“92 Comedians. 1 Joke. Unspeakable Obscenity.”
The `audio companion’ to the independent documentary film, The Aristocrats is summed up with the above. How does that concept sound to you? Tedious? Intriguing? An insightful look into the mind of the comedian from vaudeville days to now? It is all of these things and more. Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza went around the country to speak to comedians of all types, schools and ages to discuss the joke simply called “The Aristocrats,” a filthy joke told primarily only from comedian to comedian as a sort of trade secret / game of one-upsmanship over the years. Vaudeville era magician and ventriloquist Jay Marshall tells the joke as he remembers it to introduce the idea in which a man goes into a talent agent’s office and describes his family act. The older, tamer version has the family simply wallowing in feces before the agent asks about the name of the act. The answer of course is the title of the film and soundtrack. This early form of the joke is funny in and of itself and should hopefully need no explanation of its allegorical humor as that usually leads to the killing of a good gag. But over the years, as comedy has become more daring, dangerous and filthy, the joke has taken on a new life and the filmmakers tried to capture the essence of what makes this industry secret so funny.
The film and the CD are somewhat different. The CD contains extended bits, bits of dialogue that are omitted from the movie entirely, and is pieced together in a different way so as not to simply be an exact audio replica of the film. Listening to about an hour’s worth of the joke and watching it for even longer can be quite tiresome, especially if you might not find the joke all that funny in the first place. Hearing the litany of the awful things that this family does to each other, merely in the name of getting as dirty as possible, the theory being that the more you frontload the joke with obscenity, the funnier the punchline. Jillette describes the telling of the joke as a jazz riff, each musician can play the same notes, but each adds their distinctive style to the piece, making it sound as if it’s pure Coltrane or Rollins, etc. There are definitely examples of this type of imprimatur in the film and, in turn, on the CD. Particular favorites of mine include Hank Azaria’s Polish (?) grandfather’s telling, Dana Gould’s Amish version, George Carlin’s hyper-detailed storytelling, Whoopi Goldberg’s unique song interpretation, the South Park animated take, Kevin Pollak’s `Christopher Walken’ version, Chuck McCann’s tamer delivery, and Sarah Silverman’s revelatory digressions.
Some things are unfortunately lost with the absence of video. Drew Carey adds a little Spanish flamenco dancer arm pose with a snap flourish to his version (which takes on a life of its own for the filmmakers), the `Billy the Mime’ telling of the joke (which is hilariously (or not) tacked on the CD as a bonus track) and the absolute hilarity of Gilbert Gottfried’s post 9/11 telling of the joke after nearly bombing at the Friar’s Club Roast of Hugh Hefner. His `Aristocrats’ performance, which leaves poor Rob Schneider rolling helplessly on the floor, is widely regarded as the single moment that saved comedy after the horrific events in New York and Washington, D.C. that September. With Gottfried, it was not so much the joke itself, nor the details, but the performance itself, capitalizing on every moment of cascading laughter, not allowing anyone to catch their breath, delivering the final blow not a moment too soon or too late. It is thought by many to be the one perfect delivery of `The Aristocrats.’
Penn Jillette warns viewers and listeners that this particular piece of comedy might not be for you. The film was intended for friends, those who knew and recognized the joke and could appreciate the subtle differences and signature styles of their peers. Several of the comedians even go so far as to dissect the joke, showing that the premise is ludicrous. After all, why, after all this carnage and mayhem, would the talent agent still ask for the name of the act? (The only one who successfully explains that loophole is Kevin Pollak as Christopher Walken). My own take on the film and CD is that it is not the joke that is necessarily funny, but in the telling and retelling, we get a glimpse into each comedian’s personal philosophy as to what makes a joke funny or not funny. Anyone can tell a joke, and most comedians will aver that they don’t even necessarily tell `jokes’ per se, but instead tell humorous stories. That’s what The Aristocrats is ultimately about, and achieves its goal with flying colors.
Gilbert Gottfried- Dirty Jokes
George Carlin- Life is Worth Losing
Bill Hicks- Salvation