talked about airline peanuts and made a gazillion dollars. Somehow we went backwards, and now, if you say the word “pussy” and there’s not a cat named Snowball on screen, you’re going to be hit with an NC-17 rating. But Provenza isn’t worried that his film will be destined for the bottom shelf at the video store, because his film was purchased at Sundance by a company that seems to have the courage of his own convictions.

“We went to Sundance, which was great, and we sold the film for the highest amount a documentary has ever sold for. You’ve got to hand it to Thinkfilm, because not only did they fork out the dollars for a film with more curse words than any film in movie history, but also discussions of bestiality, anal sex, incest, semen, child rape… and they’re taking the opinion that, “you know what, the ratings system is stupid. We’re adults, we can watch what we fucking like,” so they’re not even going to submit it for a rating. I mean, that’s balls. They’re really going for broke on this thing, and it’ll be in theaters in July.”

So what is The Aristocrats? Man… I dunno if I could do it justice. It begins “A man walks into a talent agent’s office with his family and says “I have this great new act”… and that’s where the joke beings to mutate, depending on who is telling it. The only similarity between them all is that that gag always descends into the darkest corners of the most heinous acts you can imagine, with nothing left to the imagination. And the embodiment of this slide into depravity is none other than Bob Saget.

“Everyone thinks of Saget as Danny Tanner, but people that know Saget know that he’s got the filthiest mouth out there. And when he tells this joke, it honestly goes for like an hour. We had him on tape for about 45 minutes, and he’s just going on and on, and he’s filthy the whole way, and he’s waiting for us to say ‘cut’, and we’re waiting for him to get to the punchline, and he just keeps it going, through some of the nastiest stuff you’ve ever heard. But that’s Saget, and one of the things I love about this film is it’s starting to let people know that he’s really not the guy from Full House.”

To illustrate this, Provenza tells a story of the time when Saget’s wife had troubles during childbirth and ended up in a coma. “She was in a coma for three weeks, and the baby was sick and in an incubator and nearly died, and they both came through it eventually. So I called up Saget and went to visit, and he’s like “Yeah, the wife is resting, she nearly died, it was a rough time but it’s all good now… hey, do you wanna see the baby?” So I’m like, sure, and he takes me to the baby’s room and opens the door a little, and the tiniest sliver of light rolls across the child’s face and it’s the most beautiful moment. And I say, wow Bob, she’s really beautiful… and he says, “Yeah… I’ll let you finger her for a dollar.” That’s Saget, man, he’s just got the nastiest mouth out there. I’m like, “Saget, man!” and he says, “What? You think I can get a dollar fifty?”

Now, if you think that’s nasty, okay, you’re right. But that’s the point of The Aristocrats. It takes an audience to a place they can’t believe they’re laughing at, and then it takes them deeper, and it gets nastier, and filthier, and then it really gets warmed up. In the end, the punchline is almost irrelevant – it’s the journey getting there that’s the point of the exercise.

Language is at its most powerful, when it’s used to hurt people. You can call someone a faggot, and they’ll be offended, even hurt by the word. When many people use that word on a person, the effect can be not just detrimental, but even in some cases fatal. But when that person calls THEMSELVES a faggot, it’s no longer an abusive word. “Yeah, I’m a faggot. And?” By using the word, you take the word back, the same way black people have taken back ‘the N word’ and Woody Allen made Jewish stereotypes ridiculous instead of vicious. The Aristocrats, by throwing every single disgusting piece of imagery possible at an audience, is a joke that turns that vile imagery into harmless caricature. Talk about having sex with your daughter at your local Starbucks and you’ll get arrested, but talk about it in between a discussion of sex with a donkey and several midgets spinning on penis daisy-chains while a light show flashed around them, and the shock gives away to horror, and then laughter. Bingo, the language is taken back and becomes harmless once more.

“Some people have asked whether, by investing so much time on one joke, that we’re ruining it or lessening it for other people, and I say to that, we as comedians have never hidden the joke, it’s just that normal people usually don’t get it. The punchline isn’t really that funny, and that’s okay, because it’s not about the punchline, it’s about the way each person gets to it and what they add to the mix. You’re basically trying to go as disgusting as possible, for as long as possible, and keep the audience in hysteria… semen, blood, vomit, shit, incest, bestiality, you throw everything you can think of at the joke and after an hour of this build-up, the punchline just doesn’t even matter anymore.”

So who refused to be in Provenza’s film? The debut director takes a moment to think about the question, before answering, “…Some cunts. Nah, it’s okay. A few people had very good reasons to steer clear, so that’s cool. But everyone you see on screen, nobody had to be called twice. If anyone said, call me next week, or I’ll think about it, we just moved on. We only wanted people to be in this thing that REALLY wanted to be in it and didn’t have to be sold on it. I think we did pretty good on that front.”

No fucking doubt.

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originally posted: 03/12/05 20:51:48
last updated: 01/07/09 08:34:09
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