By Sheerly Avni
If the Motion Picture Academy honored obscenity practiced as an art form—and it should—the hilariously scatological and obscene documentary “The Aristocrats,” a history of the world’s dirtiest joke, would certainly have won an Oscar. It did not even receive a nomination, and that may be a dirtier joke still. But director Paul Provenza doesn’t mind, and he spoke with Truthdig’s Sheerly Avni from a hotel room in Australia to explain. He also sounded off on why he thinks Chris Rock flailed as a host, and why Jon Stewart just might pull it off—without losing his soul.
Sheerly Avni: The first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Academy Awards is how rarely comedy is honored. What was the last funny movie that won for Best Picture Oscar? “Tootsie”?*
Paul Provenza: I don’t know much Oscar trivia, because frankly I just find the process so heinous.
Tell us what you really think!
Well, there is a certain kind of sentimentality that pervades popular culture when it comes to conveying emotion: a love story, for example. The music has to be in a certain key, the lighting has to be a certain way….
Steven Spielberg. Cue violins, save little girl.
Exactly. It’s all those semiotics that make it really easy for people to get things without having to work at it, which is why I’m probably the wrong person to ask about film, because, look, I think “Leaving Las Vegas” is one of the greatest love stories of all time. There you see two people who commit absolutely. They allow each other to be who they are and be unfettered by any control of their own behavior. In general, manipulation and sentimentality repulse me. “Life Is Beautiful,” that’s another example. You can like it or not, but they made a slapstick comedy that took place in a fucking death camp! It’s amazing that it happened!
So comedy doesn’t give us access to those easy emotional responses?
Yes, but I think for the most part there’s another big reason that comedy isn’t taken seriously as an art form. When you go to a comedy show, everyone in an audience has at some point in his or her life made people laugh, be it co-workers, family, a brother-in-law. They think, “I could do that.” But fewer people will listen to a singer or watch a movie and think “I could do better than that.” In audiences you find audience members sitting there and you can tell that they’re saying “I’m funnier than you are.” Well, yeah, OK, so come up on stage.
Also, there’s a general mind-set that comedy is escapist. But watch “To Be or Not to Be” and tell me what’s escapist about that. Or watch “The Great Dictator,” tell me what’s escapist about that.
So then on the big night that the Oscars and comedy converge, [the awards show], how does one make that work? Last year, Chris Rock bombed as host, and yet he’s a brilliant comedian, one of the best we have.
On a real simple level, you have no idea what kind of pressure these guys are under. You’re not putting on your show, you’re presenting. You have millions of people watching you, but you’re bound by the needs of the audience in front of you.
There was no way he could ... play to that audience, and cajole them and make them happy, and still be true to himself. The Academy is not his crowd.
Right, at the Academy Awards you are playing to the whole world, but you have to gear your act to play to the 2,000 people in the auditorium….
They have to play to the people who hired them to do a job, and that job doesn’t include being true to yourself, that job involves doing the job they want done. It’s 100% business.
Do you think Jon Stewart will be more successful?
Jon is a different comedian than Chris is; he, John, can straddle the edge. Chris is really very much his own person. I mean, so is Jon, but Jon can be incisive and cutting and ballsy without alienating a huge group the way Chris does.
Well, Jon Stewart, by being true to himself, is being a white Jewish man; Chris Rock, by being true to himself, is being a black man…Isn’t being black going to make him more of an outsider in Hollywood than Stewart?
I don’t think I can commit to that.
Why? Because as a Jew I don’t have to worry about being called anti-Semitic?
I think ... the core of what you’re saying is right, but it’s a question of who he is, which is of course connected to his race. But I don’t think there is a racial aspect to Chris Rock not doing well at the Oscars. ...It has more to do with his style as a comedian. Chris is not a “pal” kind of guy, he’s not a happy-go-lucky kind of guy.
No. As a comedian he’s sort of - serious.
He’s about making his point, not being silly and wacky. And Jon has that silly and wacky side to him. Take Whoopi Goldberg. There was certainly not a racial aspect to her doing well or not doing well. This is not the perfect context for this word, but she’s more sociable, more amenable.
Is it possible for someone like Stewart to play both sides, and still be subversive? For that matter, when you look at The Daily Show, or The Onion, are these presentations subversive, or are they just a way in which we lull ourselves to sleep?
When media becomes such a definable entity—when I’m watching Fox News, I’m more fascinated by watching how they are trying to manipulate me. What people are craving is something sincere and not lowest common denominator, I mean we know that news in general is false—filtered, disinformative, as well as uninformative. People forget that “The Daily Show” is more about media than it is about current events.
What people respond to is “The Daily Show” saying, “Look, we know that the media is a crock of shit.”
And then you have Oscar nominees, at least one, which is very specifically about the media. “Good Night, and Good Luck,” for example.
“Good Night, and Good Luck” was a very personal project. It was a movie that would be the same no matter who financed it. George Clooney is a guy with some clout in Hollywood who had a vision for this movie; it was a very personal vision. Same with “Munich”—it’s different. I’m not sure what his final message was, but I think to have a Palestinian and a Jew having a conversation in a safehouse, that’s the ballsiest move Steven Spielberg has ever made. And Ang Lee, this is also a very personal filmmaker. You’re talking about films that are not part of the major studio system formula.
And I think “Crash” was a fantastic movie. While it’s not overtly about a specific political event in the way that “Munich” is ... it’s very political in its analysis of race…. I think it’s terrific because it really looks at the emotional truths on all sides of the race question and it sidesteps that issue that makes Hollywood fluffy when it comes to politics. Because it’s not trying to take a stand. It just puts it out there and lets it resonate emotionally.
So now I have to ask you about “The Aristocrats”—were you disappointed that your film wasn’t nominated?
In all honesty, it’s more right that we weren’t nominated. The basic premise of the movie would have been compromised by that kind of recognition…. The whole nature of the joke, the phenomenon, is dark and dingy, its raunchy basements are not about acceptance.
The only disappointment I feel is that, given my aforementioned disdain for the whole thing: Man, that would have been a fun acceptance speech. (Laughs.) It’s been suggested that that was what they were afraid of.
*Mea culpa: The writer later checked the listings and found that the most recent comedy to win an Academy Award was actually “Shakespeare in Love,” a film that, despite not being very good or very funny, was considered a comedy.