The Filthiest Joke Ever Told

One of the most talked about films this year is a tiny documentary that features a bunch of talking heads telling a variation of the same story. Sound boring? Perhaps we should mention those talking heads are 100 of the funniest comedians around--George Carlin, Jon Stewart, Gilbert Gottfried and Sarah Silverman to name a few--and the story they're all telling is the filthiest joke of all time.

The joke and the movie are called "The Aristocrats." We can't come even close to reprinting the joke here, but it begins like this: A man walks into a talent agency and announces to the booking agent that he has a family act. Asked to describe it, he launches into a litany of unspeakable filth--the family act includes everything from incest to bestiality to much, much worse.

The point of the joke, of course, is not the lame punch line (when the horrified agent asks what the name of the act is the man gleefully announces, "The Aristocrats!"), but rather how over the top the joke-teller can go when describing the act. The movie's tagline, after all, is "No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity" and--considering some of the hilarious iterations its director, comedian Paul Provenza, coaxes out of pros like Bob Saget and Drew Carey--it delivers on that promise many times over.

But not everyone is laughing: AMC, the theater chain, has decided not to show the documentary on any of its 3,500-plus screens. A company spokeswoman told NEWSWEEK last month that the film "would have very narrow appeal." Provenza, who coproduced the documentary with Penn Jillette, recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Nicki Gostin. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did you come up with the idea for this movie?

Paul Provenza: [Penn and I] had always laughed at this joke and we had always commented how interesting it was that whenever one of our friends did the joke it was completely unique. When we started working on this about five years ago Penn had gotten really deep into jazz, bebop jazz. He was talking about his passion for jazz and improvisation and I'm sitting there listening to him and thinking he's talking about comedy. You get to hear musicians reinterpret the same song but you don't ever get that same phenomenon with comedy. Any comedian that you would be interested in is going to do original stuff.

So we decided if we took this joke with a very simple structure which so many comedians know and said if everyone did their interpretation on it, we would get a jazz phenomenon. It lends itself to the idea of exploring the idea that it's the singer not the song. It's got this improvisational aspect to it. The fact that it's also filthy is very secondary.

What do you think of AMC deciding not to show the movie?

It's really just one guy who runs a chain of movie theaters and he has every right to say what he wants to show and not show. Let's make this very clear. It's not a joke for everybody; it's just that this particular guy feels the joke is not for him happens to be in a position where he can keep other people from enjoying it as well. It's weird. A guy who owns a supermarket would not [refuse to] stock diet Coke with lemon because he doesn't like it.

The irony is that obviously there's something else going on here, which is AMC, has shown "Irreversible" which has violent depictions of anal sex, it's shown "L.I.E." which has pedophilia. He has shown all sorts of movies with far more graphic and possibly offensive things than our movie, which is just people talking and using obscene words and telling a joke and having fun.

Why do you think people get hung up with bad language?

I have no idea. I think it's some sort of weird cultural propaganda.

Which comedians surprised you the most?

Some comedians surprised me because they were so gracious and willing to be a part of it. Phyllis Diller would never work blue like this yet she figured out a way to be true to who she was and not go down the road she didn't want to go down and still be a part of it.

I think Bob Saget will surprise a lot of people.

Bob is aware of his image and how that plays into what he's doing. How it amplifies what he's doing at any given moment. He brings that to the table, which gives him a unique angle.

Do you know when the joke started?

Nobody knows for sure but we have firsthand knowledge at least getting it back to the middle of the late 19th century. Jay Marshall, who is in the movie, died about a month and a half ago at the age of 94. He was a repository of showbiz history. He'd been working since a child in vaudeville and he told us that when he was about 7, an old guy told him the joke, and the old guy had heard it when he was a kid.

What extras will be on the DVD?

Well you know we have about 150 hours of footage with really funny people, all letting their hair down. There's a lot of funny stuff and stuff that speaks to craft and technique. Some people did dozens of versions. Mario Cantone did the joke as Joan Crawford, Julia Child and Bette Davis after her stroke.

Did you ever have to stop filming because you were laughing so much?

All the time. There's a whole performance by Billy the Mime that was completely unusable because we just couldn't stop laughing.