Over 100 comedians discuss the mechanics of an old burlesque routine called "The Aristocrats," the crudest in-joke ever told. Something of a legend among comedians, the joke's open structure allows each to riff on a number of taboo subjects. The bit has become a competition for comics, each attempting to stretch the length between the set up and punch line and adding his or her own special spin to the freeform center section. Described in the film as "the Tourette's Syndrome joke" or, more hilariously, as "Giddy, Shit-Covered Incest and Other Poems by Maya Angelou," the joke is something of a Rorschach test, revealing each comedian's darkest, most inappropriate thoughts.
The funny thing about "The Aristocrats" (the joke, not the film) is, in most cases, it's not funny. Only a few of the comedians actually get a laugh. Some create a beautiful reversal in the punch line, others launch into routines that can only be described as performance art and a few just get downright surreal. Old-timer Larry Storch scores big with a very proper, almost "traditional" delivery that really captures the joke's Vaudevillian essence.
Reminiscent of a middle school lunch table packed with 12-year-old boys, The Artistocrats (the film AND the joke) is a gross-out contest filled with inappropriate sex, fecal matter and other body fluids. What's most surprising is that, in the face of unlimited possibility, the comedians choose a fairly uniform set of taboo activities to populate the joke. Their descriptions conform to one another so well that they can be rapidly inter-cut without disruption. This repetition made me wonder if there really were only a few forbidden subjects left in our society. A point illustrated by The Onion's editorial staff, which struggles, in snippets scattered throughout the film, to break down American taboos, creating a white-board schematic for their version of the joke.
Nevertheless, there is something about this joke that cracks up both the teller and his fellow comedians. The telling is cathartic. Ultimately this film flips a middle finger at the FCC's increased fines for "indecency," the "wardrobe malfunction" and to those members of society who would appoint themselves morality police for us all. The joke itself is liberating for the comic telling it. This film is a release for the makers, exposing a show-biz legend so crude and dirty, which can only be told with the foulest language, that it cannot be mistaken for or disguised as anything but a celebration of free speech.
The Aristocrats by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette opens August 12.
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