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One big joke

Jska Priebe


An oral history of the iconic comedy film The Aristocrats as it turns 10 — from its conception in a Las Vegas lounge to its legendary status to its meaning for comedy and free speech


When comic magician Penn Jillette and comedian Paul Provenza conceived the film The Aristocrats in the Peppermill Lounge, they couldn’t imagine the continuing legacy their dirty-joke documentary would leave. Featuring more than 100 performers, some of them among the biggest names in comedy, each offering a unique take on the mythic “secret comedian handshake” — an ever-contorting tale spun out of taboo sex acts, improvised bad taste and cathartic obscenity — the 2005 film celebrates its 10th anniversary this month.

‘DUMBEST IDEA EVER’ … ‘ALL VERY LOOSEY-GOOSEY’ … ‘DON’T (BLEEP) IT UP’ … ‘I’LL NEVER HEAR ABOUT THIS AGAIN’ …Gilbert Gottfried, comedian: One time I was at the Improv, and I told Richard Belzer’s brother the joke. He liked it and told me to tell someone else. Then they liked it and asked me to tell someone else. I wound up saying it a few times in a row, and each time I said it differently. He was amazed by that, and he said, “You know, you should make a film of just you telling this joke over and over again!” I thought, “That’s the dumbest idea ever.”

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The Amazing Johnathan, comic magician: I had told the joke to Emo Philips. Emo Philips told it to Paul Provenza, and that’s how the movie got started. Garry Shandling told it to me, and I laughed even though I did not get the joke. But then, after a second or two, I did get it: “‘The Aristocrats?’ Oh, okay, yeah.” So I told it to Emo; Emo was, like, blown away by this joke. Paul told everybody this joke, and then Penn heard it from Paul. So yeah, it was my idea …

Bob Saget, comedian: Comedian Dom Irrera told me the joke the first time I heard it, I guess in the mid-’80s. We were standing in front of the Improv in L.A. Dom said, “Hey Saget, you ever hear ‘The Aristocrats?’” I told him no. I recall Dom saying, “Oh, man, you’re gonna love this, this was made for you.” He railed off into the story that really wasn’t a joke, but he told it incredibly funny — I recall there was a lot of talk of skating in poo. Once he’d gone through the whole thing, and ended with an agent saying to a family who’d just done the most heinous act on Earth, “What do you call yourselves?” And the father, I guess it was in this version, said, “The Aristocrats,” I recall wondering, “Why is that the punchline?” It wasn’t as much a punchline as it was a statement, which tells the listener of the “joke” that the family regarded themselves as a classy act, amidst having just performed the most heinous act in show business, hence the punchline “The Aristocrats.”

Johnathan: Comics will use that joke as a gauge to see if people will laugh at it or not. That gives them a slanted sense of humor, a view of the ridiculous. The other people just go, “I don’t get it.” They’re looking for another joke within the joke.

Penn Jillette, comic magician: My mom died the first day of 2000, and in my grief I poured myself into bebop jazz. One night I was talking to Provenza about improvisation in jazz, and talking about the little bit I’d learned about Miles Davis, and how improvisation is little bits and pieces you’ve heard other places, odd rules, little things that are your style that you do all the time, and a small amount of that is actual improvisation.

Paul Provenza, comedian: A jazz artist of a certain era, it was almost expected of them to do “their” version of a standard. Like, “Oh yeah? What are you gonna do with ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’?”

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Jillette: Provenza and I went to the Peppermill at about 10 in the evening. At 8 in the morning, we were still talking, drinking decaffeinated coffee … I was saying that you can hear Coltrane and Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk all play “Bye Bye Blackbird.” You never hear comedians tell the same joke. Our discussion turned to comparing Miles Davis to Gilbert Gottfried. 

Provenza: With comedy, which is so much like jazz in so many ways, the object is not to do material that other people do. So there really is no jazz equivalent … except for “The Aristocrats.” 

