Paul Provenza is one of the most well-respected comedians of the last two decades, but there came a point in his career when using comedy to simply make people laugh ceased to become a challenge for him. So The Aristocrats director embarked on a new comedic vision (some of that can be seen on Crackle.com’s second season of The Purple Onion) and a brand new way to piss off the masses.
After decades as a stand-up comic and actor, Paul Provenza found a new calling as an interviewer of other stand-ups, and it’s easy to see why. Provenza is talkative, passionate, and endlessly philosophical when it comes to the art and craft of comedy. His 2005 directorial debut The Aristocrats (made with Penn Jilette) is revered by many comedy fans not merely for its unspeakable and hilarious filth but also for the truly magical way in which it captured the wonder and creativity of the world’s funniest comics.
Provenza didn’t appear onscreen in that documentary, but he does bring his comedy back to the front of the camera in Crackle.com’s second season of The Purple Onion, a web series which highlights the best stand-up performances from that legendary San Francisco venue. Provenza spoke with Punchline Magazine at length about his material, why comedians don’t have to settle for just being funny, the reason he thinks Ann Coulter “is the funniest comedian working,” and nearly everything in between.
There’s a bit you do (see video below) on The Purple Onion series that absolutely floored me—your “pitching 9/11” routine.”
Thanks! I specifically wanted to do that bit on the show because I’ve had so many interesting dynamics occur with that piece of material. I wanted to do it on Crackle because I knew that I didn’t want to deal with a typical live audience. I wanted to put it out there and whoever watches it can make their own decisions, their own choices; they can feel whatever the fuck they want to feel about it. And, that’s one of the great things about the Internet and Crackle specifically, because they’re so driven by comedy, and they’re trying very hard to have a sophisticated dynamic with the comedy that they’re doing.
What are you referring to? Do you get resistance from audiences by just referencing Sept. 11?
This is my take on it, there’s nothing definitive about this. This is my theory. I think that for some reason it makes people uncomfortable, and when it makes them uncomfortable they’re looking for something to grab on to that justifies their discomfort with it. I’ve had people say the bit is racist. But the only character speaking in the fucking piece is Osama Bin Laden. It’s not about a race of people. It’s very particularly one guy. That’s like doing a movie about one guy who is a black drug dealer and having someone say that you’re saying all blacks are drug dealers. It’s one guy, and he is the most hated guy in the country!
There’s a quote by [late writer] Michael O’Donoghue that explains a lot of my recent work and the sort of the new level that I’m at in comedy. He said, “Laughter is a response to comedy. It’s not the only response.” I always thought that was fascinating because when I started to live that way, I started to think about all other art forms. Comedy is the only art form where emotions “M” through “Z” are not allowed. You can go see tragedy, but they’re allowed to have comic relief. All art plays with the emotional spectrum. Where did this notion that comedy is not allowed to go to certain places or not allowed to provoke emotions other than joy come from? Where did that come from? It’s certainly not what the definition of comedy was according to the ancient Greeks. To me, really great comedy can do other things besides make you laugh and make you happy. It can upset you; it can provoke you.
Andy Kaufman is a perfect example of somebody who went very far in the other direction. What Andy Kaufman did is the equivalent of what Picasso did. Picasso basically said everything you’ve been looking at in normal paintings is limiting. The edges of the canvas – we always assume – are the audiences laughing, and the joke ends at the edge of the stage, and there’s the audience’s response. What Andy Kaufman did is he took the punch line and put it right out into the audience. He said the way the audience reacts is where the punch line is. So, you’d go see an Andy Kaufman show where half the audience was irate at what he’s doing and the other half of the audience is fucking howling at that half of the audience. And that’s where the genius is. That’s the joke. He eliminated the edges of the canvas. He changed them completely. That to me is a great example of someone who really expanded our notion of what comedy is— that comedy is just as much about the way people react to things.
That was one of the things that happened with The Aristocrats. I remember being at a screening once, and about three-quarters of the way through the movie, somebody [in the film] is doing something about a blow job, and all of a sudden, this girl slaps her arm rest and goes, “That’s it!” and grabs her boyfriend and leaves. It was loud enough so that most of the people in the audience heard it, and it was hilarious. The rest of the movie was doubly as funny. People were thinking, ‘What was that straw that broke that particular camel’s back?’ It was that one joke, and it informed the rest of the audience’s experience to see that somebody else was responding in that particular way. That was a meta-idea behind the movie. How people were reacting to it. And that’s what’s going on in my 9/11 bit.
In your stand-up, when did you start to become comfortable with having periods of long silence?
