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Penn Jillette Talks About "The Aristocrats"

Penn Jillette Discusses Making the Documentary Film, "The Aristocrats"

By Fred Topel

Penn Jillette Talks About

Penn Jillette and Teller

© THINKFilm
The Basic Joke: “Well, a guy walks into a talent agent. The talent agent says, ‘What’s up? You’ve got about a minute.’ The guy says, ‘We’ve got a great act. It’s a family act. I come out, I rape my two kids, we s**t on the ground, slide around in it.’ He says, ‘What do you call an act like that?’ He says, ‘The Aristocrats.’ That’s the way it appeared in the Legman book in 1964.” Jillette says that’s the bare bones version of the joke. “That’s the version that actually Jay Marshall told to Legman and Jay Marshall is the first person to tell the complete joke in our movie.”

Did Penn Jillette Ever Consider Co-Directing “The Aristocrats?” “By many, many definitions I did. But the real definition and the reason the credit is like that is I dated a geologist in the ‘70s and ‘Apocalypse Now’ came out. She said to me, ‘I don’t want to see one man’s ego trip.’ And I said, ‘You know, I don’t want to see anything else.’

I think one of the big problems with movies, the ones that I go to that I really don’t like, is that feeling of committee. The only thing a committee ever agrees on is beige. So it was very important, and [George] Carlin actually laid this down as a law for signing the release. He made us promise that we would not take a penny from anyone or any advice from anyone until the final edit was done, and that that would not change. We promised George that because we didn’t want anybody saying, ‘You know, this is great boys. We’ll give you the money but we need a little more Robin Williams, a little less Gilbert [Gottfried], okay?’

George has been around enough to know that once you’ve got anybody else involved, there would be that kind of stuff. So there was no input whatsoever in the movie except me and [Paul] Provenza. And I told Provenza, and I’m rather proud of this, I said to Provenza early on, ‘We’re not going to make this together because we will weaken it. Any time we disagree, you win and you win without defending it. I’ll give you comments, but you do not have to defend anything.’ The one conflict we did have, and Provenza tells this story better than I do, is he did another re-edit rather late. I called him up and said, ‘This movie looks like you’re trying to please people. It no longer looks as much like it’s coming from your heart. The last cut I didn’t understand parts of it on an intellectual level. It was more emotional and it was so you and it was so purely Paul Provenza. Now I feel like you’ve put me, my sensibility into it, and that you’re playing to a broader audience. That’s not what we set out to do, bro. Take it back, make it crazy.’

Provenza said, ‘You know, that’s not usually the comment you get from your money person.’ But it’s really important because the movie, although it’s a collaborative effort and everybody in it is brilliant, the thing that with any sort of thought you realize right away is it’s Provenza holding your hand and bringing you through this, and showing you all the arcs and the storylines that really teach you.

The raw footage is hysterical. We could sit down, we have 140 hours, we could sit down in my living room and I could show it to you and you’d be on the floor laughing. But the way it’s put together and the way it’s laid out is I think what makes it really beautiful - and that’s all Provenza. …Provenza typed out, transcribed all 140 hours himself. And not just the important stuff. He typed in Eric Idle saying, ‘Oh, you guys taping already? Where do you want me to sit?’ That’s all typed out. And Provenza’s a smart cat, very smart cat, and I think he pretty much memorized it. He has this savant thing going with ‘The Aristocrats.’ If you ask him any cut in the movie what the next sentence is, he can tell you. So he kind of put it together in this kind of Mozart way where he transcribed it all, read it over and then sat for three months. And then came in and said, ‘Now I’m ready to edit.’”

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