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The Aristocrats (6/10)

by Tony Medley

How many times can you hear an unfunny joke? No, that’s not a “how many Aggies does it take to screw in a light bulb” question. Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) filmed more than 60 comedians telling the same joke and talking about it. The joke is apparently a classic. It has the same starting and the same punch line.

This is the start, “A husband and wife go to a talent agent and say, ‘We have an act that will knock you off your feet.’ The talent agent asks what it is and they describe it.

With the punch line the same, what’s different is the middle where they describe their act. Provenza calls it the comedy equivalent of jazz, because from that point on everyone ad libs the worst, most scatological, crude acts one can imagine that the family does to one another. Generally it includes incest, bestiality, profanity, and, always scatology. Excrement and bodily fluids are common themes. The punch line is always the same.

Anything goes and the worse, the more offensive, the better. Here are your revered comics, including Phyllis Diller, talking about the joke. Many tell it, but all comment on it.

As Jillette says, however, it’s the singer, not the song. The joke isn’t funny. It’s how it’s told that makes what is said funny. What is interesting is how disgusting the middle can be made to be. I remember many years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee, when a friend told a joke at a party about “washy, washy, washy in bright blue Cheer, rinsy, rinsy, rinsy, and the water’s clear.” It was a typical shaggy dog story where that litany was repeated time and again and the punch line was anticlimactic. What made it funny was the way Peter, my friend, told the joke and said “washy, washy, washy in the bright blue Cheer," over and over again. Each time he said it, it got funnier.

That’s what this film is about. The punch line is not even remotely funny. It’s the way each person tells it and the vagaries they choose to invoke that makes it funny.

Jillette and Provenza shot the entire film with handheld, consumer video cameras because they didn’t want a formal film, rather emphasizing an intimate atmosphere. For example, Jon Stewart is filmed while in makeup for his TV show.

This is the kind of film that can easily offend, as the language is about as vulgar as it can get. Lenny Bruce ended up in jail and he never said anything close to what these people say in this film.

I guess the highlight of the film is the telling of the joke by Gilbert Gottfried at a Roast for Hugh Hefner. Hef looks merely bemused but Rob Schneider was apparently laughing so hard he fell off his chair. Frankly, it looked to me as if Schneider was acting because, dirty as Gottfried was, it just wasn’t that funny. However, I must admit that Gottfried’s delivery is highly entertaining.

The film is interesting and contains gross language, but I didn’t find it funny enough to do anything more than chuckle a few times. What is interesting is hearing all these different professional comedians commenting on a classic joke. If I had to quantify emotions, I’d say this is more interesting than funny.

July 7, 2005