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Aristocrats, The Print E-mail
Friday, 29 July 2005
ImageComedian Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) became curious about an extremely obscene joke very famous—or notorious—among professional comedians. They started videotaping comedians telling the joke, offering variations, discussing its impact and so forth, then stuck a bunch of the most interesting results together in the form of this documentary.

You’ve never seen another movie like this, nor will you again. It’s unique and unduplicatable. It’s certainly not to all tastes; I suspect one reason it’s being released without an MPAA rating is that it’s too obscene even for NC-17. There’s little doubt that in terms of language, this is the most obscene movie ever made, even though there’s nary an image that’s even questionable.

The joke is basic: A guy walks into a theatrical manager’s office. I’ve got a great act, he tells the manager. Okay, so what IS this act? The visitor describes the act, and this is where the obscenity comes in, and where a comedian can get very creative. It usually involves urination, defecation, bestiality, incest and just plain sex. It’s very gross. The manager admits that it’s a pretty colorful act. What do you call it? The visitor replies, “The Aristocrats!”

An especially inventive comic—whose name I missed, perhaps Doug Kenney—was able to elongate it to ninety minutes. At a roast in New York for Hugh Hefner a few days after 9/11, Gilbert Gottfried embarrassed himself and made his audience uncomfortable by making a joke connected with the terrorist strike. Okay, said, Gottfried, how about this? And launched into an especially creative rendition of the famous joke. Everyone in the room had probably heard it before, but the combination of shattered nerves following 9/11, tension and sheer relief at the joke NOT being topical brought down the house. Much of that footage is included here. It certainly could NOT have been included in a TV broadcast of the roast.
The very impressive group that Jillette and Provenza interviewed talks about the joke every which way possible; some, like George Carlin (not unexpectedly) become serious and analytical about the source of the joke’s powers. Others, such as Bob Saget (unexpectedly), become almost awesomely gross in their version of the joke. Robin Williams, interviewed on a beach in San Francisco, offers several creative variations and alternate jokes. Tommy Smothers tells it to brother Dickie, who supposedly never heard it before.  Phyllis Diller admits that the first time she heard the joke, she fainted. Carrie Fisher colorfully talks about the joke’s power within her family. Drew Carey introduces the concept of a proud little flourish at the joke’s wrap-up. Whoopi Goldberg says the joke is too male, and offers a female variation. A couple of jugglers do the joke with one standing on his partner’s shoulders. One young woman—Judy Cole?—tells the joke as if it were her own family history. A sleight-of-hand artist tells the joke using a deck of cards. A mime acts out the joke.

The movie is remarkably funny, even though the joke itself isn’t. One of the principal ideas behind the movie is that Provenza and Jillette realized that the variations and riffs were what were important, making the joke’s retelling by one comic after another something like jazz. Without being obvious, the film investigates the varying values of timing, presentation, sheer wordiness and gesture to the telling of jokes.

Some of the comics are delighted to talk about the joke, often adding their own takes on it, others seem a little uncomfortable; Bob Saget goes through both at once. There are so many famous faces here—Chris Rock turns up—that after a while it becomes a little dizzying. Who the heck did they miss? Jerry Seinfeld? Johnny Carson? There are few old-time comics here; Carlin, Shelley Berman (who says little) and Don Rickles have probably the longest careers of the bunch. A couple aren’t really comedians—Gary Owens and Paul Krassner, for example.

This is something of a movie collage: lots of different elements that, when placed together, create a meaning beyond and in addition to the individual contributions. It wasn’t until the filmmakers began to edit and select from over a hundred hours of interviews that they realized “something bigger was definitely emerging” (says Provenza in the production notes), but he doesn’t go so far as to suggest what it might be.

I don’t blame him—it’s hard to pin down just what a viewer will take from “The Aristocrats,” because it probably varies as much as the telling of the joke itself. The movie grew out of an experience Jillette had. A group of comedians were trading jokes with silent punch lines. A newcomer asked what was going on, and to explain it, Jillette told the joke again. Then someone else arrived and the last newcomer told the joke. But his version was a little different from Jillette’s—so were all the others. Each teller of the joke brought his or her own style, viewpoint and experience to the telling of the joke.

So Jillette and Provenza decided to go further; they chose the joke they did because so many comics knew it, and so few had ever done it for a crowd. They describe it as a “secret hand-shake” among comics—but now we’re let in on it. And at the end, the film suggests that now you know the joke, try varying it yourself—and gives a website to report your results to Provenza and Gillette.

Ultimately, this is a movie about the power of language, and how that power can be used to shock and to induce laughter—sometimes at the same time and for the same reasons. Again, a very strong warning: if you are offended by the classic dirty words, do not see this movie—you’ll want to walk out ten minutes into it. But if you’re comfortable with the language as she is spoke, don’t miss this. Or wait for the DVD; Provenza claims that it will feature material they had to cut from the theatrical release.

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