Sometime around Nicole Richie, I decided instead to bag 101 Celebrity Slimdowns and check out something even more offensive but decidedly less tragic: The Aristocrats. For those who aren’t familiar, The Aristocrats is a 90 minute documentary homage to a joke that dates back to vaudeville days and which is essentially a private joke amongst comedians, one which can send even the most jaded of comedians into paroxysms of laughter, even to the extent of bordering on the apoplectic.
But here’s the rub: The joke, itself, is not funny at all, at least in its template form, which goes something like this: A man goes into a talent agent’s office and says, “Let me tell you about this act you might be interested in.” He proceeds to describe the act to the talent agent. The act involves a family – husband, wife and at least two kids, perhaps a grandma. Maybe a dog, maybe a cat, maybe a monkey. Maybe a bison. Basically the act involves various forms of incest, rape, bestiality, defacation, vomiting, extreme violence and/or any other taboo that may or may not need tweaking and breaking at any given moment. The talent agent wants to know what the name of the act is (one can only assume that he is at least mildly impressed). “The Aristocrats”, answers the man.
Like I said, this joke is not funny at all. At least not in its template form. But as told by the individual comedian, the joke becomes infused with the comedian’s own personality and style. Sometimes the joke isn’t told as a joke at all. Sometimes it is told as a dark confession: “My family WAS the Aristocrats,” Sarah Silverman begins…and then ambles onto a story that quickly veers from plain old sick humor (she tells us that it was quite the coup that her brother with Down Syndrome was part of the act) to flat-out deadpan irony. Sometimes the joke gets told through the vehicle of talking about the joke, as when Phyllis Diller talks about passing out after first hearing of the joke or when Paul Reiser talks about the joke and how he would tell it IF he were telling it and then proceeds to gets all neurotic about how he could have done it bigger, better. Sometimes what’s funny is simply WHO is telling it. Gilbert Gottfried doing obscenity? Carrot Top? Penn and Teller? A mime? Judy Gold telling it as she sits there nine-months pregnant adding her unborn baby into the disgusting mix? A bunch of Onion editors sitting around breaking down the elements of the joke in order to try to come up with the ultimate, the perfect, the apex of Aristocrats joke (one which involves not only incest, anal sex, bestiality, rape and grandmothers playing Begin the Beguine out of their asses on harmonica, but which also involves Jesus Christ and Republicans, because as they say, “that’s what people find funny today.”)? It’s all funny. And it’s all thought provoking.
Then there are the backwards tellings of the joke that catch you off base, like one comic’s description of a “family act”, one in which the mother and father sit primly in their drawing room, and in walk their little boy and their little girl, dressed in their private school uniforms. The four of them exhange polite greetings and sit down to tea. Just then there is a knock on the door and it’s their neighbor who has found their lost puppy wandering among the hedges. (Or something like that.) And what is the name of this family act? The “Cocksucking Motherfuckers”.
The movie includes dissections of the joke, right down to the choice of the word “Aristocrats” as the punchline. Several comics offer other words in its place, such as the “Sophisticates” and the “Debonaires”. Thus the joke becomes a totally different kind of humor; scatology aside, the humor can then be found in the one word punchline. Or imagine the joke being told by a comedian to his toddler, as if he were telling a bedtime story, with all of the obscenity and vulgarity intact but with toddler terminology substituted for what would otherwise be, well, let’s just say George Carlin’s list of words you never (used to) hear on television, and leave it at that.
Since this movie came out, I have been curious about it. I thought it might answer the question: What’s the use of a joke that isn’t funny? As the movie gets into full swing, it becomes apparent not only that the joke can actually be incredibly funny but also that the joke is a metaphor for humor, itself.
How so? The Aristocrats tells us that in order to be funny, a joke must press our buttons. Often, in order to do so, it must break boundaries, go straight to the edge of comfort. What often makes the title-joke funny is the way its boundary breaking is big and ugly and yet completely nonchalant. Sometimes the nonchalance is in the description of the “act” (such that “The son puts his ass in his sister’s face” is spoken with no more emotion than “The mechanic puts the carbeurator into the hood”) . Sometimes it is in the nonchalance of the “talent agent”‘s reaction to it (“Yeah, no, I think I’ve already seen that one.”).
The Aristocrats tells us that what is boundary breaking changes as the mores of the day change. Thus, Gilbert Gottfried got booed for making a joke about the events of 9/11 at a roast for Hugh Heffner that took place later that same year, but within minutes, had his audience in hysterics with a telling of The Aristocrats. What is boundary breaking also changes depending on who is doing the telling and to whom it is being told. Thus Whoopi Goldberg can tell the joke using more cursewords than, say, Rita Rudner (who primly talks about the joke…while fondling stuffed animals), but she dare not do it in whiteface.
The Aristocrats also tells us that in order to tell a joke, one must not be attached to the resuls. If you are attached to getting a laugh, you will fail miserably. Instead, you have to simply set your intention to be funny and tell your joke in a way that is true to you, using your delivery, your words, your inflections. And there is the yoga in joke-telling. Be who you are, where you are, when you are…and all is coming.