The Filth and the Funny
The Aristocrats Examines The Anatomy Of A Joke
A man walks into a theatrical agent’s office and says, “I’ve got a new act for you.” The agent says, “OK, what’s the act?” The man describes a series of sexual, scatological, sacrilegious, and criminal atrocities unprintable even in alternative weeklies. The horrified agent asks, “What’s the name of this act?” The man says, “The Aristocrats.”
OK, the joke reads fine in print, but it’s really best when told. And hearing it told by a cross section of comedians in Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette’s new documentary The Aristocrats proves a thorough and overdue exploration of artistry in joke telling. “People love dirty jokes,” says director Provenza, phoning from a New York hotel room where’s he’s on a publicity junket for the movie. Provenza—most recognizable outside stand-up as the “Not Joel” doctor from Northern Exposure—has a florid vocabulary and an ingratiating way of speaking. He quickly fills gaps in conversation with an unconscious “Isn’t that interesting?,” the practiced reflex of a seasoned stage comic getting the upper hand on a potentially lethal silence. “Everyone loves them. Everyone tells them.”
His buddy Jillette had recently developed an evangelical fervor for jazz. That got Provenza thinking about how jazz hounds froth over different musicians’ spins on existing melodies, while comedy, despite celebrating “improv,” had never been scrutinized the same way. “We’ll hear different singers sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’” Provenza says. “We’ll see some cathedral in France painted again and again by different artists, but we’ve never seen that from a comic artist.”
The idea inspired an experiment: Film many different comedians telling their version of the same joke, to demonstrate how it’s not the song, it’s the singer—or, more accurately, it’s not that there’s a man onstage violating many local statutes, it’s that it’s Bob Saget describing it to you. The ideal joke for the experiment would be one that contained a great deal of flexibility in timing, language, context, and delivery. Provenza immediately thought of “The Aristocrats.”
He first heard the joke as a young comic in the late ’70s (“a great time to be a comic, by the way,” he adds) from, as was typical, another professional working the stand-up circuit. “It’s not an exercise in being filthy, necessarily,” he says. “The top note is that it’s the filthiest joke imaginable, but really what it does is show off the individual comic’s way of telling a joke.”
In the movie how much variation exists is instantly evident. Emo Phillips’ still-perverse version floats like a silly soap bubble, while George Carlin excels at wiseacre gross-out. Whoopi Goldberg goes for anatomical impossibility, while Sarah Silverman spins the joke’s basic elements into a first-person monologue with a slowly dawning (and sick) denouement. There are versions done as a card trick, a ventriloquist’s act, and a mime routine. And then there’s Steven Wright, whose solemn retelling reminds that comedy and tragedy sometimes share a ZIP code.
“Steven Wright is the perfect example of how this works,” Provenza says. “We caught up with him in Las Vegas, in this hotel, and we were going up to the room to shoot his footage, and the key card doesn’t work. And this guy we’re with says, ‘I’ll go down to the front desk and get another key.’ Well, in Las Vegas, that means going through the casino and to the desk, and that’s 45 minutes. So we’re waiting there, and I think, Could we do this in the hall? And I turn to Steven and ask him if he could tell the joke right there in the hallway, and he says . . . ” Here Provenza drops into an eerie facsimile of Wright’s dolorous monotone: “‘Oh, that’s cool—like The Shining?’ That’s why his version is so dark.”
Provenza took all comers who wanted to participate but regrets a few that got away. Buddy Hackett was a great cheerleader for the project but demurred immediate participation, afraid he had deteriorated too much for an on-camera appearance. (True to his instincts, he died not soon after.) It was the same story with Rodney Dangerfield. Provenza was itching to have Johnny Carson participate but, wanting to honor the finality of his retirement, he decided not to ask him. (“It’s his favorite joke,” Provenza claims.)
After a four-year shoot yielding 150 hours of footage, Provenza rewatched every tape until themes emerged. With the help of editor Emery Emery, the footage slowly gelled into a cohesive thesis, sometimes discarding very funny material in favor of more illustrative, but less yuk-yuk, scenes. As much as it kills any comedian to cut good material, Provenza knew the goal of the movie was always to illustrate what makes a joke work—the timing, the content, the phrasing, whether “The Sophisticates” works better as a punch line than “The Aristocrats,” or if either option needs to be accompanied by a debonair gesture for maximum effect. “Jokes are thought of as something you hear at a party, and that’s it,” Provenza says. “But a well-crafted joke deserves as much respect as a haiku.”
For a movie with, as Provenza puts it, “no conflict, no hostility, no anger, no violence, and lots and lots of laughter,” The Aristocrats has been demonized as the most dangerous movie in America—even though the movie itself has nothing but talking heads, like a perverse My Dinner With Andre. The AMC theater chain recently declared it won’t show it.
This should be the moment where the wronged artist takes a stand, but Provenza won’t take the bait. “[AMC] wants to see a bunch of martyrs complaining about free speech,” he says. “But we’re not going to do that. We’re not fighting for free speech—we already have it.
“This is a wildly patriotic film,” he continues. “And I think that people of all kinds, people of all races, genders, politics, everyone will go see this movie and come to the same conclusion—that Bob Saget is one sick fuck.”