Friday, July 29, 2005

"Because that's my lunch box tied to it"*

Review of The Aristocrats from today's New York Times:

A Filthy Theme and Variations


Published: July 29, 2005

"The Aristocrats" is - how shall I put it? - an essay film, a work of painstaking and penetrating scholarship, and, as such, one of the most original and rigorous pieces of criticism in any medium I have encountered in quite some time.

For those of you who have not already put down your newspaper and rushed off to buy tickets (and I hereby authorize the advertising department at ThinkFilm to plaster the previous sentence wherever it likes), perhaps I should add that "The Aristocrats" is also possibly the filthiest, vilest, most extravagantly obscene documentary ever made. Visually, it is as tame as anything on PBS or VH1's "Behind the Music," but there is scarcely a minute of screen time that does not contain a reference to scatology, incest, bestiality and practices for which no euphemisms or Latinate names have been invented.

The film, made by Penn Jillette (the louder half of the Penn and Teller magic and comedy act) and Paul Provenza, who directs, is being released unrated, and one theater chain has already declined to book it, on the grounds that its appeal is too "narrow." That's one way of looking at it, but surely there are few forms of expression more universal than the dirty joke. Those curious about why this should be so - why from a very early age we are prone to laugh at references to sex, excrement and other bodily activities - can of course consult sages like Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud or the evocatively named Gershon Legman, author of the two-volume "Rationale of the Dirty Joke." But none of these learned men are as funny as "The Aristocrats," or as revealing, through example and analysis, of the craft and tradition involved in what professional comedians call "working blue."

Mr. Jillette and Mr. Provenza start with a simple premise and a single joke, one that has a long and esoteric history going back to vaudeville days. The punch line is the title of the film, and the setup, which takes place in a talent booker's office, has a whiff of stale "Broadway Danny Rose" cigar smoke about it.

I won't say anything more, because I can't work blue in this room, and also because I don't want to spoil it. The point of the "aristocrats" joke, though, and of the movie, is that it can't really be spoiled, partly because it's so bad ("the opposite of a joke, really," one comedian muses) and partly because the humor resides in the delivery. While professional comedians rarely use it onstage - as George Carlin points out, most comedians don't really tell jokes onstage - they like to try out their own versions on one another, competing to see who can tell the dirtiest, most extreme, most shocking and longest version.

Through a series of interviews with an all-star cast of dozens of performers, television writers and other intellectuals - among the best known are Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Jon Stewart, Drew Carey and the animated boys of "South Park" - the filmmakers overturn two bits of received wisdom about humor. The first is that what is funny cannot be explained, the second that it dies by repetition. Indeed, the more you hear the joke - and you hear it, in bits and pieces and all the way through, at least 60 or 70 times - the deeper you appreciate its peculiar fascination. And as various comedians reflect on its meaning and history - Mr. Carlin is particularly thoughtful in this regard - you come to understand the codes and customs of that peculiar guild that makes a living by trying to make the rest of us laugh.
Along the way you learn something about the history of American comedy. Chris Rock explains that in the old days, raunchiness was not as much of a taboo for black comedians because they were excluded from television and mainstream theaters and clubs. Phyllis Diller, for her part, maintains that the first time she heard the joke she fainted, and that it was generally not the kind of humor a woman would indulge in. This notion is challenged by Lisa Lampanelli and brilliantly subverted by Sarah Silverman, who gives the joke its creepiest, funniest inflection by pretending that it isn't a joke at all.

And while "The Aristocrats" is full of howlingly funny moments - Kevin Pollak blending the joke with a Christopher Walken impression; Paul Reiser, Gilbert Gottfried and Bob Saget (yes, him) turning in notably disgusting renditions - it works on the mind as well as the funny bone and the gag reflex. It makes you reflect on the mysteries of timing, context and delivery, those aspects of discipline that make comedy an art and separate the pros from the cocktail-party bores. It also takes you deep into the land of the id, not just of individual comedians (some of whom have pretty scary ids), but also into that murky collective terrain of desire, regression and fear where we all started out and where a few brave souls remain to make a living.

The Aristocrats
Opens in New York and Los Angeles today.

* If you don't know the joke to which this is the punchline . . . you're better off.

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