“There is a real value in transgressive humor,” Paul Provenza C’79 is saying. “One of the fascinating things is watching it with an audience. Lines are crossed in different places with different people. People have ideas about what you should and shouldn’t say. Sometimes it’s coming from a place of fear, and that’s why things need to be dealt with comedically.”

OK then: How would you tell a version of the world’s dirtiest joke in a magazine read by 150,000 Ivy League alumni?

“It would involve Ben Franklin, a lot of illegitimate children, and syphilis,” says Provenza.

Uh oh.

“I did a joke like that at Alumni Day once, and it went over great,” insists the Mask & Wig alumnus and documentary director, who’s speaking from his home in Venice, California. “Every time you say something you’re not supposed to say, people love it. Whenever a corporation hires you to do a corporate dinner, they give a list of things not to talk about, like that the president of the company had a lawnmower accident. That’s the first thing you talk about. People want to hear about that.”

Earlier this year, Provenza produced The Aristocrats with comic/magician Penn Jillette, filming approximately 100 comedians describing the same classic sick joke. The joke in question, which comedians say goes back to Vaudeville days, starts off pretty much like this: “A man walks into a talent agent’s office. He tells the agent that he has a great family act. The talent agent says, ‘I already have enough family acts.’ The man says, ‘But ours is different.’”

Depending on who’s telling the joke, the man’s explanation includes incest, excrement, vomit, gunfire, and occasionally farm animals. When the talent agent asks what the act is called, the man replies, “The Aristocrats.”

Didn’t leave you howling on the floor? That only proves that the joke’s success depends on who’s telling it.

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

Is Nothing Profane?
By Caren Lissner

Photography by Ethan Pines

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