Sunday, June 26, 2005

The dirtiest joke ever told

"The Aristocrats" is a legendary joke that's been circling the stand-up comic circuit for decades. It involves a standard set-up and punchline, but the middle is open for improvisation. The idea is for your language to be as foul and offensive as possible in this middle section.

The Aristocrats is a documentary about this joke, and how it has survived since vaudeville, and how it takes on many forms as interpreted by scores of comedians. Essentially, the movie is one comedian after another using unspeakably obscene language.

There's Lewis Black, Paul Reiser, Judy Gold, Drew Carey, Howie Mandel, the Smothers brothers, George Carlin, Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Connolly, Carrie Fisher, Gilbert Gottfried, Hank Azaria, Eddie Izzard, Penn Jillette, Eric Idle, Bill Maher, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Martin Mull, Kevin Nealon, Kevin Pollak, Andy Richter, Chris Rock, Rita Rudner, Rip Taylor, Matt Stone, Bruce Vilanch, Jon Stewart, Dave Thomas, and Fred Willard.

Each gives variations on the theme. The documentary illustrates that joke-telling is very much like jazz -- you can have a standard that is reimagined many times in many ways, depending on the musician. The improv can be long and rich or short and simple, really dirty or comparatively clean.

The movie made a big splash at Sundance in January, and I saw it at the Silverdocs Film Festival last week (IMDb says it'll be out August 12). Very funny, occasionally boring, worth a look. If there's a message, I don't know it. But it is refreshing to hear such bloody revolting language "in public," as censorship gets more complex in certain venues. In a way, The Aristocrats attempts to cleanse the palette of a society strangled by political correctness. Sure, movies are getting more violent, television is getting smuttier, but we're still entrenched in this eddy of PCness that's annoying, if not damaging to the creative process. The Aristocrats tries to shake things up.

Anecdotally: Phyllis Diller, Sarah Silverman, and Bob Saget are the best reasons to see the movie. Diller's great comic timing hasn't dulled with age. Silverman turns this one-note joke into an impressive, layered comic performance on the fly. And Saget's interpretation is probably the dirtiest (despite Bill Maher's yarn about a family of retards having incestuous sex on a pile of dead nuns), and it's funny to watch him crack up at his own disgusting mouth.

Also, it's important to note that the joke itself is not funny. There is no punchline, really. The funny part is the comedian's attempt to find new ways to nauseate and repulse an audience.

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