Q&A with ‘Aristocrats’ director Paul Provenza
September 1, 2005
ASPEN – You’ve probably heard of “The Aristocrats” – either been warned away from the filth or advised not to miss the film, depending on what company you keep. And it is fairly common knowledge that the film revolves around one single, heinously dirty joke, told repeatedly by a who’s who of comedians.But it is a misconception that “The Aristocrats,” directed by Paul Provenza, is one comedian after another telling the same joke. The joke, told in backstage rooms since the dawn of the comedy club, serves like a jazz riff, as a skeleton for a variety of improvisations, styles and personalities. Interspersed with the telling of the joke – by a roster that includes George Carlin and Gilbert Gottfried, the “South Park” kids and Snowmass Village magician Eric Mead – are reflections on the joke that make “The Aristocrats” work as a film about comedy, rather than a comedy performance video. A really foul-mouthed performance video.From France, Provenza engaged in a Q-and-A by e-mail with The Aspen Times.
The Aspen Times: People often assume that if you use a few dirty words, you’re going to get laughs. Doesn’t the film demonstrate how much more of an art comedy is than that?Provenza: It’s not the subject matter or the language or any of that that makes something funny in comedy. It’s even more than craft, technique and skill. What an artist brings in addition to all those ingredients is what elevates any or all of it. Anyone can hit a high C. But only Callas is Callas. Anyone can say the words Gilbert Gottfried says. But it ain’t gonna be the same thing because Gilbert brings his uniqueness to it all, and that’s why he is a one-of-a-kind and can’t be compared to anybody else in comedy. You can try to find words for what that “thing” is, but you won’t. It’s just Gilbert. The movie also illustrates that creative artists can spin something beautiful and original from just about anything.The Aspen Times: What I liked about “The Aristocrats” is how it transcends the foulness to get at the heart of comedy. What do you think the film says about comedy in general?Provenza: First there’s the jazz analogy for stand-up. It’s much more closely related than people think – both, by the way, uniquely American art forms. Artists can work with the same raw material and create completely individual things as a result of who they are and their uniqueness. That fact seems understood in just about every art form but stand-up. This was an opportunity to engage in an exercise that might (and ultimately did, we believe) place the form of stand-up in the same context as any other respected art form. Because it deserves to be.
The Aspen Times: How did you find Eric Mead, whose appearance is one of the film’s highlights?Provenza: Eric is an old friend of Penn’s from magic circles, and I had worked with him ages ago on one bill or another. At one point we had finished shooting, but Eric hadn’t been included. Some time later we opened the project up and had to do some more shooting. We called Eric and said we had another opportunity to get him on tape after all. He couldn’t have been more excited, and what great luck it turned out to be for us that we had to open the shooting again.The Aspen Times: Have you taken any serious fire from people who say you are depraved, bad for our children?Provenza: We have been called puerile, smut-mongers. But we have also been called brave and courageous. Neither extreme is true, I’m afraid. We are just people who wanted to share some of the freedom and joy and creativity our lives are filled with. And to share some hilarious times that we had with our friends with an audience who would never otherwise have any access to all the lightning in a bottle we experience so frequently in our world.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgVail, Colorado