Jillette: Provenz said we should just tape a bunch of our friends telling this joke. The idea was kind of a Christmas card: We’re gonna send this around to our buddies! It wasn’t going to be a movie.

Provenza: He said, “Can we really commit to doing this?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “No, I mean really, can we commit to doing that?” I said. “Yeah!” A couple nights later he came out to L.A. I called Bobby Slayton, Cathy Ladman, Jon Ross and Rick Overton, told them the idea, and told them to meet me at the Improv.

Jillette: Provenz and I bought consumer equipment. We spent $1,500 for a mic setup, video setup, and there’s actually video of Provenza turning on a camera, and me at the trunk of his car going, “Okay, you read about the camera, and I’ll try to figure out the mic, because we’ve got to tape Bobby in five minutes.”

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Provenza: No actual camera people were involved. It was all very loosey-goosey. Nothing was staged to any degree.

Jillette: In show business, you arrive to do a shoot. You come in alert, you’ve got some jokes in your head, you’re ready to do the best job you can. They put you in makeup, then they light it, 25 minutes go by and they light it again. Another 25 minutes go by. And because you’re professional, you go out and do the best job you can. I told everybody doing this movie, “There’ll be no hair. There’ll be no makeup. There’ll be no lighting.” I told Eric Idle, “We’re gonna knock on your door, and when you open the door we are rolling.”

Emery Emery, film editor: Paul Provenza went and recorded video and audio of Terry Gilliam, and when he got home, we had no audio whatsoever. Only video. So losing an hour-plus of Terry Gilliam waxing creative about “The Aristocrats” puts all other losses of that kind in such a diminished perspective …

Jillette: I was the most incompetent with the camera. We got back the stuff that I had shot, and it was absolutely useless. So after the first few people, Provenz said, “You’re not gonna touch a f---ing camera anymore. You just talk to them.”

Provenza: It was easy to go, “I have two months off this month, so call everybody you know in New York. We’ll do a whole bunch of interviews … I’ll meet you in L.A. I just spoke to so-and-so; they can do it.” We just went between Vegas, New York and L.A., and I caught a couple people elsewhere.

Jillette: I would call up every comic and give them my speech: You know how in jazz you hear soloists blow over the same changes. We never hear comedians tell the same joke. We want everybody to tell the same joke, make it their own, and the joke we’ve chosen is “The Aristocrats.” That’s all it took. Drew Carey said yes before I’d finished that sentence.

Gottfried: I already knew Paul and Penn, so they went to me directly. But when they’d go through the managers and agents, the managers and agents would immediately say no. And a lot of comics said they would have done it if they would have known about it. But they weren’t even told. Penn called me directly and got me to do it for free, which makes it his greatest magic trick.

Provenza: In the movie, there are scenes where Gilbert’s around a conference room table. That’s where he does the thing about “… the arm like Popeye!” We shot that four or five months before the Friars’ Roast. So it had to be early 2001 when we started.

Sarah Silverman, comedian: I was there for Gilbert’s epic telling at the Hugh Hefner Roast one month after 9/11. It was kind of exactly what America needed.

Gottfried: The Hefner Roast, after September 11: First they were planning on not having the roast. A lot of people were afraid to fly in for it. Everyone around the world, but especially in New York, was in a daze. There was still black smoke in the sky. I remember for some reason I wanted to be the first person to say a bad-taste September 11 joke. I said, “I can’t stay late tonight. I have to catch a flight to L.A. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a direct flight; we have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.” The audience started booing and hissing and gasping, and you could hear chairs moving. One guy yelled out, “Too soon!” which I thought meant I didn’t take a long enough pause between the setup and the punchline. And then, in what felt like 200 years onstage, after I had lost the crowd as much as anyone could have lost them, I thought, “Eh, there’s nothing else I can lose. I might as well go to the bottom level of hell.” I started doing “The Aristocrats,” and to my amazement, the crowd started cheering and laughing and convulsing. Some critic in one of the papers said it was like I performed a mass tracheotomy on the crowd. They were calling it cathartic. To me, it just proved that terrorism equals bad taste. Incest and bestiality equals good taste.

