EXCLUSIVE: Truly Tasteless Jokes, a series of slim paperbacks that became a publishing juggernaut in the 1980s, is the subject of a new documentary feature just acquired by Virgil Films.
Tasteless, directed by Jeff Cerulli and Matt Ritter, traces the history of not only the books themselves but the way the material — much of it crude and controversial — has aged over the decades. The author of the books, Ashton Applewhite (who used the pen name Blanche Knott), later became a feminist and activist. She conceived of the original volume while making $8,500 a year as an entry-level employee in book publishing.
In a 2011 reminiscence she wrote for Harper’s magazine, titled “Being Blanche,” Applewhite reprised many of the jokes that filled the books, the first of which was the best-selling mass-market title of 1983. The punchlines started fairly PG-rated — “What’s the difference between garbage and a girl from New Jersey? Garbage gets picked up” — but progressed to dead babies, racial and ethnic stereotypes, diseases and many other aspects of the human condition. Given the intense debates today about political correctness and what constitutes offensive material, both in comedy and in general discourse, the books offer a glimpse of a media world before Internet chatrooms and social media. (One chapter in the original book, for example, is called “Handicapped.”)
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In addition to an exclusive interview with Applewhite, the film features comedians Jim Norton, Jim Florentine, Dennis Haskins, Mark Normand, Dan Soder and Helen Hong.
Virgil Films president Joe Amodei said the film will be available to rent or buy in August.
Cerulli and Ritter are both comedians. In addition to performing, Cerulli created satirical web series The Feed and also directed the feature documentary Hungry.
Ritter came to comedy and filmmaking after a successful law career. Since moving into show business, he has created Chained to My Ex, which airs on MSNBC, and has been a producer of unscripted shows and podcasts as well as touring nationally as a comic.
Virgil Films, which Amodei founded in 2003, has released titles such as We Are Columbine, Forks Over Knives and Miss Representation. Later this summer it will distribute Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am?
Here’s a trailer for the 2018 festival run of Tasteless: