Does obscenity transcend party lines? "It's not a red state or blue state thing," says Penn Jillette of his and fellow comic Paul Provenza's new documentary The Aristocrats, a joyful cornucopia of sex, bestiality, incest and shit-shit everywhere (see film review-and read the joke-on page 63).
And it's true: It's just as easy to imagine some twentysomething hipster cracking up at the verbal diarrhea spewed by onscreen comics as it is a cigar-smoking, old-money board member. Similarly, ultra-liberal women's studies majors and über-conservative Parents Television Council members are both likely to walk out of the theater burning with disgust at a film in which women and children are mentioned most often as receptacles for bodily fluids.
The verbal obscenity of The Aristocrats is so extreme, so absurd that it defies the traditional process of determining right or wrong that often separates people into left or right, blue or red-it's a kind of moral-compass overload. When a comic ebulliently describes having anal intercourse with his dog while his family swims in a pool of their own feces, you're either too busy laughing or gagging into a popcorn bag to weigh the thought on your own, carefully calibrated scales of justice or decency.
But while Jillette sees his work as above the red-blue culture war, he's not above taking shots at those who perpetrate it. During WW's recent phone interview with the comic, he talked shit about those people while explaining extremely loudly The Aristocrats, the political statements of his "apolitical" movie, and the power of very, very bad words.
WW: Why "The Aristocrats" joke?
Penn Jillette: Provenza and I had been talking for 20 years about this weird little piece of minutia in comedy-that there was a joke, "The Aristocrats," that had been around 100 years and comedians like to tell backstage but virtually nobody told onstage. There was no doubt for us that it had to be "The Aristocrats." If you picked a joke that people have done onstage, then you've got a joke that's like, "Oh, that's great for the Smothers Brothers, but it's not right for Steven Wright." You needed a joke that was, in a certain sense, wrong and right for everybody.
Now that you've outed "The Aristocrats," all these punk kids are probably going to be telling it and fucking it up-like I did the other day. It's no longer just for comics. Does this ruin the joke?
Not at all. If we cared about the joke, we would have never given the punch line in the title. We knew it was just about the soloist. The wonderful thing about this movie is the idea of improvisation in jazz and in comedy, the figurative idea of: Can you compare Gilbert Gottfried to Miles Davis in terms of what they do in terms of soloing? For us, the answer is "yes." The fact that punk kids try it and see that "Boy, even saying "fucking your dog" a bunch of times-I'm just not as funny as [Bob] Saget." I think it teaches you a lot. The fact that you try telling the joke and you don't do that well, it's like taking your trumpet lessons in high school and going, "Man, those guys are good!"
You've said that The Aristocrats is political in that it has no political message.
I just think that nothing is a bigger celebration of the United States of America than people sitting down and feeling that they can say anything that pops into their head. You try to tell one part of this joke in an Islamic country; have a woman tell it. We should all be going "Woohoo! What a cool place we have." We've got Eminem with the top album last year, 50 Cent's on the charts, we've got old vaudevillians telling the joke they want to tell, and we've got March of the Penguins.
How do you feel about the AMC theater chain refusing to show the film?
I've been around the block and I know how that really has nothing to do with me. A very cynical guy who is president of a company that is probably too big for him to be handling needed for his stockholders to get his name in the paper, and he figures he can come out against this movie with swearing in it. "Now, here's The Aristocrats: How about I just come out and make this statement and they'll come out as martyrs and act like Michael Moore and it'll make everybody money and we're all terrific." He got what he wanted, but I wasn't willing to play the game.
Is this a form of corporate censorship?
I wouldn't insult our country by saying I'm being censored. I'm not being censored. One wacky store owner just decided not to stock olives. Most people that want to see it are going to see it. It's a great, great country, and we shouldn't use the word censorship and insult our country just because one needle-dick motherfucker was insecure about his presidency.
Does it surprise you that people are still offended so strongly by words today?
The fact that people are still bothered by words is kind of uplifting. You want to do this weird thing where you walk this line and say, "We should be able to say anything we want because that doesn't hurt anybody." And in the same breath, you want to say, "American Idiot by Green Day does have some emotional power in its lyrics." You want to have it both ways, and the way you have it both ways is to say, as a culture, "We can't pick and choose; but an individual can."
A.O. Scott in The New York Times calls the movie one of the "most rigorous pieces of criticism" he's seen in a while-this about a movie where a guy describes shooting his son in the head and then fucking the bullet-hole. Were you expecting such acclaim from mainstream critics?
It's wonderfully reassuring. It's very beautiful that that kind of stuff can communicate with a complete stranger. I haven't met A.O. Scott, and yet we're talking to him through this thing and he's getting it and understanding it. We would not have worked this hard on the movie if we didn't think it was great, so when someone thinks it's great in exactly the way we meant it, it's disingenuous to feign surprise. I think that we're very surprised that it wasn't as limited an audience as we thought it might be.
So you've found that the movie has a broad appeal?
I think it has pretty broad appeal, but define "broad." We live in a country of 300 million people. The wonderful thing is that if 1 percent of those people go, it's the most successful thing anyone has ever seen. I just hate that Michael Moore, Mel Gibson-who I think are the same person except for sit-ups-attitude that, "Everyone needs to see this movie, it will change minds." That is so fucking offensive. They are such evil fucking cocksuckers. We don't care at all about Mel Gibson's little S&M fantasies about his imaginary friend. And we don't get our political opinions from Michael Moore. I don't want to make the same mistake: If you don't like this movie, it means that you are probably a wonderful, well-educated person who just doesn't get this movie. There are those people who like The Aristocrats and some people who like March of the Penguins. Then there are those people like me who love 'em both.