Paul Provenza: I truly believe that was at the front of his mind because he had whipped up a kick-ass version for us just a couple months previously.

Jillette: I called Carlin. I gave him the pitch and George paused, then said, “This is a snapshot of transgressional comedy coming into the new century.” He paused for a moment, and went, “This is too good an idea for you to get. Someone else should have gotten this idea. But it’s you. So I want to ask you: Do it right. Don’t f--- it up. Just don’t f--- it up.” Then Carlin paused for a long time and said, “I’m going to make this really easy for you: I’m going to make you promise that you will not talk to anyone with money until the movie is finished, and once someone buys the movie, if you change a frame of it, you aren’t allowed to use my image. That way when you sell it and they say, ‘We want to make Gilbert a little shorter and Robin Williams a little longer,’ you can say to them, ‘If we do that, we lose George Carlin.’” He said, “I have now given you the muscle you need to make this movie the way you want to make it. Now don’t f--- it up.”

Jeff Ross, comedian: I didn’t even know the joke existed until I saw Gilbert tell it at the Hugh Hefner Roast. And then I remember being at the Comedy Cellar, and Paul pitching this idea to the comics. It sounded so lame, so uninteresting, talking about some old joke that no one knew and no one cared about. I really didn’t want to do it. Not only did I do it, I said, “Well, I’m going onstage in a few minutes; I could try to tell it onstage at the Comedy Cellar.” And it just didn’t work. The audience didn’t really get it. They asked me weeks later if I’d do it again. I’m like, “Now I’m doing it twice for this movie no one’s ever going to see?”

Silverman: I was on Conan, and Penn and Teller were the first guests but stayed on the couch during my segment. Penn asked me to do this thing, and I said sure.

Wendy Liebman, comedian: After performing on Penn and Teller’s variety show, Sin City Spectacular, Penn and I kept in touch. My initial reaction when he told me about the movie was, “I’d love to be a part of that. But I don’t want to tell that joke.”

Carrot Top, comedian: I was very excited to be part of a project with so many comedic legends. We recorded it in The Hollywood Theatre, where I performed in Vegas at the time. Since I was working there, it was an easy location and saved Penn the cab fare he would have had to pay to get me to where he was. 

Liebman: I was filmed sitting in my living room in a red chair. Penn, Paul and (producer) Peter (Golden) met my husband and stepsons (8 and 12 at the time), and then got right down to me telling the joke. Penn was sitting right in front of me. I told him my version of the family act and he just stared at me like I was crazy, and then I said the punchline, and he was relieved. I don’t want to give anything away, but I figured out a way to tell the joke in my own style, and it was not at all what the crew was expecting. 

Silverman: I was subletting my friend Lizz Winstead’s apartment in the Village, and Penn and Paul Provenza came by with one camera and shot it in one loose, improvised take and were gone within 15 minutes. So many well-meaning, talented people set out to make docs about comedy, to be honest, I was sure it would never see the light of day. I just know comics and assumed that they’d get all this footage and then get overwhelmed and take a nap and never edit it together. But apparently not everyone is me.

Saget: My initial reaction was, “Really, you’re going to have people telling that joke? How?” I understood the craft and art of their intention, but I didn’t understand what they’d already done: already had interviewed most if not three-fourths of the comedians in the film, telling their various versions of the joke. I was hesitant but liked being included in this group of many of my peers. I just thought, no one would probably see it anyway, and my scatological riffing wouldn’t be that memorable even if it was included in the final product.

Gottfried: I remember thinking this is something that will at best play in their living room, if they’re lucky. But I took part in it. And thought, “I’ll never hear about this again.”

