Saturday, August 20, 2005

We Are Family

Incest. Bestiality. Coprophilia and coprophagia. Golden showers. Adult-child sex. Pornography. Obscenity. Raunch. Vomit. Anal sex. Oral sex. Mothers and daughters. Bizarre fetishes. Fathers and sons. Dismemberment. Granddad and the family dog. Exploding penises. More incest and more bestiality. Side-splitting laughter.

What do all these words have in common? Well, for one thing, they should drive traffic to this blog through the roof, thanks to Google searches by 15-year-old boys and the Bedford County sheriff. But, more to the point, they all accurately describe The Aristocrats, perhaps the funniest movie of 2005, if not of the 21st century (at least to date).

The Aristocrats is a documentary film directed by stand-up comic/actor Paul Provenza and produced by magician/libertarian agitator Penn Jillette. In it, about a hundred comedians, actors, monologuists, impressionists, and even mimes tell a joke that has been shared backstage by comedy professionals -- but not with, generally, their audiences -- for a hundred years or more. The joke is known by its punchline, "The Aristocrats!"

The form of the joke is fairly simple:

A man walks into a talent agent's office and says, "I have a terrific act for you."

"What's the act?" asks the agent.

The man goes on to describe a vaudeville act made up of a family -- mother, father, daughter, son, sometimes adding grandparents or a dog -- that does unspeakably obscene, gross, and unrepeatable things on stage.

The agent, shocked, says, "I've never heard of such a thing. What do you call the act?"

The man replies with a smile, "The Aristocrats!"
(The slimmed-down version of "The Aristocrats" joke can be found in Gershon Legman's book, The Rationale of the Dirty Joke. Some versions use as a punchline "The Debonairs" or "The Sophisticates.")

The point of the joke is to extend and expand the middle section, adding the most imaginative (and even more unspeakable) elements to it. There are claims that some comics have been able to extend the joke to as long as an hour or more, adding subtle (or gross) details, including extra family members, more explicit sex acts, more suggestions of scatological material, and so forth. The process is an elaborate version of "Can You Top This?" (And, speaking of that classic TV show, wouldn't it have been interesting to have the human joke machine, Morey Amsterdam, tell his version of "The Aristocrats" -- not to mention Redd Foxx or the recently departed Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield?) It comes as no surprise that the movie is dedicated to that patron of stand-up comics, the late Johnny Carson.

The movie attempts, in part, to dissect the humor. In most cases, trying to explain a joke renders it lifeless and dry. In the case of The Aristocrats, quite the opposite is true. Each comic offers his or her own take on how and why the joke works, and their explanations themselves are hilariously funny. The idiosyncrasies are telling: As Penn Jillette (with his silent partner, Teller) puts it so succinctly, like jazz music, this joke is "more about the singer than the song." Indeed, some sequences, which switch back and forth from one comic to another as each tells the joke in his own way, are fuguelike in their construction.

Clearly a labor of love for the filmmakers, The Aristocrats nonetheless is not for everyone. I saw it at an art house theatre, the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., and the auditorium was quite full, but a few people walked out a few minutes into it, even after buying a ticket and -- presumably -- knowing in advance what the movie is about. (The directors smartly move into the dirty talk almost immediately after the metaphorical curtain comes up, so that the shock wears off quickly and the participants can march swiftly into the funniest bits.)

Still, if you can stomach jokes that include a good deal of bodily fluids, taboo acts, and a tour of Joe Franklin's office (which looks like a proposed set for The Dazzle, Richard Greenberg's play about the pack-rat Collier Brothers), you should go see The Aristocrats -- not to be confused with The Aristocats, a feline film of a different ilk -- and laugh loose various body parts.

Or, let me put it this way -- if you loved South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, or if you adored Team America - World Police, you will like The Aristocrats. (In fact, one sequence in The Aristocrats features Cartman telling the joke to Stan, Kyle, and Kenny.) If you're the sort who just does not "get" the facile potty-mouth humor mixed with sophisticated social/cultural commentary that made the reputations of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, you won't "get" The Aristocrats, either, so don't waste your $9.50 at the box office.

Epater les bourgeois!

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