Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Aristocrats?

There is a movie coming out soon that has piqued my interest. It's called The Aristocrats It was created by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza and has caused quite a stir. Penn describes the film thusly, "no nudity, no violence, and unspeakable obscenity"...

The premise of the movie is the world's dirtiest joke. The joke has been a game of one-upmanship for comics for decades. It's origins are in vaudeville. The joke itself is not particularly funny. It is in the telling that the humor is supposed to come out. I think this is one of the reasons I am intrigued by the movie. I know the framework of the joke and can't see how it could be funny. And yet, if you look at the cast of the film, I can't see most of these people *not* being funny: Robin Williams, Eric Idle, Penn and Teller, Steven Wright, Jon Stewart. The list goes on. There are also some surprises on the list, too. Bob Saget? Carrie Fisher? The Smothers Brothers?!? Telling the world's dirtiest joke? How can I not watch?

The template of the joke goes like this:

A talent agent is sitting in his office. The door bursts open and in walks a family, a father, mother, son, daughter, and a dog.

"We have a great act and we think you ought to represent us," says the father.

The agent shakes his head and spreads his hands apologetically. "I don't do family acts. Too cute."

"Please," the mother begs. "Once you see the act you are going to want to represent us. I know it!"

"All right. I can spare you five minutes," says the agent, knowing full well that nothing they do could be of interest to him.

"Great!" say the family as they spring into action.

*** What follows is the individualized part of the joke. Each comic spins a tale describe offensive, obscene, and disgusting acts performed by and among the family members and their pet. The only boundaries are those imposed by the teller on him or herself. The agent is of course shocked. The act ends. ***

The agent sat stunned for a long while, his cigarrette hanging limply from his mouth. Finally he exhaled and spoke. "That's quite an act. What do you call it?"

"The Aristocrats!"


So, you can see why my feelings are mixed. But the movie is also supposed to talk about the comic mind and the comic process as well as the limits and freedom in speech, which is certainly an interesting topic nowadays. I think some of my discomfort and even revulsion comes from this site which is devoted to the joke itself. WARNING: The narratives linked to on this page are probably the viliest filth I have ever seen. Seriously. You'll need a shower if you read more than one. People are invited to submit their own versions here. This site suggests one of a few possibilities to me. One, this joke is not for me as none of the versions I read provoked so much as a smirk from me. Two, the people rating these jokes are missing the point and are voting based solely on who can be more obscene. Or, three, the humor is in the telling and it does not translate well to paper. I think it is likely a combination of the three. However, all this does is pique my curiosity.

I told my wife about the movie and the basic joke. Her first instinct was that she had no interest. I said, "Aren't you the least bit curious to see Bob Saget and Phyllis Diller tell this joke? Howie Mandel?" Her expression softened. "All right. You've got a point."

Then you add the controversy in and that becomes another factor. AMC theaters, the #2 chain in the country, has refused to carry the film. AMC is trying to downplay it, but the decision is puzzling. According to the CNN article, their justification of shying away from unrated or NC-17 content doesn't hold up to history. They've aired the NC-17 version of "Inside Deep Throat" and the unrated version of "Passion of the Christ". I resent the theater making such an arbitrary decision. I may be jumping to conclusions, but as the theater is not saying much in its defense, I have littel choice. This makes me want to support the filmmakers more.

Provenza and Jillette, for their part, are unconcerned about the flap. They aren't trying to ambush anybody with the film. They want people to know up front what they are getting.

Frank Rich may have the best explanation of the value of the joke and the movie. And in light of the controversy, he may be spot on. It may not be funny, but it has value.