Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Aristocrats

So I just went to see The Aristocrats last night.

For those of you who don't know, this is a "documentary" by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) and Paul Provenza about one of the most famous dirty jokes ever. It goes like this:

A man walks into a talent agent's office and says, "Pardon me, could I have a minute of your time? I've got a family act that you're just going to love." The agent says, "You've got two minutes. Let's hear it."

*unspeakable obscenity, including, but not limited to, bestiality, incest, necrophilia, pedophilia, coprophilia, etc.*

The agent says, "That's quite an act. What do you call it?" The man says, "The Aristocrats!"

It's a bad joke. The punchline isn't really funny, except in how inappropriate it is, being attached to such a depraved "family act." But this is showbiz's most famous backstage joke, and the joy is in the middle part. Several comedians in the film (there's over 100) describe it as almost like a free-form jazz thing. You know the beginning, you know the end, and you make up the middle as you go along.

That all having been said, there were several moments in this film that had me clutching my stomach from laughter. From George Carlin's overly detailed opening version of the joke, to Howie Mandel's entirely deadpan telling, to the Smothers Brothers two man routine, to Billy the Mime's version, to the animated South Park version, to Gilbert Gottfried's telling at Hugh Hefner's roast, to the climax (in my opinion) of Bob Saget's hopelessly depraved telling, we see a few things.

One, there are as many variations of this joke as there are people who tell it. There are a couple of "inverted Aristocrats" jokes thrown in (same setup, except the guy describes a completely innocent, happy family act. Agent says, "What's it called?" Guy says, "The Cocksucking Motherfuckers."), and a couple of variations on the theme (a hilarious one told simultaneously by Drew Carey and Robin Williams, and versions told by Andy Richter and Doug Stanhope to their infant children). Each telling is unique unto itself.

Two, more than just the details being different, the joke really plays into what each individual comedian finds funny. Carlin clearly revels in the deadpan revelation of disgusting details, as does Howie Mandel. Saget is right at home with the most disgusting stuff you've ever heard (and can't stop laughing through the telling of it). Drew Carey emphasizes a little flourish at the end, which he feels "makes the joke." With each person, the emphasis is in a different place. Sometimes it's all sex, sometimes it's all violence, sometimes it's all excretory stuff, most of the time it's all three.

If you like a good dirty joke, I'd guess you'd like this film. To me, it's worth it just to hear Saget request a copy of his version to send to the Full House girls.