Provenza participated in YSU's humor seminar earlier this summer.
By MILAN PAURICH
"Nobody agrees on what's funny, and that's the beautiful part of it. Most people want paintings that match their couch, but comedy is an art form that's all about not conforming. It doesn't reaffirm the status quo; it's subversive by nature. In fact, the only constant common denominator of comedy IS subversion."
That's "The Aristocrats" director Paul Provenza attempting to explain what he considers funny in a recent interview. "The Aristocrats," Provenza's unfettered documentary in which a group of famous comedians tell their version of the world's filthiest joke (think the Marquis de Sade meets the Borscht Belt) was the breakout hit at January's Sundance Film Festival. And it's now doing the tour of art houses nationwide (including Cleveland).
Amazingly -- and despite the fact that the AMC Chain refuses to book the movie into any of their 3,500 screens -- "The Aristocrats" seems to be finding large, loud, and enthusiastic audiences in theaters as well. (It earned a staggering $65,000-per-screen in its opening weekend of limited release.)
As gleefully, even childishly obscene and disgusting as Provenza's film is, there's something oddly touching about the sight of so many brilliant, creative comic minds banding together in a fraternity of humor. While "The Aristocrats" isn't for everyone -- a point that Provenza was willing to concede during our interview -- you've never seen (or heard) anything like it before.
Q. Whose idea was it to make "The Aristocrats"?
A. Penn [Jillette] and I came up with the idea together. We were always on the same page about what we wanted it to be: joyful; loving; honest; mysterious; what makes an artist special; etc. And it was a chance to go behind the scene and hang out with our friends in an interesting way. We were pleasantly surprised that there's more going on than that, however. Everyone's unique, and our movie celebrates their individuality.
Q. Why do you have sole directing credit?
A. Penn [the film's executive producer] likes to say that he has a great knack for making his friends do all the work (laughs). Since he had no particular interest in directing himself, he let me carry out my vision for the film. And actually, not a single inch that Penn shot was even remotely usable. (laughs)
Q. Were you afraid that sharing the "Aristocrats" joke with the general public would be like a magician revealing his tricks?
A.. Not really, because it's not a secret handshake by design -- just in a de facto sort of way. I don't know a comedian who wouldn't be happy to live in a world where everybody gets this joke. It just remained in the comedy and music worlds because it's very difficult to communicate outside of the showbiz community.
Q. How long was the original cut? Was there anything you hated losing?
A. A lot actually. If people come and see the film, there's a chance we'll get to release an amazing DVD with lots of stuff that we left out. My first cut was only about an hour 50 minutes, though, because I knew that it had to move quickly and get a rhythm going. I was always shooting for a 90 minute movie. Personally, I would never waste anyone's time releasing a four-hour director's cut, so no, I never languished over the decision of what to cut and what to leave in.
Q. I was surprised that some famous comics [e.g., Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Davis, and Bernie Mac] weren't in the movie. Did anyone turn you down?
A. Roseanne wanted to do it, but after four years of shooting we just had to move on. We spoke to Jerry, but it was around the time "Comedian" was released and he thought it would be too similar. He supported the idea of the film, though, and called some people for us. A lot of comics aren't in it because ... I don't know why. Whether it was because we didn't make a second phone call, or their agents or managers stymied us, I'm not really sure. Penn had long conversations with Rodney Dangerfield and Buddy Hackett, but they were both too ill to participate.
Q. How have non-industry types reacted to the film? Are you afraid that the "general public" will be turned off or simply not "get it"?
A. Surprisingly, they seem to be embracing it more than industry people who are scared of it somehow. Everybody tells dirty jokes, and nobody's heard this one before. But it's not a movie for everyone -- take my mom for instance (laughs).
We're very clear about that in the advertising which lets you know upfront that it contains the vilest language you've ever heard. Unlike Michael Moore, we don't want to change anybody's minds. If you're offended by this sort of thing, don't see our movie. Period.
Q. How did you get involved with YSU's humor seminar this summer?
A. YSU geology professor Dr. Ray Biersdorfer is a friend of mine and Penn's. He mentioned "The Aristocrats" to the folks who were putting the seminar together, and they came to us. It was great hanging out with academicians; I think I held my own pretty well (laughs). I love the notion of pursuing the minutiae of humor in a scholarly fashion and the disciplinary aspect because it raises so many interesting questions. Linguistics; ethnography; sociology; literature; it's all related to comedy.
Q. In your opinion, who's the all-time greatest stand-up comedian?
A. Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin are the undisputed masters of the form. And I think Sarah Silverman is one of the most challenging comedians I've ever heard. She's phenomenal in her ability to make you laugh at something that's inherently uncomfortable. To me that's true subversion.