Gary Stockdale (Composer - 'The Aristocrats')
'Scoring With A Musical Aristocrat'
Emmy-nominated for "That Bullshit Theme" to the Showtime program "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!," composer Gary Stockdale turns out music that is a joke, providing the score to the dirtiest film of all time, 'The Aristocrats.'
Conceived by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza and directed by Paul, 'The Aristocrats' premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and is a contender in the Documentary Competition. In its opening weekend in just New York and Los Angeles, the movie earned some $65,000, with a wider release upcoming.
'The Aristocrats' is funny and very perverse seriousness placing it dead center in any discussion about values, mores and the nature of taboo. Featuring more than 100 comedians, it takes an unprecedented backstage look at the world of comics, both superstars and lesser-known lights. And all in pursuit of telling one very, very, dirty joke; a joke that has been around since vaudeville. It's a joke that previously existed only in private, among comics, and is the dirtiest joke you will ever hear!
For over a decade, Stockdale has scored and directed the music for the "Bad Boys of Magic" on their stage shows and TV specials and received an Emmy nomination was for "Penn & Teller's Sin City Spectacular." Penn insists, "We give him hard work and he does it perfectly. You may be a big fan [of the 'Bullshit!' theme] but not as big of a fan as I am." Teller calls Stockdale a "bloody genius," and goes on to say, "He can do anything there is in music. I always find it an amazing experience to be around him - it gives me some idea what it must have been like to hang with Bach."
Chatting recently with Gary Stockdale himself, I first wondered how he had become involved with composing and producing the score to 'The Aristocrats'? "Well, I was lucky enough to have had a long association with Penn and Teller as their composer for the last 15 years. In addition, I've been friends with Paul Provenza for at least as long. So, happily, I was the logical choice."
What special musical (or otherwise!) preparation do you have to undertake to begin work on such projects? "I'm kind of a chameleon, musically, so whenever I get a new project the first thing I do is decide what style or sound of music will work best to add meaning to the content of the film. Then I will immerse myself in the best music of that style until it's virtually coming out my pores. After that, it becomes like any other composing project, I just sit down and write it. I guess the pre-writing process sort of sets my brain to think in the style I need to write in, so it all comes out fairly easily."
Did the subject matter associated with 'The Aristocrats' cause you any musical qualms/difficulties?! "Certainly no qualms, and the difficulties had to do with trying to make sure the depth of ideas behind the music were worthy of the movie. Paul and Penn have created not only the definitive work on post-Lenny Bruce adult comedy, but 'The Aristocrats' is truly a celebration of the power of words, and how words alone can be so powerful as to move culture. So when the music comes in, it needed to be the non-verbal equivalent of the kind of punch the movie delivers. I hope I accomplished that."
Which of your musical compositions created over the years do you feel best encapsulates Gary Stockdale at his finest? "My glib answer would be whatever I've just finished, but if I had to pick one, I would guess it's this musical duet I wrote about 10 years ago that Penn and Teller did in their live show. It was a chamber piece for Yamaha Disklavier and voice. The text was an argument between the "ghost" of Harry Houdini, and a famous spirit medium of his time, with Harry throwing a bright light on that kind of chicanery. In that piece, my writing was greatly influenced by Kurt Weill, one of my musical heroes, and it featured Teller singing in counter-tenor (behind a curtain of course.)"
And, while we're on the subject of revealing things, where did your "doctor" nickname originate?! "I used to do administer back-alley lobotomies and electro-shock treatments with old gear left over from 80's synth-pop!"
"If that seems implausible, here's another explanation: Often, piano players are called "Professor" or "Doctor" (not always in a complimentary way), perhaps because they do melody and accompaniment at the same time, and are generally know-it-alls. So back when I was a gigging keyboard player and used to do a lot of sideman gigs and parties, etc., I got called "Doctor." When I started working with Penn & Teller, the nickname got set in stone and it's how I've always been known in my work with them. In fact Penn used to occasionally refer to me as "The Right Reverend Doctor Gary U. S. Bonds Stockdale."
Having now seemingly embraced music as a 'joke' in providing the score to quite possibly THE dirtiest film of all time ('THE ARISTOCRATS'), is there an easy way back into the mainstream after this has all died down?! "I'm still waiting to enter the mainstream. Probably the most mainstream project I've ever done was the theme and score to 'Sabrina, The Teenage Witch' in it's first couple of seasons on ABC. The show's creator Nell Scovell made it a smart, quirky show that also had a winking appeal for adults (I mean, how many teen sitcoms feature jokes about Wendy Wasserstein?). When Nell left the show, a lot of the more unique voices left as well, including the characters of the Kings and Queen of the Witches, played by Penn, Teller, and Deborah Harry."
"If 'The Aristocrats' is the dirtiest film of all time, that would be quite a distinction and perhaps a nobler goal to aspire to than to be thought of as mainstream. The film is ABOUT a joke, but isn't, itself, a joke. It's about artists at the top of their game playing at the outer reaches of their imaginations. I would like to think of the music in the same way."
"And I believe it's a misconception to think that 'The Aristocrats' is outside of the mainstream. I think that's a kind of intellectual snobbery from certain elements of the more "politically-correct" of media pundits. You don't have to be a Hummer-driving Hollywood-type to get this movie. Most people love a good dirty joke, and as Provenza says, when it comes to appreciating adult humor, there are no "red states" or "blue states," just a lot of purple. The fact that the movie keeps filling movie houses shows that no one has any idea what the "mainstream" really is, although self-styled culture experts like Michael Medved would have you think they know."
Having scored and directed the music for Penn & Teller – the “Bad Boys of Magic” – on their stage shows and TV specials for over ten years, I was wondering if you had a funny (or inspirational!) stories to tell of just one of your many encounters with the guys?! "No one in the business works harder than Penn & Teller (Penn will tell you no one works harder than Teller and it might be true), so that alone is inspiring. As far as funny, it may have been the huge nude pudding wrestling tournament at Penn's house a few years ago. Besides many lovely naked women and men covered in cornstarch pudding, at one point six-foot-six-inch Penn wrestled a dwarf named Arturo. It was a close match. Come to think of it, that also was pretty inspirational!"
How easy is it to drop into a conversation at a swanky function that you were Emmy-nominated for "That Bullshit Theme" from Penn & Teller's 'Bullshit!' program?! "Pretty easy, especially if I think it will gain me attention. I mean what did we all get into showbiz for in the first place? I just need to be loved."
OK, thinking cap on ... what "cheesy" '80s pop song would you love to re-compose (!) today if asked and why?! "Anything by Flock of Seagulls!"
If there were just 3 words that described Gary Stockdale's music, what would they be? "Tart and tangy!"
If you were asked to compose a single for charity, and had to choose 3 other musicians to aid you in the project, who would they be, what instruments would they play, and what would the name of the NEW song be?! "Johannes Brahms, Django Reinhardt, and Henry Mancini. Piano, guitar, and piccolo, respectively. Hey this is fun. Do you want to know what kind of tree I'd be if I could be one?!"
And finally, and you knew this was coming, but please tell us YOUR OWN VERSION of 'The Aristocrats' joke!!!! "I've told the joke to a few people here and there, even a few times in front of Provenza. But my version gets really long once I start into the various acts of f**king, sucking, incest, bestiality, bodily functions and gut-wrenching violence. My fingers would be way too tired by the time I finished typing it all out. I can tell you the punchline, though ...!?!"
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
Back To Archives