"Sure he has got
Some bawdy pictures to call all this ging
The Friar and the Nun; or the new motion
Of the knight's courser covering the parson's mare
The boy of six year old, with the great thing;"

--Ben Jonson, The Alchemist

This is a documentary about the world's filthiest joke, how taboos change with time, and how professional comedians make people laugh. But first, a digression:

When I was a teenager, I was watching TV with my Dad and step-mother, and an ad came on for a special on female comedians. "We're not girls," declared a female comedian. "We're men."

Dad and I laughed. My step-mother said, "What's funny about that?"

"It's a surprise," I explained. "You're expecting her to say, 'We're women,' and instead she says, 'We're men.'"

"It's more than that," said Dad. "I think she's riffing on the idea that an aggressive woman is acting like a man, and we laugh because either we think it's kind of true, or we at least know that people think that, but it's something we might feel guilty about thinking. She brought it out in the open, so we laughed. If it was nothing but surprise, then she could have said any random thing and we'd laugh. She could have said--" Dad here did a spot-on impersonation of the comic. "'We're not girls. We're herrings.'"

He then started to explain why that wasn't funny, but was distracted by me laughing so hard I fell off the sofa. Even now, remembering that line makes me chuckle, because surprise is frequently funny, because surreality is also frequently funny, Dad imitating a female comic was funny, because Dad's timing was perfect, and because herring is a funny word.

The Aristocrats mostly plays on the type of comedy Dad thought the female comic was going for: the public exposure of taboo thoughts. But it also gets into surprise, surrealism ("That wasn't an animal,"), timing, imitating other people (a Liza Minelli imitation, though amusing on paper "First, I will insert a grand piano into my vagina," was totally unfunny in execution), timing, and funny words.

This is the joke "The Aristocrats:" A guy walks into a talent agency and says, "Have I got an act for you. It's a family act-- me, my wife, our kids Betsy and Timmy, our dog Buddy. (Or any other combination-- Grandma, a trained gorilla...) First, I walk onstage..."

The man proceeds to describe the filthiest, most perverted, disgusting, scatological, and sometimes extremely violent group orgy imaginable. Bestiality, racial insults, current hot-button controversies, physical impossibilities, child abuse, cheesy show-biz moments, what have you. This is the part that the comedian invents. Finally, the dazed talent agent says, "And what do you call this act?" The man proudly replies, "The Aristocrats!"

This is a joke comedians tell other comedians, a framework for seeing just how far you can expose your id-- and make people laugh at it. The movie consists of a whole bunch of comedians telling this joke and musing about its background and what makes it work. Bob Saget of Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos tells a horrifically and rather imaginatively violent version. Several people tell meta-jokes inspired by it: reverse versions and riffs on it. One guy does a brilliantly clever version with a deck of cards, and Penn and Teller use a glass bottle in a way that I'm sure Ben Jonson would have approved, though generally the movie confirms my feeling that props are the sign of comedic desperation.

Though my movie-going companion JB, a former stand-up comedian, liked Bob Saget's version best, my favorite was Sarah Silverman's, which starts with the basic joke and ends in her telling a completely different one, albeit one which also gets its punch from joking about a profoundly uncomfortable topic. The women in the film tended to focus on sexual perversion, whereas several of the men went for nasty misogynistic violence. Both genders seemed to enjoy scatology. My own favorites tended to focus on bestiality, the mathematical complexity of deranged incestuous orgies, random moments of show biz ("and then my wife blows a smoke ring out of her asshole, and the trained poodle leaps through it"), and the sudden insertion of random offensive material "And then Grandma has an abortion onstage.") Violence (um, as opposed to just plain old rape, child abuse, and bestiality) generally turns me off and strikes me as unfunny. But necrophilia and bestiality? Hilarious!

Some of the riffs were just nasty and disturbing without also being funny. But some of them, like Silverman's, were funny precisely because they were nasty and disturbing. Some of the "let me think of the most offensive thing possible" moments are hilarious, and some fall flat. It's hard to say, but my guess is that the content, in those cases, was less relevant than the timing. I hate most stand-up, but this movie made me laugh a lot-- frequently at comics whose regular performances I don't find at all funny.

If you're interested in comedy and performance and have a high tolerance for just about anything, I recommend this. It is, however, impossible to see it, or perhaps even hear about it, without idly composing your own version of the joke: "So first we all fist the cat..." I now live in the hope that some day I will find the right occasion to appall and horrify an audience with my very own version of "The Aristocrats."

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

It isn't terribly funny, especially compared with the build-up, and that gets some discussion in the movie. But what humor it has comes from incongruity: aristocrats are supposed to be polite, refined, and genteel, and the act called "The Aristocrats" is the opposite of those qualities.

From: [identity profile] marici.livejournal.com

Ok, thanks! I'm afraid I have a Susan Death/Cordelia Vorkosigan view of aristocracy, so didn't get it. Sounds like an interesting movie, so I appreciate the rec.

From: [identity profile] mcdolemite.livejournal.com

I hope this plays around here, as I very much want to see it. It's no surprise that Sarah Silverman's was one of the funniest variants. She's generally hilarious (not to mention babelicious in a way unusual for female comedians, not that the guys exactly tend to hunkdom, either).

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

Yes, she's very pretty. She looks like my mother as a young woman, actually, and my mother was (briefly) a model. Her version, which I don't want to give away, was not only one of the funniest versions, it was also one of the most interesting and original ones-- she took a joke designed to be over-the-top, and underplayed it to great effect.

Incidentally, the movie reminded me that Chris Rock is really handsome.

From: [identity profile] thomasyan.livejournal.com

I haven't seen Mysterious Skin yet, and I guess not many people have pet cows, but why a cat?

Huh. Your last sentence makes me think of yet another way to filter potential dates....

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

I dunno. Because I have two cats?

I think using "The Aristocrats" as a date filter might be a bit extreme.

From: [identity profile] literaticat.livejournal.com

I am dying to see this. DYING. It is still in theatres and I already have it on my Netflix queue!

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

Thanks for the pointer. I agree with what she said, by the way.

Yeah, new icon! How could I resist Chibi Me?

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