The Aristocrats (18)

Have you heard the one about the longest, rudest joke in the world?
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The Independent Culture

One phrase you never hear in The Aristocrats is, "Stop me if you've heard this one before." The subject of this documentary is a filthy joke, and we get to hear it again, and again, almost to the limits of endurance. Paul Provenza (who directed) and Penn Jillette (the fat one from kamikaze magic duo Penn and Teller, who conducted the interviews) filmed over 100 comedians reminiscing and theorising about, but mainly just telling a joke reputed to be the most obscene ever. Since you're gagging to know, here it is.

A man walks into a theatrical agent's office and says, "Have I got an act for you." It consists of a family (usually father, mother, son, daughter and dog, plus optional grandmother and additional pets) performing the most horrific, repellent, ostentatiously vile acts imaginable, variously coprophilic, violent, incestuous, bestial. In short, their performance is the basest that human depravity can devise: we're talking The 120 Days of Sodom in a de luxe Robert Crumb illustrated edition. The horrified agent responds, "That's disgusting. What do you call this act?" The visitor replies, "The Aristocrats".

This shaggy-dog story (or dog-shagging story, according to taste) is less a joke than the frame for one: set-up, punchline and gap into which comedians can dump their own filth. Not so much a gag, then, more a verbal trashcan. According to showbiz lore, "The Aristocrats" is what comics tell each other after the punters have left. It's an opportunity for professionals to impress peers with their audacity and their stamina: many interviewees here characterise the joke as an endurance sport, with all the opportunities for tragic failure that any championship offers. One stand-up, we hear, sustained the routine brilliantly for 90 minutes, throwing in white slavery and a Zeppelin race, only to muff the punchline.

At its most extreme, the "Aristocrats" joke sounds like a gramatically coherent version of The Naked Lunch: it's no accident that William Burroughs used the word "routines" to describe his novels' free-form litanies of anatomy-defying scatology (you only wish the film had featured the great man's own drawling version: "Seeeems there was this impresaaario..."). Several commentators compare telling "The Aristocrats" to playing jazz, with the comedian spinning improvisations in his or her distinctive signature. But the film itself turns the joke into a discordant, free-form musique concrète - as the editing zaps frenetically from one comic to another, the hammering, rhythmic repetition of fucks and sucks becomes meaningless, emptied of all real outrage; what's left is abstract verbal noise in which all that's finally readable is the style of each performer.

The extreme example of this comes from what is supposedly the classic rendering of the gag by the brutally abrasive Gilbert Gottfried: he doesn't say much that's fresh or funny in itself, but his belligerent monotone bark becomes an object of horror and amazement, more than justifying someone's description of "The Aristocrats" as "a Tourette's Syndrome joke".

Not surprisingly, the film's prize performances depart from the template, or even negate the original premise entirely. Some comics coyly strip out the obscenity altogether, others use it to subvert their own demure image: family-friendly comic Bob Saget, who resembles an amiable Jewish academic, proves flamboyantly sewer-mouthed and will probably land himself a role in the next Todd Solondz film.

Some use the gag as a springboard for stunts: Kevin Pollak does it as Christopher Walken, Mario Cantone (brilliantly) as Liza Minnelli. There's a mime version, a juggling version, a stunning card-trick version. Some worry about whether the punchline works, others boldly skate on way past the finishing mark. For stone-cold style and intelligence, however, no one matches bohemian goddess Sara Silverman, who rather unnervingly tells the joke in the first person, as the daughter in the act.

Perhaps mercifully, there's not much serious theorising, but when there is, it's barely followed up: there's some musing about whether the "Aristocrats" tradition is predominantly macho, and about how race has become a far riskier theme than scatology. No one, however, sticks their neck out so far as to invoke Islam, and only Silverman broaches disability. The one point at which you really blanch is when a couple of guys - including controversialist Doug Stanhope - tell the joke to their own babies, with the uneasy look of men worried that their spouses could burst in at any minute.

Shot on DV no more than serviceably, The Aristocrats is exhausting to watch, and much of it isn't that funny. If you want to binge on gross-out, the film will more than satisfy, but it's most interesting for what it reveals about the desperation inherent in the comedian's job: you sense many participants straining every muscle to push against the frontiers both of taboo and of their own imaginations, at the risk of killing laughter entirely. You really come to appreciate the more zen-inclined among all these raconteurs; at worst, the routines are less like jazz, more like heavy metal guitar solos. Incidentally, you wonder whether jazz players ever compare themselves to comics: "Man, he blew that horn like a Bernard Manning routine."