NEW YORK – This ain't no Walt Disney production — not with the language. Or the imagery. Or the bestiality.
Particularly the bestiality. Yet Penn Jillette (search), executive producer of "The Aristocrats (search)," believes his acclaimed documentary about the filthiest joke known to mankind is an achievement far beyond cartoon classics like "Bambi."
"This film has more affection and love and world peace in it than any Disney film ever made," said Jillette, best known as half of the magic act Penn & Teller (search). "This is a truly feel-good movie about (an unprintable family activity)."
More accurately, this movie is about a variety of unprintable family activities, some involving pets, limited only by the imagination of the person telling the joke. The bit is vile, vulgar, obscene and offensive; it's a gag that could make you gag.
But as related by Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Martin Mull, Whoopi Goldberg and dozens of other brilliant comedians, this low-rent humor helps "The Aristocrats" hit rarely reached comedic heights. It delivers on the promise of its promo:
"No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity."
The joke, which dates back to vaudeville, consists of a raunchy setup followed by the simple punchline "the aristocrats." It was passed down through the years, with each comic adapting the joke to reflect their own personality.
Jillette, who developed the documentary's concept four years ago over coffee with comedian (and "Aristocrats" director) Paul Provenza, envisioned comedians riffing on the joke like jazz musicians taking solos in a smoky nightclub.
Picture Miles Davis, after trading his trumpet for Tourette's syndrome.
"It's be-bop, improvisation," Jillette explained. "You get to see different actors do Shakespeare, or jazz musicians do versions of the same song. Why not comedians?"
The pair bought two video cameras and a pile of blank 60-minute tapes, then began calling their friends.
Almost everyone responded enthusiastically, with more than 100 appearing in the film. " Drew Carey said yes before I could explain the whole thing," Jillette said.
Everyone worked for free.
"Not paying the comics a dime — that's Penn's greatest magic trick," said comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who worked for Disney as the voice of parrot Iago in "Aladdin" and handles the same chores for the ubiquitous AFLAC duck in TV commercials.
Sitting down with Jillette for "The Aristocrats" was a perfect fit for him.
"I've always said my career is somewhere between children's programming and hard-core porn," said Gottfried, who insists that he was the first person to tell the joke to Jillette — and failed to see the Miles Davis parallel.
"I personally think Miles Davis is a lot funnier than me," Gottfried said. "And he's working more."
A tasteless joke about a dead jazz legend? Perfect. No taboo is taboo for "The Aristocrats."
Bob Saget, the beloved "Full House" father, provides a definition of "cockeyed" unimagined by Merriam or Webster. Andy Dick conjures a crotchless Hitler outfit in his version. Kevin Pollack tells the joke while doing a dead-on impression of Christopher Walken.
Gottfried's perversely profane version at a Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner steals the movie. The Playboy poobah looks perplexed as Gottfried begins the joke.
"Hefner does get blindsided, and I love that," Jillette said.
Initially, there were fears that appalled audiences would storm out of the theater in droves. Instead, the 86-minute documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival (with just a dozen walkouts) to almost unanimous praise, and was purchased by distributor THINKFilm in January.
It opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, with a national release Aug. 12.
"The Aristocrats" won't arrive without controversy. The AMC theater chain, which operates 3,500 movie screens nationwide, already announced it won't show "The Aristocrats."
Terrific news, according to Jillette.
"It kind of makes me feel great, because words still have power," Jillette said. "I just like how uplifting the idea is: Words are powerful."