"Most importantly, it was just the two of us fucking around," says Penn Jillette, one of the film’s producers, referring to himself and longtime friend Paul Provenza, the film’s director.
Now, the buzz-worthy film is set for national release, although AMC has started controversy by banning the movie from its theaters.
Both comics in their own right – Jillette, a part of the comic/magic duo Penn and Teller, and Provenza, a stand-up comic – set out to tell the story behind the infamous joke "The Aristocrats." Perhaps the dirtiest joke of all time, it has been told amongst comedians, but rarely in public, since the vaudeville era. The beginning of the joke concerns a family that walks into a talent agency and the end is always the same, but it is up to the performer to take the middle part of the joke’s disgusting nature as far as possible.
"It’s a really bad idea on paper," says Provenza. "It’s astonishing, the leap of faith that people took."
The people he’s referring to are over 100 comedians, many of them good friends of Provenza and Jillette, including George Carlin, Steven Wright and one of the dirtiest men in the business, Bob Saget. Famous for his clean roles on "Full House" and "America’s Funniest Home Videos," as well as his less wholesome turns in Half-Baked, "Entourage" and his stand-up performances, Saget recites possibly the most vulgar version in the film.
"Everything I’m attracted to goes against type, but not purposely,"
Saget says. "I still find perverse things funny."
Saget is extremely quick with crass one-liners, as evidenced during the interview when his phone rang and he announced that it was the "hookers from last night." In fact, it was his daughter.
The former Danny Tanner expressed pleasant surprise that the film had come this far. "This is insane to me," he said. "I thought it would be DVD sales or play at a Laemmle’s [theater]. Now I think it’s going to make lots of money."
The film, which Carlin calls "a snapshot of comedy," has a great amount of buzz, especially coming off a strong festival circuit performance.
At one point, Provenza had 140 hours of footage, which took over a year to edit down. The film could have gone "a thousand" different ways, according to the director.
"As I was re-watching the footage, ideas started to emerge," he says. "They were a lot of the same ideas that we first talked about. It took lots of twists and turns along the way. But it always came back to creativity, individuality, art and freedom." In terms of structure, the final product features the comedians talking about the joke with a few complete retellings inter-cut throughout.
Provenza’s and Jillette’s great love for old-school comedians clearly guided them through this project. For example, Jillette says they watched hours and hours of Lenny Bruce footage to prepare. They also spoke to veterans Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett and Johnny Carson, but they didn’t make it in the film due to their age.
"With Johnny Carson," Jillette says, "it was his favorite joke, and he was behind the idea. But he’s retired, and respect dictates that you just don’t go there."
Regardless, there are some scenes in the film that are sure to be remembered for a long time, such as the graphic renditions by Billy the Mime and Eric Cartman of "South Park." However, the one moment that many say transcends comedy is Gilbert Gottfried’s version. He told it in public at a televised roast shortly following 9/11, after he made some jokes about the attacks that might be placed in the "too soon" category. The crowd turned on him, but then turned for him after he let loose with the joke.
It is important to note, though, that this joke and this film are not for everyone. It is amazing how far some comedians take this joke, which contains much bathroom humor and talk about incest.
Saget warns people about the film. "If you don’t find this kind of humor funny, don’t see the movie," he says. "My mother wanted to see it, and I said, ‘No!’ But my daughter’s seeing it."
After a pause, Saget smiles and says, "She’s going to be so proud."
The Aristocrats is currently in theaters.