Provenza and his gang performed off-campus in various venues, including Pagano’s and a now-defunct South Street club called Grendel’s Lair. And as his comedy career surged, the prospect of law school faded.

“Halfway through, I realized that comedy was where my heart was,” he says. “I had friends at Brown and Princeton and so many universities who were doing the same things I was doing, but they were getting credit for it and I wasn’t.”

A few months after graduating with Penn’s first-ever
theater-arts degree, Provenza landed a role in an ABC sitcom pilot. He says he had a leg up on the competition from having spent all those college weekends and holidays driving from Philadelphia to New York to perform; all he’ll say about the pilot is that it concerned a rock group—and that it failed to get picked up.

He went on to land roles in various TV series, including Empty Nest, in which he played Patrick Arcola, the boyfriend of Dinah Manoff’s character (1992-93); Northern Exposure, in which he starred as Dr. Phillip Capra from 1994 to 1995; The West Wing, where he played an aide to a senator for a couple of episodes; and The Facts of Life, in which for five episodes he played Casey Clark, who dated the Blair Warner character.

He also continued hosting and creating comedy shows, both on TV and off.

It was his interest in the ingredients of this art that made him partner with Penn Jillette. About four years ago, the two comedians were talking about jazz and improvisation.

“Penn was getting into jazz; he plays upright bass,” says Provenza. “We talk deeply and pretentiously about every subject. He talked about the arcane aspects of improvisation, when does technique help you to improvise, and when does it get in the way of your ability to be free.”

It’s different in comedy, he told Jillette, because rather than interpreting the same joke, comedians try to stay away from what others are doing. “But if you see comedy as an art form, it’s about the singer, not the song,” Provenza explains. “That’s the real thesis of the movie. What if we went to our friends and had them all do different versions of the same joke? Then we thought, ‘What would the joke be?’ It was clear it would be ‘The Aristocrats.’”

Provenza filmed comedians ranging from Phyllis Diller to Andy Dick putting their special spin on the ironic tale. (There are some other Penn notables in it, too, including comic Wayne Cotter EAS’77 and comedy writer Alan Kirschenbaum W’85, whose father, Freddy Roman, is a comic Provenza watched on TV growing up.) Some of the comedians reverse the joke; some employ foreign accents; and some just pontificate.

The film has earned some rave reviews. The New Yorker’s David Denby said it “exudes cheerfulness and expansive joy” (and even worked the word coprophagy into his review).

While Provenza set out to show different comedy styles, it is the controversial nature of what’s said that seems to have generated the most discussion. At one point, for example, Eric Cartman, one of the animated characters from South Park, tells the joke to his three friends and adds: “Then the father gets up and says, ‘And now for our impersonation of the victims of 9/11.’”

Unsurprisingly, Provenza does not believe there should be arbitrary limits on language. “I believe in complete and total freedom,” he says. “Personally, I have many boundaries, most of which I’m proud of. People have the right to be offended, but what offends people [varies]. There was an interesting incident during an interview [with Bob Saget] in which a journalist had an emotional response to the talk of incest. There was clearly something in her past that made that visceral, and that’s a perfectly reasonable response from her. But not from everybody else. The fact is, nothing that anybody talks about is out of thin air. It’s all reality. It doesn’t take a twisted, sick imagination to talk about incest or pedophilia or racism or what have you. In the movie and in the joke, the irony is established early on. The whole point is that anything people say is supposed to be offensive, rude, or vile. If they say it, clearly it’s because they think it’s offensive and vile.”

But Provenza, who is single, understands that The Aristocrats is not a film for kids. His production team tried to make sure that people were aware that it is not Disney’s The Aristocats.

“Here’s the really funny part,” he said. “We had a screening in Florida, and a family came. It was about 40 minutes before they left. That’s faith in Disney, you know that?”

Caren Lissner C’93 published her first novel, Carrie Pilby, in 2003.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/28/05

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FEATURE: Is Nothing Profane?