That’s a really good question. My first understanding of the power of silence was not content driven. It was more performance driven. And it happened to me when I started playing bigger rooms. I toured for a while opening for Diana Ross, the Beach Boys, and stuff like that, and playing 1,200 or 1,500 seaters as an opening act. And, I suddenly realized how fucking beautiful it was to just build this bubble and hold it for as long as I could and then pop it with the laugh. It wasn’t so much about content. It was more about performance, about learning how to play the audience like an orchestra, get them to come in when I want them to come in and that sort of stuff. That gave me this incredible sense of the power of silence and the power of physics. It’s sort of exponential, If you’re in a room with 50 people and you have that experience, and then you’re in a room with 100 people, it’s not twice that experience. It’s exponentially that experience. It becomes that much more pronounced and palpable.
I got to a point in my life where being funny was not an issue. To me, funny was like, ‘I can do that. But, now what? Where’s the challenge for me? Where’s the growth?’ If I’m a proficient race car driver, get me on a fucking course that I have to really work at. So, I started to do material that was a little bit more difficult. I thought if I take stuff that is inherently unfunny, and I can make that funny, then I’ve done real work. That happened to me later in my development. In fact, that happened to me recently. I only got an understanding of that in the last decade of my life.
When did you start writing the 9/11 bit?
I started writing it very shortly after Sept. 11. I started writing it way sooner than I should’ve been doing it, and I held it back for a while until I could understand exactly what I wanted to say with it. I thought it was really just like those World War II-era cartoons, those old Bugs Bunny cartoons where he’s impersonating Emperor Hirohito. Hogan’s Heroes – that’s what I thought it was. I thought: ‘that’s funny, that’s a huge juxtaposition to take something so awful and make it goofy.’ I thought that was the core of it, but then I realized that it was actually a piece against religion; it was a piece against superstition; and it was a piece for rationality.
Because there’s nothing more evil about Muslim fundamentalists then there is about Christian fundamentalists. I really don’t believe there is, because they’re the same fucking thing. And so I realized that’s really my point. And you know? I do believe that that’s why a lot of people have trouble with the piece, because it sort of indicts their own kind of belief in religion or spirituality or whatever. It’s essentially an atheist piece. Only religion could make people do something this extreme.
There’s no other evil that would make people do those kinds of things. Not drugs, not money, not jealousy— nothing will make people fly planes into buildings and kill themselves along with thousands of others except religion.
Part of the theme of The Aristocrats is how comedy responds to tragedy. Did you sense a pullback in comedy after 9/11? Did stand-up fail us?
No, it didn’t fail us. You know what it did? It evened the playing field. It was a shock to all of us. It was a huge tragedy. Not only was it tragic for the people and the families involved, it was tragic in terms of, ‘Whoa…holy shit. The shit is going to hit the fan. This is just the beginning.’ There was a sense that something was really amiss. Those of us who had a cunt hair’s worth of foresight could see that we were going to lose a lot of freedoms here, we were going to have a lot of xenophobia to deal with, we were going to have to deal with all kinds of things that are going to be ugly and dark, because that’s what governments end up doing. We’ve had enough experience with that to know that it’s not going to go the other way. It’s not going to go to some enlightened place.
So, it was rightfully a huge emotional confusion. Even a lot of comedians didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what we felt, didn’t know what was funny and what wasn’t funny. In that way, it leveled the playing field, because it wasn’t something we could rise above. We were feeling all those complex things that the rest of the country was feeling.
In New York, the clubs didn’t know at what point it would be appropriate to re-open. The club owners were calling each other asking, ‘Are you opening this weekend?’ Nobody knew at what point we should have fun, at what point we should be laughing again.
And, what’s really interesting is that when people did start doing comedy about the event, it really is never and has never been about the event. It’s mostly been about our response to the event. And, that’s brilliant. Because what we’re concerned about now, what we should be thinking about now is not the thousands of people who died in that disaster. What we should be thinking about is how we’ve reacted to that disaster and our response to it. This is about a whole mindset that has become clear because of or due to that event.
It’s been a few years since The Aristocrats came out. If you watch it now, are you able to enjoy it as a film or do you still see it in terms of all of the creative decisions that went into it and how it could’ve been done differently?
Overwhelmingly, the former. I truly enjoy it. And, I think the reason for that is I made a movie that pleased me. I really didn’t make a movie for anyone else. I made a movie the way I do stand-up. I do what makes me happy, and my challenge is to communicate it in the right way, in a way that makes it work as comedy. I do have to amend that by saying my real joy is watching it with other people who’ve never seen it before. That’s my real joy, because that’s part of what the movie is.
There are several things that I watch that I go, ‘I wish I had done something different there.’ For example, Rick Overton. To my mind, Rick Overton is one of the great geniuses of comedy of our generation. He’s just astonishing. Talk about somebody who moved the art form and is just rich with ideas and brings to the table such an overwhelming number of talents and abilities. That mind never stops working, and it’s always brilliant. I just fucking adore him. And, I feel I did him a disservice by not allowing the audience to truly get what Rick Overton is about. But, I did that because he was part of a triptych in that movie; he was part of three different tellings. By putting them together, I was trying to communicate a bigger idea than each one of those tellings on their own.
