One version involved the Amish. Another, starfish. Very, very friendly starfish. There were kazoos. Hitler in a Frederick's of Hollywood getup. Midgets. Card tricks. A trapeze. Sweet Moses, they worked in the Olsen twins.
As George Carlin describes it the film, "The Aristocrats" is "the Tourette's syndrome of jokes."
Filmmakers Paul Provenza, right, and Penn Jillette at the Sundance festival.
(Kevork Djansezian For The Washington Post)
We went back to the condo and slept fitfully, and the next morning met with Jillette and Provenza for breakfast. Jillette, who has never (ever) ingested alcohol, tobacco, drugs or caffeine, went with the multi-grain flapjacks; Provenza had the more dangerous hollandaise over eggs.
So, this is never going to shown in theaters, right? We mean, excluding certain alleyways in Bangkok. Wrong. "I think they're negotiating to buy the movie as we speak," Jillette said, referring to serious film distributors. Actually, there may be multiple offers, he said.
So, it would be rated XXX? The filmmakers agree that this will be a minor Rorschach moment for our time
"The film has no sex, no nudity, no violence and no conflict. This is just people hugging each other," Jillette said. That and just words. He describes the humanity of the film as "beautiful."
This is what we learned: Jillette and Provenza came up with the idea at the Peppermill Lounge in Vegas four years ago.
Almost every comic they approached immediately said yes.
They made the film with cheap cameras. Jillette served as sound man. Provenza manned the camera. It looks like a home movie, and one of their great challenges while editing down the 100 hours of tape was that they kept hearing Jillette laughing in the background.
Provenza promises an eventual DVD release (with hours more of outtakes) that could stand as a primer for the style, approach, craft and timing of comic storytelling.
Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield both told their versions of the joke to Jillette over the phone (he didn't tape them) but were too sick to appear in the film (and soon after, they died). Jillette considers this a great loss.
While they embrace all well-told tellings of the joke, they consider Gilbert Gottfried the modern master. We remember Gottfried from his appearances on "The Hollywood Squares," but in the movie Gottfried is shown appearing at a Friars roast of Hugh Hefner, soon after the 9/11 attack. Gottfried, like other comics that night, was having trouble finding his footing in the aftermath of tragedy. And then he just went for it and told the "Aristocrats" joke.
The place exploded. Jillette compared the performance to the artistry of Picasso, Miles Davis and Stravinsky.
If and when the film is released, audiences will show whether they get the joke. As Jon Stewart put it: "Maybe it's best we don't break it down." And if people don't appreciate it? Then, Jillette said . . . well, we can't tell you what he said.