‘THIS BEAUTIFUL, COHESIVE MOVIE’ … ‘IT WAS A RENTAL BABY’ … ‘WE WERE FURIOUS’ … ‘MAYBE WE SHOULDN’T BREAK IT DOWN’  …Silverman: I was shocked they edited it all together and made this beautiful, cohesive movie that made you cry laughing and also felt like a peek backstage into this crazy secret-handshake/land-of-misfit-toys world of comedy.

Provenza: Most of the early cuts we did with Emery, I would literally say, “Turn the picture off. Let’s just work with audio.” We would just listen to the audio and feel the rhythm.

Emery: At that point he had probably captured at least half of the interviews, if not three-quarters of the interviews.

Jillette: Emery Emery is a fabulous editor. His sense of comedy and movement informed that movie very much.

Doug Stanhope, comedian: Emery Emery called me up right when I did The Man Show, when I avoided calls from everybody because I figured everybody wanted a writing job. He pitched it to me so quickly it made no sense: “We’re doing this documentary: It’s going to be a bunch of comics and they all tell the same joke, but you tell it in your own way.” And a documentary of a bunch of comics all telling the same joke was the worst idea I’ve ever heard, so I just said, “Yeah, great. I’m kind of busy right now, but give me a call.” And then I made sure to put his name into my phone so I’d know not to answer until it all went away. And then after they’d shot a bunch of it, Paul Provenza said, “Just look at the trailer.” I saw the trailer, and then I got it.

Saget: I ended up doing it on the second floor of the Laugh Factory in L.A. Supposedly that space was once part of Groucho Marx’s office. Not that that was my reasoning. My first choice was to do it at the conference room at my manager’s office, but upon talking to the producer and directors, it seemed like some place a bit grittier would serve this piece better. I had a set scheduled and figured a half-hour would be enough to tell a joke on camera that I’d only heard once before.

Stanhope: Paul had come down to Playa del Rey to sell me on it. He met me in a bar, which is always my favorite kind of meeting. It had a great deck, not that there was any view in that camera angle. And it was nighttime. I told the joke to a baby, and a lot of people have called me a hypocrite over the years for my anti-childbirth stances. They see that thing and think that’s my baby. I wouldn’t tell that joke to my own baby. It was a rental baby. I think it was Paul or Penn’s manager’s kid. The baby-handler was on set. My idea was to tell it to a kid that was old enough to understand it, like a 7-year-old, and watch the horror in their face. And they said, “Ah, nah. That’s too much.” It was nice to be the one that was too much for The Aristocrats.

Saget: I saw my part in the film before I saw the entire film. I wasn’t supposed to see it out of context, but I wanted to decide if I should even be in the film. Upon seeing their cut — viewing my part and it being intercut with Chris Albrecht — I decided to sign the release, because I figured this footage would either destroy me or make people laugh very hard, providing they were people who understood the point of the film, and the irreverence that it took to tell that joke and the purpose behind telling it in the first place.  

Provenza: The one piece of footage we did not have 100 percent control over at all times was the South Park animation. It had to go to a transfer house; that’s the clip that ended up online. At first we were like, “F--k!” But then there turned out to be all this chatter about, “What is this? I didn’t see this episode. Are they working on something we don’t know about?” There was all this speculation among South Park fans.

Johnathan: The fact that South Park did it, to me, made the movie legendary. Matt and Trey, those guys are amazing.  

Provenza: I remember we had an interview with someone who said, “That was a brilliant stroke of marketing!” Penn and I looked at each other, laughed and just said, “Thank you! Thank you very much!” But we were irate; we were furious when it happened.

Jillette: One of the really expensive post-production things — and Provenz will curse me for this, and should — was, I laugh very loud and witch-like. It cost tens of thousands of dollars to get someone to go through and take out “A-HA-HA-HA!” It was all the way through the f---ing movie.