I never really thought about the audience. People say to me, ‘Is there anything that you cut out because you felt it would be too far for people or whatever?’ And, I say, ‘We had nigger, cunt, and we told [The Aristocrats] joke to kids, what the hell do you think we cut out?’
A lot of thought went into where I placed things. For example, there’s that whole scene where Andy Richter is telling it to his kid and Doug Stanhope is telling it to his kid. I probably had that about a third of the way in the movie (in the first rough cut). And, I couldn’t understand why it didn’t feel right when I watched it with groups of people to see what was landing and what wasn’t landing. And, then it dawned on me…to me, when these guys are talking to their kids, the kids are too young to understand anything. It’s like talking to your dog.
But, then what I realized was that people aren’t picking it up that way. That resonated in an entirely different way. That was crossing a line – not an intellectual line, but an emotional one that I didn’t even realize was hitting most people. So, I had to move it all the way to the end, because now just when you think you’ve gotten numb to feeling anything about vulgarity and these horrible ideas, you are actually emotionally taken aback. So, there were a lot of those kinds of things that went on.
What’s unique about the particular venue, The Purple Onion, where the Crackle shows are shot?
The Purple Onion was one of those icon establishments that really was part of changing the face of stand-up comedy, along with the Hungry i in San Francisco and Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago. They are the places where Woody Allen cut his teeth and where Nichols & May performed…and Mort Sahl. Mort Sahl basically started at the Purple Onion. It was a jazz club-cum-comedy club-cum spoken word place. It was just one of those Beat places, right down the street from Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books. In the 50s, the Purple Onion was one of a handful places in the country that gave a platform to people who ultimately changed the art form of comedy. And, it was defunct for quite some time. For a while it was a punk club. Then, it was just sort of dark.
Now, they’re working very hard to get the audience that comes to the Purple Onion to be as much like the audience that was at the Purple Onion when it gave that platform to the people who changed the art form. So, Crackle has been shooting people who are doing shows where there is an audience that is aware of the Purple Onion and that is looking at the performers as ‘What are you doing that’s going to be interesting, compelling, and different?’ So, Crackle is actually getting really interesting performances, really challenging comedians in a place where the audience is interested in the art form being moved forward.
In The Late Shift, his book about the struggle in choosing a successor to Johnny Carson, Bill Carter writes that you were Jay Leno’s preferred choice to follow him in the 12:30 slot. In retrospect, what is your feeling on not getting Late Night?
That was amazing, actually. Jay was really in my corner. The truth is that I wanted the offer to turn it down. When you’re doing a talk show like that, it’s a full time job. That’s it. That’s your life. It’s like having a kid. You have to be there every day, you have to have a whole new show the next day, you have to have all the skills honed and perfected every day. What it means is that for everything that I get to do in the show, there are so many other things that I’m not going to be able to do, and I’m not going to be able to explore. And, given where I was in my career, I thought that would be a greater sacrifice than anything else.
So, I was hoping that I would get the offer, because it was so press-worthy. It was just shocking how much people were talking about that fucking late-night talk show shit. There was something on the news about it every night. And, I really thought if I can get the offer and turn it down, that could totally do as much for my career as that fucking show could at that point.
You told Paul Krassner in an interview that you once wrestled Ann Coulter to the ground in the green room of Politically Incorrect. I assume the fight got broken up at some point. Would you like another shot at her, maybe inside a steel cage?
I’ll tell you what: I happen to think that Ann Coulter is one of the funniest comedians working. Ann Coulter makes Stephen Colbert look like an amateur. I actually do not believe that Ann Coulter genuinely believes what she’s saying. You have to understand that she is a product. What Ann Coulter is responsible for is selling a motherfuckload of books, getting 50 grand a night to perform at Republican events or whatever the fuck— and killing. Yes, she’s preaching to her own choir, but aren’t we all, really? Ann Coulter is just show business. That’s all she is.
If I can quote Marc Maron here – he wasn’t talking about Ann Coulter but I’m going to take what he said about some other people and apply it to Ann Coulter – she “built a clown.” She built an identity, she built a viewpoint, she built a way for people to connect with her, she built a way for people to talk about her. She “built a clown.” Ann Coulter has succeeded in doing what everyone in show business wants to do.
So, you think she’s Andy Kaufman with a bigger Adam’s apple?
I think that she doesn’t think of herself in that way. I do think that she thinks of herself as funny and as extreme comedy. I actually had this conversation with both Bill Maher and Jay Leno as well. I love talking about her because to me, it’s just a question of categorizing. The flip side of it, by the way, is I do believe that the way Stephen Colbert got hired for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is that there are some Republicans who believe he is Republican. They thought he was a funny guy who thought like they did. Otherwise, who hired him? Maybe this is just the little puppet show I’ve created in my head because it pleases me, but I actually think that a lot of people think Stephen Colbert is a Republican, and he’s just really funny at it. And, if that’s the case, look at Ann Coulter.
As someone who has done so many interviews, what do you think is a good last question?
Oh no. If I knew that, I wouldn’t be burning so much tape all the time.