The Aristocrats examines the gentle art of excessive profanity

by Glen Baity

The Aristocrats, if you haven’t heard, has gained an enviable amount of notoriety in the past few months. AMC Theaters banned the film, a messy, tangential documentary by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller). What’s all the fuss about? On the surface, it’s nothing more than a bunch of comics telling the same joke. But this is no ordinary joke: we’re to believe it’s the most vulgar joke of all time. Comics have told it to each other for years, trying to take it as far as possible. In fact, until Gilbert Gottfried told it at the Friar’s Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, no comic had ever told it to an audience before. That’s gotta be some joke, right?

Well, yes and no.

Here it is, boiled down to its essence:

A man walks into a talent agency, and says to the agent inside, ‘“I’ve got a great act for you, I think you’re really gonna like it.’”

The talent agent says, ‘“Okay, you’ve got one minute. Wow me.’”

‘“Well, it’s a family act,’” the man says as he parades his wife, two small children, and the family pet into the office.

What follows is wholly up to the comic. There’s only one ‘rule’ to the telling of the joke’s middle, and it’s really more like a guideline: each family member (including pets) must perform and receive as many sexually indecent, depraved, and prosecutable acts as the teller sees fit to include. Thus, the joke is different every time, but it’s always unspeakably grotesque. I’ll leave this part to your imagination, since it’s the main thrust (pun sorta intended) of the movie anyway ‘— suffice it to say terrible, disgusting things are happening in front of the talent agent.

‘“That’s great!’” the agent says, ‘“what do you call it?’”

The father, mired in human filth (again, this part is in the unprintable details) and grinning like the Cheshire cat, proudly exclaims: ‘“The Aristocrats!’”

And that’s the joke.

What’s interesting about the joke is simple: it isn’t really funny. The film, somewhat paradoxically, is very funny. A lot of the humor comes from watching stand-up veterans trying to dissect what, exactly, has made the joke the stuff of comedy legend. The process calls to mind all sorts of questions about why certain things are funny, or vulgar, or both, and why we laugh even when we know we’re not supposed to. Stand-up comedy has always garnered comparisons to jazz music, because the rawest forms of each are challenging and unsettling, flying in the face of tradition and decency. Both saw early heroes vilified, only to find these same heroes placed on pedestals as time passed. Mechanically, each also relies heavily on improvisation, and in that regard the joke separates the wheat from the chaff: if you can make that piece of crap funny, you got talent.

For me, however, one of the most revealing aspects of the film is seeing familiar people in an unfamiliar context. Since the cultural landscape has changed since the stand-up comedy boom of the late ’80s/early ’90s, some of the funniest comics in the film are most recognizable from television roles that, you come to find out, don’t really accentuate their talents very much. Watching Martin Mull (who you may remember as Leon from TV’s ‘“Roseanne’”) tell one of the best versions of the joke in the whole film is a real head-slapper of a moment ‘— I watched that guy for years, never knowing how talented he was. It makes me wish we lived in a culture where stand-ups could just be stand-ups, and Bob Saget didn’t have to spend a decade riffing with the Olsen twins just to pay the rent.

There will be those who say that conjuring the most disgusting, objectionable scenario imaginable hardly constitutes ‘talent,’ and on that point I’ll just have to agree to disagree with people offended by the mere premise of The Aristocrats. I say they don’t get it, they say there’s nothing to get. It’s simply a fundamental disconnect of personal taste. All that said, I think there’s something brilliant about this film. If nothing else, it lays low any doubts I might’ve had about human beings’ ability to create, offend, and entertain. You might consider yourself desensitized to strong language, and if you’re like me, you don’t necessarily consider this (as is so often demanded of us) damning evidence of our society’s rapid decline.

Even so, I guarantee there are moments in this film that will make you blush. I honestly couldn’t believe only four people walked out of the screening I attended. Since it relies on several hundred metaphorical gallons of human excrement, it’s the kind of film that, were you to admit in public you liked it, might start making people think about you in a radically different way. I’m almost too ashamed to recommend it. Almost. But I will, hate mail be damned. The Aristocrats is a movie that takes a lot of chances, and it made me feel something I imagine Lenny Bruce’s early audiences must have felt: the importance of hearing something that most people tell you shouldn’t be heard.

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