September 2, 2005

All About The Aristocrats

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DAZE: Deconstruction of comedy, magic … what excites you about deconstructing things?

Gillette: I don’t know. I really think that it’s a human being’s job to tell the truth as you see it, and I think that everybody goes through a phase when they’re 16 or 17 where they’re obsessed with the idea of truth, and you’re supposed to grow out of that and I didn’t. This movie started from a conversation between Provenza and me. I met Provenza at the Peppermill, which is a diner in Vegas, four and a half years ago and we started talking. I was obsessed with bebop jazz and I was talking to Provenza about improvisation and what improvisation in real time meant in listening to Coltrane and Miles Davis, Mingus, and Sonny Rollins -that really 50s pure bebop thing, and what that meant. And how that got me thinking about improvisation in comedy. Provenza said, “You know, you always hear musicians improvising over the same song. You never hear comedians tell the same joke.”

DAZE: You were saying that Gilbert’s [Godfrey] rendition was the catalyst of the start of the project. Provenza: No, that’s a misconception. We weren’t looking for something to do.
Gillette: We had jobs!
Provenza: My point is that we didn’t say, “Let’s do something together; what would be a good idea?” This came up and we just said, “You know what? We really have to do this. This feels really cool.”

Gillette: And I think what’s so good about this movie is that it can’t be pitched. I think that almost by definition, if you can pitch it in 20 minutes in a room to people in a studio, it’s not a good idea, because you’ve already said it. If you have something that epigrammatical and that kind of perfect and stripped down, why would you do a movie about it? And that’s why we see all this stuff that is derivative. You like War of the Worlds? Let’s do it again! And this time we’ll burlesque 9/11. Won’t that be cool! And because Hollywood is so desperate and studios are dying and they’re clutching, they have this, “Well, we’ve gotta get Tom Cruise in it cause he’s a name that can open a movie.” I mean, what is the idea? Where is the idea? We didn’t have to pitch it. We did it with our own money. George Carlin insisted. George Carlin being the godfather of this, with no wiggle room, he said “You need to make me a promise and a promise that you’ll make to every person in this movie, that you will not take a penny from anyone until the editing is finished and then it will not be changed.” And we made that promise to George Carlin, so when people started hearing that we were doing it, we had some calls from people that said, “Have you got 75 comedians on tape telling a joke and is it really funny? Can we make a deal with you?” We said no because once we make a deal with you, we no longer have any footage. It all goes away. The sound was cleaned up and the video was cleaned up but the edit, the ideas, are what Provenza finished with no change whatsoever from anyone else, including me.

DAZE: Any comedians not happy that the joke is getting out there? Provenza: It’s not really a secret handshake. It’s not like there’s some comedy illuminati that’ll hunt us down with rubber chickens or anything. It’s a secret handshake de facto. As people took this joke outside the world of comedy it just became a lot riskier and you were faced with a lot of people who you had to explain yourself to, so it just kind of stayed in that closed circle. But the truth is that I don’t know a comedian worth his salt who wouldn’t be happy to live in a world where everyone got the Aristocrats joke. The reason we’re all so frustrated when we’re in high school or junior high school is because everyone around us doesn’t seem to get it.

DAZE: Seeing the movies with audiences, are you surprised by what gets laughter? Provenza: Well, you know what? Once you have a couple hundred people in the theater, that ratio kicks in and there’s always someone laughing at all times, but always at different things which I think is phenomenal. This movie really brings people together-people from all ideologies, backgrounds and ethnicities. They can look at the world totally differently, love and hate different things, and they all walk out agreeing that Bob Saget is a filthy fuck, so in a strange way the movie is bringing people together.

Gillette: And the thing is that, you know, everybody was talking up at Sundance, and I hope you remember this, cause it’s quite a prediction, about how people were going to walk out of this movie, it’s going to be controversial. And I kept saying, “No, it’s not. It’s a movie, you know?” When we were in high school I got thrown out of school a dozen times. We would tell jokes in the cafeteria and then someone would rat you out to the principal, like the guy at AMC, would rat you out.

Provenza: Someone’s having fun!

Gillette: Mr. Jones, come over here!

Provenza: You forgot to give us homework over the holiday!

Gillette: And we’d get thrown out, we’re still laughing at this, It’s a lot of fun. Our defense now is exactly what our defense was in high school, which is –

Provenza: It’s just a joke!

More from Penn and Provenza!

DAZE: There aren’t a lot of alternative comedians in the movie … is that because they don’t do Friar’s type stuff?

Provenza: I don’t know what that means. For us, they’re just funny people and you know, friends of ours. I forget that people categorize. We actually forget about it.

