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Aristocrats directors: Relax, it's just a joke

Aristocrats directors: Relax, it's just a joke

It is not Fahrenheit 9/11 or The Passion of the Christ, but low-budget film The Aristocrats is fast becoming this summer's controversial movie because of only one thing--a joke. Passion kicked up a fuss over religious issues and violence, and anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit became an election year call-to-arms for critics of the U.S. president. In The Aristocrats, which debuts in U.S. theaters on Friday, comedians Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, who is part of the team Penn & Teller, chose 100 comics--from Robin Williams to Eddie Izzard to queer stand-ups Bruce Vilanch, Judy Gold, and Mario Cantone--to tell the same dirty joke. There is only one punch line but as many ways to tell the joke as there are comics. The filmmakers' goal is twofold: making audiences laugh and showing how comic minds work.

But the way the joke is told is so filthy--filled with scatological and sexual references--that AMC theaters, the number 2 movie chain in the country, has chosen to exclude Aristocrats from its theaters. While some movie marketers might try to work to avoid controversial topics when promoting films, Provenza and Jillette are trumpeting them. "We have no desire to sucker punch people.... We're letting people know what they are going to see," Jillette told Reuters. "We have a movie that has no nudity, no violence, and unspeakable obscenity." The filmmakers did not seek a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America because they believed the film would be slapped with an NC-17 rating, which would have restricted it to adults only and caused some theaters to refuse to show it.

"There is a joy and love in this movie that belies the notion that it's filthy and vulgar," Provenza said. The joke begins when a performer walks into a talent office seeking work. An agent asks him about his act, so the performer explains it in the most vulgar terms, including descriptions of body functions and sex acts. The punch line comes when the agent asks what the act is called. The performer answers: "The Aristocrats." As punch lines go, it's not that funny. But the way some comics describe the act makes audiences howl. Others, however, won't repeat the joke, and still more startle audiences with a retelling that seems to be pulled from real life. What emerges is a sort of portrait of comedians at work and at play.

"It's like giving 100 canvasses to 100 painters and saying, 'Paint this nude person,'" said Bob Saget, the former star of wholesome TV comedy Full House. "Some people won't paint it because it's a nude person. Some people will paint it incredibly sexually; some people will paint it covered up. Some will paint it deviantly," he said. Saget said that he has seen many documentaries that try to explain comedy and tell how jokes are dreamed up but none that show the jokesters improvising on one tall tale. "The process of creating comedy is no different than the process Picasso went through or Mozart went through," said Provenza. "That was the sort of undercurrent for me in making this movie. I said, 'You know what, maybe I can get people to understand and respect what artists people in comedy are."'

Provenza said they used "The Aristocrats" joke not because it is dirty but because its structure allows each comedian to take the story in a new direction. Jillette likens the improvising done by the comedians to improvising jazz music. "There's really not much of a difference between Gilbert Gottfried and [John] Coltrane in terms of what goes on in their heads," he said. To catch the comedians at their most relaxed, Provenza and Jillette shot the documentary using small digital cameras and a limited crew. They arranged for interviews in performers' homes or offices or backstage before a show. Some comedians such as Wendy Liebman and Paul Reiser surprised the filmmakers with their renditions of the joke, which Jillette liked. "The idea was to be surprised," he said.

What the pair did not expect was that the film would become a lightning rod for controversy. "People in comedy, most of us, we were the ones that got in trouble in high school," Provenza said. "We have the same defense we had when we were getting thrown out: It's just a joke." (Bob Tourtellotte, via Reuters)

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