FEATURING George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams
DIRECTED BY Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette
Opens Friday, August 19
Actor-comedian Paul Provenza is talking to me from California on a sporadically dying cellphone. Sometimes the background noise is so brutal that he goes silent until it passes.
"Where are you?"
"Fallujah," deadpans Provenza, who currently is spending most of his days discussing his new career of filmmaker. As director, co-producer and co-creator of The Aristocrats along with comedian-magician Penn Jillette Provenza has a lot to talk about, even if the noise of the street cleaner in front of his house threatens to overpower the conversation.
At its core, The Aristocrats is a documentary that shows roughly 100 comedians, comedy writers and insiders talking about and telling one joke. The joke starts with the basic premise "A man walks into a talent agents office and says Have I got a show for you!" Then it ends with the same punchline, "The Aristocrats!" What happens between the first line and the last is up to the comedian, but it generally involves bodily fluids, incest, bestiality and a bunch of ridiculous, convoluted images meant to make the audience laugh. If youre Howie Mandel, its a chance to use the C-word (the one that rhymes with punt) over and over again. Its an old joke, but one that, until now, has rarely made its way into the public sphere, instead being treated like a rite of passage among comedians.
"I was probably 18 or 19 or 20 when I first heard it, right at the beginning of my career in standup," says Provenza. "Rick Overton, who appears in the movie, told it to me. I always associate him with this great early memory."
Provenzas now in his late 40s and has spent the last four of them travelling with Jillette, getting every comedian from George Carlin and Shelley Berman to Sarah Silverman and Merrill Markoe to give their take on this twisted tale. The results are often hilarious, if not for the faint of heart. But The Aristocrats is more than a gag reel. Theres a lot of insight into what makes comedy work and the process behind a good joke. In one of the films more sombre moments, Silverman takes the joke and turns it into a confessional, lying on a sofa and staring into the camera with sad eyes as she reminisces about her life as the youngest daughter of The Aristocrats. Its a little bit reality TV, a little bit Barbara Walters interview and turns the classic switch-style gag upside-down.
"Sarahs a great example of what this movie is about," Provenza enthuses. "Shes phenomenal, fearless and smart. The way she pauses and the audience can tell that what shes about to say is going to be really dark
its such a great scene. She took the concept and made it totally her own."
Earlier in the film, Eddie Izzard a comedian known for telling brilliantly tangential stories that tie together in his singularly twisted fashion is filmed admitting he doesnt know the joke and quickly running through a list of elements that could or should be included.
"People say to me, The part with Eddie Izzard isnt that funny. But thats not the point. Anyone who has seen him perform knows what hes like and they just got the chance to see a bit of his process, the way he runs ideas through his head. As an audience, you never get to see that. But here it is. Its a look at comedians that audiences never see. Just like the scene with Tom and Dick Smothers. We run text beneath them to let you know that Tommy knows the joke, but Dickie doesnt. That gives you a whole other way of seeing the scene. It also shows you how well they work together, because if you didnt know, youd think it was a well-rehearsed bit. "
Theres been some talk about the way seemingly straight-and-narrow Bob Saget reveals himself as one of the biggest potty mouths around, which Provenza dismisses by saying, "30-million people thought Saget was milquetoast. Thirty-million people were very wrong." But as much as its a revelation to watch Saget leave Full House in ruins, its equally refreshing to see guys like Robin Williams and Billy Connolly comedians who have made the switch from R-to-PG rated material have a little fun.
"Robin Williams is interesting because he has made a career as a serious actor, though he used to work blue. But thats the thing about The Aristocrats it proves that everyone, everyone, loves to tell a dirty joke."