LA-based comedian Paul Provenza is the director of “The Aristocrats,” a documentary about the filthiest joke in the world. He’s also working on a film version of the children’s book, “Everybody Poops.” He chats with Natasha Stokes, oddly avoiding mention of all scatological matters.
HK Magazine: Tell us your version of The Aristocrats.
Paul Provenza: The whole movie was my rendition of the joke! The best ones are the most horrifyingly disgusting ones. The badder the better. The joke is really a chance for comedians to cut loose. The
whole point of the joke is to go as crazy as you possibly can. It’s how we recharge… and in that sense, it’s not always good to know how the sausage is made.
HK: So in your group of friends, are you the funny guy?
PP: Most of the people I’m close with are funny so I’m pretty quiet so as to enjoy the show. In fact, I associate with worldclass comedians and I have friends who are funnier than them. It’s like tennis – you want to play with someone who can hit the ball over the net as hard as you can. In my close circle, I try not to spend too much time with unfunny people.
HK: What don’t you find funny?
PP: The kind of joke that panders; those predictable jokes everyone laughs at, that reinforce the status quo and don’t bring new stuff. Like racial humor without irony. Comedy that makes fun of someone different, the little guy, the outsider.
HK: Have you distilled the essence of funniness? Why do people laugh?
PP: The question you’re asking is like “What makes a great painting?” But there’s no one thing. It’s the organic-ness of who the artist is and how they tell it. A Bill Cosby joke out of Steven Wright isn’t the same. It’s the material and the person, and in a great comedian, they’re unified. In some ways it’s also about being able to surprise someone… One of the reasons I love playing to expat audiences is that they’re very worldly, smart, and experienced. When you can surprise them, that’s something great.
HK: Women just aren’t as funny as men, according to Christopher Hitchens. What do you think?
PP: It’s provocative and incendiary, but I don’t know that it’s true. Old stereotypes die hard and somewhere down the line people didn’t think women were as funny, couldn’t be lawyers, couldn’t earn as much money… I think Christopher Hitchens just wanted to start a brushfire. Though something about the history of comedy and its execution seems to be a bit more aggressive than most women find
comfortable. But there are always women who usurp that and they tend to be very masculine and aggressive. Then there’s Sarah Silverman, my favorite comedian – she subverts it because she has a very unique voice.
HK: Do you often find people perceive comedy in a very different way to, say, being musical or artistic?
PP: Yes. What’s funny is people would never watch the opera and go, “Hey, I could do that.” But when they see comedians, it’s different. People know what it’s like to get a laugh, so it doesn’t seem magical. They don’t see there’s skill and craftsmanship in making an audience laugh. They’ll think, “You just spend all your time being funny – if I did, I’d be just as funny.” Nobody does that with the ballet. That’s because really good comedians make it look easy.
HK: So this year you’re directing “Everybody Poops” – the movie.
PP: Did you know it happens to be the highest selling children’s book in publishing history? Yep. Parents pick it up for their kids around potty training time. I don’t really know what it’s going to be like, but I’ve got it in the can – no pun intended.