I write this at the end of a week that began with Hurricane Katrina and ended a few minutes ago with the news that George W. Bush will get to nominate yet another Supreme Court Justice, so I hope you'll excuse me if my need for relief leads me to overpraise "The Aristocrats."
But first - let me tell those of you who aren't fans of Jewish-American humor, because you live in other countries, have different cultural values and traditions, or don't know what vaudeville or burlesque were eighty years ago - you won't get this film. You won't find it funny, or even palatable. And that goes for you Protestants too. That's because "The Aristocrats" is a film about a joke, a joke that isn't funny even to those who tell it, a joke that doesn't translate well, if at all, and yet a joke that has survived for all this time as a kind of late-night jam session theme when comedians get together after the night's performance. It's not a joke that's ever told publicly, but is kept alive as a mark of one's being in the in-group. The film is a catalogue of a few dozen comedians telling the joke and talking about it with Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza, who made the film and interview them. Here's the joke:
The setup is the classic Jewish comedian's line (because comedians and booking agents were always Jewish): A man walks into the booking agent's office and says, "I've got a terrific family act."
The agent says, "What is it?"
Everything from here to the end, the last line of the joke, is improvisation, a jazz riff as some of the comedians in the film point out, with the kind of free association that parallels those flights on tenor sax that John Coltrane used to make. So what's the last line? In a minute.
What happens betweeen "What is it?" and the last line is this:
The man describes an escalating series of sex and excretory acts, in incredibly graphic detail, first by himself, then with his wife on stage, then with their children, and if desired with their dog. When he's finished, the agent says, "So what do you call yourselves?"
That's the joke. As I say, it's not funny. But when comedians tell it to each other, riff on it, remember who they heard it from, joke about it, it's hysterical. It's hysterical because in American society the joke violates just about every single more and prohibition that we've ever erected to put boundaries around our lives. And interestingly, by about ten minutes into the film, even if we've never heard the joke before, the words have lost their power to offend or even amuse us; we're numb. It's the context, the setting in which it isn't the joke but the knowledge of the joke that's funny. And so everyone from George Carlin to Bob Saget to Robin Williams to Whoopi Goldberg to Sarah Silverman (a young genius whose style is like that of Sarah Vowell) to dozens of others gets to tell, or tell about, the joke. Everybody tells it differently, everybody has his or her own take on it or on the context of it.
And then, about two-thirds of the way through, just when we're getting a little antsy that we've seen and heard it all, Jillette and Provenza work a little miracle: they cut to the South Park boys and have Cartman (Trey Parker) tell the joke to his friends, from beginning to end, while Kyle (Matt Stone) tries to hush him up for being obscene. Suddenly everything we've thought of as adult, and late-night, and dirty, is being told in front of us by children. For me it's a moment of genius.
But Jillette and Provenza aren't quite done yet. Almost at the end of the film they give us two comedians telling the joke to their toddler sons, who of course don't understand it, but watching the blatant violation of our mores by the two men has a resonance that puts a lot of American puritanism in perspective. It's sorely needed, and it's probably a mark of where you stand on the balance beam of moral issues that you will find "The Aristocrats" worthwhile or not. If you haven't already guessed, I'm teetering on the far end.