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What “The Aristocrats” Taught Me About Freedom and Integrity

You can’t allow people freedom and then change your mind when the things don’t go your way.  

When AMC said that they would not show The Aristocrats, the movie company ranted about this being a horrible attack on freedom of speech.  And they wanted me to write editorials about how AMC was taking away my creative freedom.  And I said I’m on AMC’s side.  I’m absolutely 100 percent on their side.  They own the AMC Theaters.  They should show precisely what they want to show in those theaters.  That’s why they worked so hard to own those theaters.  They deserve it. They deserve to not show The Aristocrats for whatever reason they want.  The reason could be that they don’t like the movie or the reason could be they don’t think they’ll make as much money.  I don’t care what the reason is. The reason could be the zodiac signs.  They own those theaters they show what they want.  

I run the Penn and Teller Theater, along with Teller.  There will not be a religious revival in our theater. There will not be.  I won’t allow that.  Will I allow religious revivals?  Sure.  Not in my theater, not when I have control of it.  That’s the way freedom works.  

So I wrote an editorial in favor of AMC not showing The Aristocrats.  I thought it showed some backbone.  If you believe something, stick up for it.  I also think that anyone who wanted to see The Aristocrats should also boycott AMC and never go to the theater again. Perfect.  Great.  I mean, there’s no harm done.  The number of people that wanted to see The Aristocrats was in the hundreds of thousands.  People that want to go the AMC theaters is in the millions, so it wouldn’t be even a drop in the bucket.  But that’s the way the world works.  That’s the way the feedback works.  

So because of AMC not showing The Aristocrats I made a little less money, probably a lot less money. So what?  If I wanted to make more money with AMC, I would have made a movie to please them instead of a movie to please me.  I did fine with The Aristocrats. I made fine money.  I’m really proud of it.  And people that saw it really loved it.  But AMC didn’t, and more power to them. I disagree, but I’m also in favor of that decision being made. 

This happened to me another time.  We did a special for – a series of specials for children for PBS, a zillion years ago called “Behind the Scenes,” teaching music and art and so on.  And there was a big, big corporate sponsor that was coming in and said that they didn’t like the way I spoke.  I mean, it wasn’t obscenity or anything. They just didn’t like my style, and they would pull out their funding unless the production company got rid of me.  And the production company threw this big fit, saying “We’ll stand behind you and they can’t do this and they should give this money just to us to do what we want.”  And I went, “Why?”  They’re 100 percent in the right.  They’re going to drop a lot of jingle on you and they don’t want me, okay.  Get rid of me. So long.  I have a contract, you must pay me off.  I will make money, you know, a small amount of money to be paid off.  They’re offering you a huge amount of money.  Just follow your contract.  Penn gets this amount of money, we make this amount of money and I’ll watch the show.  And by the way, just for kicks, the scripts that I wrote, you can have them.  Fine, I’m not going to use them anywhere else.  Go, be successful.”  And they went through a big corporate process and made the decision to finally use us at the end and it was Penn and Teller.  

You can’t allow people freedom and then change your mind when the things don’t go your way.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 


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