Emery: We had been going round and round with, “What is the best way to finish this story?” We were trying different endings and messing around with things. Peter Goldman and Paul Provenza were over, sitting on the couch, while we were just pushing pieces around and trying them out. Finally they stepped out for Provenza to have a cigarette. I thought I would try something: I stumbled onto this particular clip where Jon Stewart is interrupted in his interview by Madeleine Smithberg, a co-creator of The Daily Show. She walks up behind them and they have an exchange, and I grabbed that piece and laid it at the end. I had no idea when I did it how spine-tinglingly perfect it was going to be. It was just such a perfect button to put after an hour and a half of pontificating, unnecessarily verbosely, about this dumb goddamn filthy joke.

Provenza: The musicality of what people were saying and the way they told the joke drove some cool edit choices. That was really exciting. It’s the first thing I ever worked on where I was able to — because I had no choice — let go of an outcome. I had no outcome to let go of. I had no option but to go, “Let’s see.” That was revelatory for me. And almost every major project I’ve worked on since then has been trying to exist in that space.

Emery: Maddy says, “I don’t get it. It’s a joke about a family shitting and pissing on each other? I don’t get it.” Jon Stewart kind of chuckles, and he goes, “Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t break it down.”


‘SO MUCH BUZZ’ … ‘IT WAS AS IF PEOPLE HAD BEEN WAITING’ … ‘YOU DIDN’T (BLEEP) IT UP’ … ‘YOU SHOULDN’T SELL THIS TO FRAT BOYS’ …Johnathan: When somebody says, “I’m going to write a book,” or “I’m going to do a movie,” I always used to think, “Eh, it’s not going to take off or it’s not going to be published.” I learned that by saying no to some projects, and then it gets made into something huge and I missed out on it ’cause I didn’t think it was going to be huge. That was one of those things.

Provenza: Penn’s friend Farley Ziegler — she basically shepherded Being John Malkovich from pitch to the Oscar — knew the festival world. She laid it out for us, and we ended up bringing her on board because she was the only person who could get us taken seriously with the fact that we refused to send out any DVDs. She literally would go someplace, pop it in the DVD player, wait outside and when everyone was done take the DVD back home. She did that with the Sundance people. It happened that a couple of the others were in Los Angeles, so we said, “Come on over to Emery’s house!” We showed the movie, they went outside and talked for about five minutes, came back inside and said, “This is the first film that we’re committing to this year. Let’s talk.” They changed the game right out of the gate. 

Jillette: It would have been too expensive and impossible to make just five years earlier.

Provenza: The premiere at Sundance, there was so much buzz around it because of the celebrities, and the idea that it was about one joke, and it’s the filthiest movie ever, blah blah blah. It was impossible to get into the first few screenings. It was so gratifying. It killed, and it killed in all the right ways. The Q&As had all the right conversations happening. One of the first pieces written about it said, “This is a movie with Robin Williams and all these big stars in it. This is showbiz. This is Hollywood. This isn’t what Sundance is about.” After the first screening, there was all this stuff written about how, “This is a DIY movie a couple people made with their friends. It just so happens that some of their friends are Oscar-winning movie stars.” When we got a deal at Sundance it was six months prior to the release, with ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman and Jeff Sackman. 

Ross: It was up at the Montreal comedy festival, against a documentary I made about Iraq called Patriot Act. I remember thinking, “Hmm, I also made a low-budget documentary that nobody thought would be any good. Now we’re both showing it at the Montreal comedy festival.” (My film won the Best Comedy Documentary award that year.)  

Saget: What stands out in my mind the first time I saw the film at this premiere screening in New York City — for the directors, producers and most of the comedians in New York that were in the film — was how incredibly well-received the film was. It was as if people had been waiting for the lid to get blown off of censorship, and this film had an interesting way of doing it by telling the same joke over and over again, all held together by the brilliant Obi-Wan Kenobi: George Carlin. He understood the context of the joke and the purpose of the joke. 

Jillette: We did the premiere in Las Vegas. George Carlin came to the movie and watched it, and on the way out he said one simple sentence to me. He said, “Huh, you didn’t f--- it up!”

