At 4 o’clock one morning in 2000, two old friends were drinking coffee at the Peppermill in Vegas and talking about comedy. One of them, the famous magician Penn Jillette, recounted a great night he’d recently spent watching a handful of comedians take turns telling the ”Banjo Sandwich” joke. It reminded Jillette of jazz, like watching Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane each riff on ”Bye Bye Blackbird.” Across the table, the stand-up comic Paul Provenza had a thought: Comedy is improv too. Somebody, Provenza suggested aloud, should make a documentary about a bunch of comedians telling the same joke.
”That was a eureka moment,” recalls Jillette, the 6-foot-6 raconteur best known as half of Penn & Teller. ”And then we said, ‘But what’s the joke? What the f— would the joke be?’ And then, as I recall it, the cinematic version is we said together, ‘Oh f—,”The Aristocrats”! It’s gotta be ”The Aristocrats”!’ There was no discussion.”
”The Aristocrats” is an ancient dirty joke out of vaudeville days. We’ll paraphrase it later, but for now, just imagine a gag with a big, empty hole in the middle, which the comic is required to fill with the foulest invention he or she can muster. Audiences rarely get to hear it. Rather, old-school stand-ups crack each other up with it, usually after sets, while hanging out next to the beer kegs in the dank back rooms of comedy clubs, or at coffee shops till dawn. It’s an inside joke, a comic’s secret handshake, and it’s always dirty.
Over the past five years, Jillette and Provenza lassoed more than 100 of their comedian friends into telling and dissecting ”The Aristocrats” on camera. One of them, Judy Gold, couldn’t believe she got so filthy. She was eight months pregnant at the time — ”and hormonal,” she says — and so she joked about an unborn baby committing lewd acts from the womb. After her taping, Gold called up Provenza and said she was worried she’d gone too far. ”You’ll be fine,” he assured her.
He wasn’t kidding. Gold is shocking and uproarious in the film, but she’s right at home, because Jillette and Provenza’s eyeball-bulging finished opus, called simply The Aristocrats is perhaps the most obscene movie ever made. It contains a huge spectrum of comics — the big names include George Carlin, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Stewart, Don Rickles, and Sarah Silverman, but lesser lights like Gregg Rogell, Dana Gould, and Wendy Liebman more than hold their own — joking about things like incest, diarrhea, dead grandmas, and popped hemorrhoids.
”You go down to the Peppermill now, there’s a plaque commemorating the movie,” Jillette jokes. Provenza pipes up: ”Yeah, it’s a little bronze rubber turd!”
Will The Aristocrats slay ’em in America? Sending it out to every big city in the country, THINKFilm has left the movie unrated; otherwise the MPAA would’ve surely slapped it with an advertising-unfriendly NC-17, even though it contains — as the posters note — no violence and no nudity, just the vilest language you’ve ever heard. The AMC theater chain, citing ”limited audience appeal” (and doing wonders for the movie’s publicity), refused to show it on their 3,500 screens. If the film continues to pick up heat, more complaints may be forthcoming. ”The best thing that could happen to the movie is its being attacked and censored,” says Gilbert Gottfried, who heroically delivers the movie’s stirring climax (and who, in normal conversation, sounds shy — nothing like his screaming persona). ”It gives it media attention and makes people want to see it.”
Believe it or not, the filmmakers insist that’s not the kind of attention they’re looking for. Jillette and Provenza — reunited last month backstage at the Rio in Vegas, where, six nights a week, Jillette juggles broken bottles and catches bullets with his teeth in his magic show with Teller — don’t want you to watch it if you don’t like dirty jokes. Seriously. Provenza laughs as he recalls screening The Aristocrats at February’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. An old lady walked out after 20 minutes, and the theater manager asked her if she wasn’t enjoying it. ”Do you know what’s in this movie?!” the elderly lady asked, perplexed.
”That’s why we want to be so clear that this is full of obscene language,” says Provenza, who directed the movie. They don’t want to trick anybody into going to see it. ”We’re saying, ‘You like to hear a good dirty joke? Come on in! If you don’t like good dirty jokes, there’s so many movies you’ll have a better time at.”’
Jillette, costar of the Showtime series Bulls—! (and The Aristocrats‘ exec producer), is the blunter of the pair. ”The reaction that we were getting from everybody is ‘Oh yeah, everybody’s gonna walk out and picket it, and it’ll be really controversial, and that’ll be really great and we’ll build the publicity on that!”’ he says. ”And I said, ‘You know, the other possibility is that people could like it. People could go, and laugh, and hold hands. They could come out afterwards and say, Wasn’t it great!”’ When somebody says to Jillette, ”I want to bring so-and-so to The Aristocrats because it’ll freak them out,” Jillette pleads with them. ”Don’t bother!” he says. ”You’ve got friends that are gonna love it. Bring them!”