Penn Jillette in The Aristocrats
Paul Provenza is a seasoned comedy veteran. From stand-up to acting in sitcoms and movies, he's no stranger to the funny bone. So it's not surprising that his directorial debut — a meditation on one unbelievably dirty joke — garnered some serious attention at last year's Sundance Film Festival. The Aristocrats, arriving in stores today on DVD, is a who's who of comedy's finest — from George Carlin to Robin Williams to Jon Stewart to Whoopi Goldberg, and the list goes on and on. Provenza spoke with TVGuide.com about the movie and about one particular telling of The Aristocrats that has gone down in Hollywood lore.

TVGuide.com: This project is the brainchild of you and Penn Jillette [half of the comedy-magic duo Penn & Teller]. What did you start out trying to do?
Paul Provenza:
At first, we didn't know if it was going to be a movie or a short. We didn't know if anyone would ever distribute it or what it was going to look like. We just knew that we wanted to explore this idea to find the singularity of each performer through this one infamous joke.

TVGuide.com: There's a relaxed "family" type of atmosphere to the movie. Did you feel like you were trading jokes with friends, rather than doing interviews?
Provenza:
It's funny. We in comedy refer to people who aren't in comedy as "civilians." It's not condescending; there's really just a distinction between those who do it and those who don't. There's a different way to communicate, and this movie lets you in on that.

TVGuide.com: If death hadn't prevented them from appearing, which late comics would you have wanted to participate?
Provenza:
Well, there are three that we had at the top of our list. The first was Rodney Dangerfield, because he was in the business for so long and he had such an impact on a lot of young comedians. Second on the list was Buddy Hackett. Buddy was another old-school guy, but he was really transgressive professionally at a time when it was risky to do that and there wasn't really a market for it. Johnny Carson is the third guy on the list. He loved The Aristocrats and got what was so funny about this joke.

TVGuide.com: The film is dedicated to Johnny Carson. In your own opinion, why is he such an important figure in American comedy?
Provenza:
Johnny loved comedians and comedy. He was responsible for countless careers. What was interesting about Johnny is that when you watched a comedian on The Tonight Show, you didn't just see Johnny's approval of somebody being funny. You got from Johnny how to watch an individual comedian. For instance, Johnny interacted with Don Rickles the way nobody else ever interacted with Don Rickles and taught the audience what it is that was so special about Rickles. He did the same thing with Roseanne Barr and Bob Newhart and Steven Wright. So Johnny wasn't just a fan of comedy, he educated people about comedy. Actually, there's a really funny connection between Johnny and Buddy Hackett that has to do with The Aristocrats.

TVGuide.com: And what is that?
Provenza:
Well, when I was a kid, I was watching Carson one night and Buddy Hackett was on. Every time Buddy was on, it was an event. They were great friends, and Johnny was just tickled pink by him. So they cut away to a commercial at one point and when they came back, Johnny and the entire studio audience was in hysterics. This goes on for three or four minutes. Johnny couldn't compose himself, the audience was just cracking up, the band is laughing.... It was crazy, because they never said what exactly was so funny. You never knew what was going on, but it was amazing and hilarious just watching these people lose it. So 14 years later, I'm on The Tonight Show. A lot of the crew had been there for 20 or 30 years, so I said to one of the camera guys, "When I was a kid, I was watching the show and Buddy Hackett was on." Well, he knew what I was talking about right away, because it was legend. Apparently, on that particular night, rather than having the band play during the break, Buddy asked Johnny if he could tell a joke. Johnny says "sure," and Buddy proceeds to tell the Aristocrats. He timed it just so that when the director said that they were coming back, he hit the punch line. The cameras came on and everybody exploded. Johnny loved it, because Buddy had played a joke on him, the audience and the viewers at home.

TVGuide.com: This joke is almost like some secret code between comics. Did you have any hesitation about exposing it?
Provenza:
No. You've got to keep in mind that we're shining a bright light on extraordinary minutia. Steven Wright refers to it as some secret handshake, but it's not like there's a "comedy illuminati" who's going to hunt us down and kill us for revealing the Masonic secrets.

TVGuide.com: Being told the joke in person is a different experience from seeing it with other people in a theater. Do you think it gains or loses its impact now that it's on DVD?
Provenza:
Both. By watching it in private, you can appreciate more subtlety. I know it's hard to believe this movie has any subtlety, but there is some nuance involved. What you miss out on is the experience of watching other people react. Individual reaction is fascinating. It's like the way Andy Kaufman used to work, in that the joke isn't finished unless you've gotten a reaction. The [Aristocrats] joke's punch line was how it was received, so I'd say watch it both ways. With a group of friends, it's going to be a totally different experience than watching it privately.