Saget: I saw it once again at the Los Angeles premiere, and it was a slightly less octane version of the New York premiere. My fear of my irreverence came through, as did my pride in being part of something which is so blatantly on the side of freedom of speech.

Gottfried: My favorite part about the reactions is that critics were singling me out. One person said of the hundred or so comedians, “No one is more disgusting than Gilbert Gottfried.” I thought that was quite a compliment.

Stanhope: I went to the premiere in L.A., Santa Monica, and I think I brought Mother. I know I was standing next to Ricky Jay outside. It was mostly comics and the industry, and everyone going, “Who’s your favorite one?” like we’re picking the cutest Beatle. And of course Gilbert Gottfried, South Park and Taylor Negron stood out.

Liebman: I saw it at The ArcLight in Hollywood with my husband and a regular audience the day it came out. The theater was almost full. I held my breath until I came onscreen and loved, loved, loved hearing the audience laugh loudly at my take on the joke. My favorite versions were Sarah Silverman’s, Billy The Mime’s and Steven Wright’s. 

Provenza: A bunch of Christian groups came out and they talked about how filthy the language was, but they got that it was really uplifting in some way. The AMC theater chain refused to show it, and the only reason that was noteworthy was because they already committed to running it, and then somebody somewhere higher up the chain said, “No way,” so it was banned.

Jillette: ThinkFilm said, “We’re going to sell this to frat boys.” I said, “You shouldn’t sell this to frat boys, because frat boys listen to Eminem (at the time), and it means something different to them. This is being sold to 40-year-old intellectuals. That’s who will like this movie. It’s an intellectual movie, it’s an art-house movie, it’s a Woody Allen-audience movie.” I said, “You are going to get a rave review in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and from NPR.” They said, “Oh no, no, no. They’ll just think it’s dirty. They won’t get it at all.” I said, “No, maybe you’re not getting it. Put it in art houses. Don’t sell it to frat boys.”

Provenza: The New York Times won’t take advertising for a movie that’s rated X or is unrated, so we ran into some real practical prices to pay for it being unrated. But then being unrated became a press point, and it gave us a chance to say, “If a movie is R-rated or X-rated, what does that mean? We tell you a lot more than the rating. Our tag is ‘No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity.’ That’s everything you need to know. By not rating it, we specifically chose to be so clear about what it is that there’s more information than you would get from a rating.”

Jillette: To stupid people, The Aristocrats is the same joke over and over, and not a very good joke. To intellectuals, The Aristocrats is a study in comedy.

Saget: I’m not so sure many of the people who told the joke knew the actual purpose of the joke. Or the point behind the telling of the joke. The fact that it was a wannabe showbiz family so desperate to make it in the business that they would do anything in front of an agent to get a career — well, that was the point of the joke. And it’s kind of where we are now as a society. It’s why people are wannabe celebrities — a career that requires no skills except wearing a radio microphone while they shoot a reality show which allows people to hear all of their most private life moments, as they try to reach for what they imagined to be “the brass ring.”

Ross: Sometimes that’s all it takes, a little bit of vision but a lot of drive and tenacity. Even a bad idea can be a great movie. And I guess I’m wrong: It wasn’t a bad idea; it was a great idea. It helped remind people that comedy is art. It’s up there with jazz and painting and literature. Comics owe a debt to those guys for making that movie. 


Liebman: People still yell my punchline out to me in comedy clubs. And after seeing me in The Aristocrats, one of my doctors told me I had made it.

Gottfried: Now the company that put it out, ThinkFilm, no longer exists. So I don’t know who owns it.

Provenza: David Bergstein, who apparently has quite the reputation in the film business — there’s dozens and dozens of lawsuits swirling around him at all times — bought Think’s assets. A number of filmmakers whose rights got tied up sued him. Between those lawsuits and other lawsuits that were already pending, ThinkFilm ended up going into bankruptcy, and the court ordered a sale of the assets, which includes all these titles, more than 400 films. Then apparently what happened is he did all sorts of legal wrangling and somewhere along the line got an injunction against the court auction, and that’s where I lost track of whatever was going on.

