So A Man Walks Into A Talent Agent's Office...

The AristocratsThe Aristocrats is supposedly how nothing is shocking anymore. The movie is built around one infamous joke that comics occasionally tell just for each other’s amusement, trying to outdo each other in grossness and invention. And “The Aristocrats” is the punch line to the joke, which involves a lengthy setup – one that stretches comics to think of the worst possible ideas they can to involve a family and their unbelievably foul stage act. Trying to get more and more outrageous, many comics have made the joke involve incest with the family fucking each other; mother and father and children all sucking and fucking in a pool of their own vomit and feces. This can be rendered as stupefyingly gross, but your finding it funny depends on whether you find it funny to imagine a child being violated by an adult. You have to be able to get a chuckle out of repeatedly hearing a variation on the theme of “I had my hand so far up my daughter’s…” etc.

The movie is smart, quick, well edited, and often amusing, but there’s a line that’s crossed that is genuinely un-funny to me. That’s the idea of adults fucking children. It’s far too common in this country to be a riotously far-fetched joke. Come on. Are we actually so calloused that this terrain is a source of hilarity? “Then the father fucks the daughter up the ass…ha ha ha!” What’s funny but also sad is how desperately the comics strain to make the material transgressive, but it’s not always funny what they get when they stretch.

Certain featured comics refuse to “go there.” Jon Stewart demurs with some funny banter about being unable to do the joke justice because of his reliance on cue cards. Sara Silverman does a routine that sidesteps the joke entirely. Judy Gold manages a variation that’s so absurd it hits the funny bone. And one comedian/ventriloquist is rebuked by his own dummy for “playing blue” when Seinfeld never resorts to that. Seinfeld, of course, is absent from this movie.

The comics’ discussion of the joke’s weaknesses is illuminating. It’s not a very good joke. It’s all setup – the punch line is the weakest part of the joke. And they feel like idiots trying to get there. Billy Connelly (a burly, white-haired Scot chortling throughout the movie) is unable to either tell the joke or discuss it without breaking up. Paul Reiser is at least as funny in his rueful assessment of his own (gross, disgusting) take on the joke as he is in assaying it. But that’s a theme of the movie too - that a real “joke” is a worn-out conceit. The whole idea of a punch line is dated, corny – it goes with the sarcastic rim shot that punctuates any too-obvious joke line.

Frequent scenes of the writing staff of humor newspaper The Onion discussing ways to be funny in the current climate are interesting. “What’s offensive anymore?” someone wonders out loud. And indeed this is the subject of the movie – how do you violate taboos in the tradition of Lenny Bruce when so many have been violated that very few wake up the audience from their entertained-to-death slumber?

The joke aside, the movie gets plenty of traction from the exploration of “funny,” the history and the traditions that persist. Someone mentions “tummeling” – the Yiddish word for improvising onstage, building up to a great pay-off. Comics still think in these terms – they still create personae, they still work “material” and have “acts,” and whether or not they “work blue,” they work toward a moment of peaked hilarity, if not an actual punch line anymore. The old routine of getting up, playing a crowd, trying to “kill,” etc. – that all still exists. And of course, adults fucking children always did too. But to act like that’s now something on a par with a father vomiting over the audience just seems obtuse.

George Carlin, an elder statesman in this context, makes some sage remarks about how anything can be funny given context. And his version of the joke manages minimum emphasis on children being fucked by adults. Others are less skillful. One comic whose name I forget crosses a line that had me jerking my head from side to side to see if anyone else in the theater was recoiling in disgust. I couldn’t tell.

I read David Denby in The New Yorker celebrating the comics’ delight in scatological humor and their glee in breaking out of social convention. But it’s incredibly lame-brained to exult in taboo breaking that reinforces the sickness of the dominant culture rather than challenging it. Lenny Bruce must be rolling in his grave. - Kristy Eldredge

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Ms. Eldredge writes about rock and roll, books and movies. She also writes fiction, comedy and songs. She would like to be either George Eliot or Joan Jett, or a clever merging of the two.

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