The Aristocrats
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The Aristocrats

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It would seem that telling a dirty joke is almost a rite of passage, especially for young boys. The forbidden nature, the exploration of topics adults would not approve of and the in crowd feeling all combines, adding to the thrill of telling such jokes. They are often not even well constructed jokes; they just serve to shock the audience. The documentary, Ďthe Aristocratsí, details what is often called the dirtiest joke in the world, told by literally dozens of the best comedians every to perform stand up (the liner notes state 100 comedians participated but I think it was a lot less). This joke has reportedly been around since the time of vaudeville, and remains mostly as a joke told by comedians to others in his field. The basic joke contains a few consistent elements. A man walks into a booking agent and states he has the best act in town. Itís a family act; the man and his wife accompanied by their children perform a variety of scatological and sexually deviant acts followed by the agent asking what they call themselves, the father announces their name with a flourish, the Aristocrats.

For all the years this joke has been around it usually is not told on stage before an audience. Usually it is something comedian use backstage; some to warm up, other to try to impress their peers. When I was young I played in an orchestra. During breaks some of us would get together and play jazz. The liberating feeling of rifting, adding a piece of yourself to a piece was liberating. This is the feeling that most of comedians interviewed relate about this joke. While the set up and punch line are pretty much the same itís the free form nature of the acts performed that has made this joke a legend. They go off on tangents, work in the most disgusting things imaginable and weave their perverse tale of the most dysfunctional family possible. As several comedians point out it is the telling that makes the joke work. Like jazz it reflects the personality and style of the teller.

Comedian Paul Provenza and magician Penn Jillette interview many of their friends who just happen to be among the best comedians on the planet. The format is simple, they go to where the comedian happens to be relaxing or working and they get them to tell their version of the joke complete with a little commentary about what makes this joke unique. At times it is almost a sociological treatise on the nature of comedy and the people that make a living bringing laughter to others.

While the people being interviewed are comedians they are professionals and as such take their jobs very seriously. They use this joke as a means to examine what they do and how it has changed of the past decades. One of the more interesting people to discuss the joke is George Carlin. Years back his routine contained a bit on the seven words that could never be said on television. Of course that was before premium cable and many of the taboos have been broken. He notes that the telling of this joke has changed over the years. Scatological and sexual references were at one time enough to shock the audience now audiences are jaded, so many of the modern incarnations involve racially explicit material. There is an air of authority to Carlin. After all he has made a career for decades pushing the envelope with his audiences. As he puts it he likes to go over the line and bring at least some of the people watching with him.

The documentary is as uneven as the telling of the joke. Some comedians can pull it off while others fall flat on their faces. For me that was only appropriate, some comedians just donít have the edge to do such controversial material. It was interesting that English comedians like Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly and Eric Idle canít seem to relate the jokes the way their American counter parts can. It seems that this form of humor is best appreciated by people on this side of the pond. There is also a gender variation found in this documentary. Female comedians like Cathy Ladman and Wendy Liebman tend to personalize the joke more adding names to the family members and making it more of a first person joke. Sarah Silverman goes so far as to tell the joke as a family memory. While not a comedian Carrie Fisher tells the joke as something her mother told her about her famous film star friends.

There where several stand out performances here. Kevin Pollak, who is an incredible mimic, tells the joke with the voice of Christopher Walken. He has Walkenís unique vocal style down pat adding to the humor. One of the funniest versions was done by Steven Banks in his persona of Billy the Mime. He actually stands on a street and acts out each of the vile actions as people walk by. Mario Cantone tells his variation in the voice of Liza Minnelli complete with song and over the top gestures. Drew Carey relates how he likes to add a little snap of the fingers to the punch line giving it a bit of a personal touch. There is even a special animated telling of the joke care of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the ribald South Park.

Considered by many insiders to be the best modern telling of the jokes is performed by Gilbert Gottfried. This was during his appearance at a Friarís Club roast of Hugh Hefner a mere three weeks after the horrible attack on 9-11. After Gottfried starts to bomb telling jokes about crashing planes into buildings he decided to tell the Aristocrats. With his trademark loud and raspy voice he goes deeper and deeper into the most deviant nature of the joke. He literally had the comedians in the audience falling over. Fellow comedian Rob Schneider fell off his seat and was rolling on the floor in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

This is defiantly not a family film. It contains references to every possible bodily fluid, incest, child molestation, bestiality and overt racism. Still, if you consider it as a sociological look at the nature of humor it works.

Posted 1/11/06

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