Jillette: They paid us for it; it’s their movie. That’s what happens when you sell something.

Provenza: The company doesn’t exist, the rights are tied up in this legal quagmire until they expire. We got about three or four, maybe more, offers to do a 10-year anniversary re-release. We can’t sell it to Netflix. We can’t do any foreign sales. Deals to re-release it were coming out of the woodwork. There were five in the U.S. alone that we just couldn’t engage in, no matter what the deals were. And there were a couple foreign deals, too. A DVD release in Australia. Easily half a dozen to 10 possibilities to do something else with it. But we can’t do anything.

Gottfried: It makes me want it to be released again, the way the insanity is now with the Internet. People just loved being outraged.

Saget: There will be many more documentaries with collectives of comedians in them, but I don’t think any one of them will stand out as great as The Aristocrats did, because The Aristocrats wasn’t about comedians, and how they work, or what their psyche is: The Aristocrats is about a way of looking at humor and boundaries and what people find acceptable and, on the flipside of that, offensive. 

Carrot Top: So many legendary performers participated in the movie, including some brilliant comedians who aren’t with us anymore. This joke — for better or for worse — has withstood the test of time and with any luck will continue to shock generations to come. 

Stanhope: That pretty much drove the spike home, that there’s nothing you can’t say anymore. If anything, it proved that point. I don’t think anyone said “n----r” in it, but maybe that?

Jillette: There are words in there that would cause Internet outrage, and there’s a chilling effect, that some people might not tell those jokes the same way now. All of that is valid, but I want someone else to speak to that. I want to talk about how beautiful it is to have the Smothers Brothers and Phyllis Diller and Doug Stanhope all in the same movie.

Ross: People are getting more and more sensitive, and comics are getting more and more touchy. We’ve got to be careful. With Twitter and everything now, people are waiting to take us down.

Jillette: There’s a lot to say about the politics and freedom of expression that The Aristocrats does speak to, but quite frankly, that’s not the part of the movie I’m interested in. I’m really interested in the jazz elements, and I’m really interested in the beauty.

Ross: I have the poster up in my office. I’m staring at it right now, with all those great names. Like great art, the movie endures.

Liebman: They captured more than a hundred comedians — some who are gone now — telling the same one joke. That is historical and hilarious.

Saget: It let people know that even though the worst things could happen, there are humorous ways to deal with them which don’t disrespect the horrible acts that happened in life. But for some people with rational thought, through humor as dark as it may be, this work gives them an outlet to be able to deal with something that really isn’t comedy, but an ironic understanding of the lowest form of comedy that human beings can sink to when all seems lost. … That, I guess, is the joke. 

Provenza: It’s highbrow and lowbrow at the same time. It’s real, it’s authentic, it’s populist, it’s not big, flashy showbiz.

Saget: The Aristocrats, at its very best, reveals comedians’ darkest ways of telling the most disgusting-premised joke in the most artful free-falling way possible. At its very worst it is about a montage of guys from New Jersey telling how funny it is to them to shit in a bucket. 

Provenza: The move has no agenda. One of the things I’m most proud of is the movie doesn’t tell you what to think or how you should feel. It just puts it out there. 

Jillette: We had a great idea, but Provenz made it beautiful.

Provenza: I thought of it as a love story: love of the art, love of laughter, love of your peers.

Jillette: It all comes down to Provenz. It’s his heart that’s bleeding on the celluloid there.

Provenza: Somebody said, “You know when you were 13, 14, 15, and you were just totally obsessed with comedy?” I said, “Yeah, I remember.” “Imagine being that kid and being able to just pull this movie out on DVD?” It made me realize that pretty much everything I’ve done in the last 12 to 15 years, I’ve been doing for me at 14. Isn’t that wild?