Gillette: One of the obsessions that I have is that there’s one show business and people try to break it down and they try to break it down for mercantile reasons really. But there’s one show business and Gilbert Gottfried and Miles Davis and Picasso and the guy at the mall in the Santa suit and Bach all have the exact same job. Every stripper, all pornography and all legitimate stuff is exactly the same. It’s what we do after the chores are done. If you don’t work in the hospital and you’re not making food and you’re not making shelter and you’re not doing anything to keep human beings alive, you’re in show business.

DAZE: When you made the list of comics –

Gillette: I just told him to stop. I said “That’s it! We’re done.”

Provenza: At some point, the voice of reason and Penn’s accountant spoke. I mean, we spent four and a half years shooting footage and at some point we were running into the issues of who’s available, the scheduling. We started running into the same scheduling issues with the same people over and over again and we also had accumulated so much. At that point, it was kind of like chomping at the bit. Like, let’s see what this. We don’t know what this is going to be yet. Gillette: Art thrives on its limitations and we didn’t have limitations. We could do whatever we wanted. We had forty people on the list who said yes who we wanted. Lorne Michaels, Mike Nichols, Conan O’Brien, they were all ready to go and we just couldn’t get in the same city with them when they had an extra hour and it just seemed like “We can’t start editing without Lorne. We gotta have Lorne Michaels! We gotta have Conan O’Brien! We’ve gotta call Albert Brooks again!” And then we just said, “No, no this is what we’ll make it out of.” And I believe from the very beginning that although this is a group of the most funny, talented people in the world, what we really needed was Provenza’s heart and his love for comedians, his love for the world, his love for comedy and his love for the comedy culture.

DAZE: To some of the comics, telling this joke seems almost therapeutic or cathartic Provenza: Well, freedom and joy is cathartic and that’s what happens when creative people get together. In this case, they have a task. They were given a challenge or a toy as it were and then what you get is people just being free and being creative and for an artist, that is cathartic.

Gillette: I don’t think that the taboo images are particularly cathartic. I think just hanging out with your friends and saying whatever pops into your head is cathartic. It just so happens we’ve filmed it.

Provenza: Comedians have to deal with audience pe
rceptions, they have to deal with their images, they have to deal with taboos, they have to deal with common denominators and communicating successful to as many people – those are the caveats that come with working with words and performing. Imagine going to a 5 year old and saying “You know what, you can finger paint and it doesn’t matter where you get the paint. It can go on the walls, on the ceiling, your clothes, up your nose, nobody cares. Just go crazy.” That’s cathartic.

DAZE: At Sundance, you said that you saw the film as the great anti-censorship statement because this film will offend anyone.

Gillette: I know this AMC guy did this little publicity stunt where he decided that “Oh, I’ll say that I’m not going to show it and I’m banning it.” And I say to him that you don’t have the right to use the word ban or censorship. You’re not the government. You’re a shopkeeper who has decided not to carry a product that some of his customers will want. It’s so cynical and so transparent. He picks a movie that can’t hurt him. If he picked War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg and the studio would crush him. He wants to grab a little bit of moral high ground because he thinks he can get his name in the paper and then we’re supposed to play the side of victims. But the rest of the country, 300 million people, sit back and go, “We have complete freedom of speech.” Eminem had the top album last year. The rappers are keeping that open, the hiphop guys are doing fabulous work, 50 Cent is doing whatever he wants and he’s not going to jail, unlike 2 Live Crew, unlike Lenny Bruce. And these Hollywood people are going, “Oh, but the Christian Right is coming down to us!” You are not Lenny Bruce! You are an old cocaine fucking head with a half a billion dollars! You are not oppressed! Go to Malibu and just live, you stupid old cunt! George W. Bush tells dirty jokes, tells them to Kinky Friedman, Kinky tells them to me. The Nascar drivers tell dirty jokes. There was not a 4th of July celebration in this great country of ours that did not have someone telling a dirty joke. It’s very hard to find. The truth of the matter is that we’re not oppressed at all. One guy in Kansas City saying that his chain will not show our movie is not censorship. You’ll all see this movie. Everybody that reads about it and wants to see it will find a way to see it. It’s an important issue and it’s important to strip away all the jive, all the lies and all the hype and state what happened with AMC very clearly. One man, with a very small penis who is sexually inadequate, tried unsuccessfully to crush the two greatest filmmakers of the 21st Century.

Provenza: The thing about this fundamentalist swing and all that stuff is that it’s all a lie and it’s important not to buy into the propaganda. When you check into a hotel room, the porno is $9.95 and they still give you the bible for free.

Archived article by Dara Gordon