Years ago, John Waters said in a Rolling Stone interview that his dream was to make an X-rated film without nudity or violence -- or maybe it was sex and violence. Anyway. Waters is not included in Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza's new documentary "The Aristocrats," which is a shame, because it's the perfect realization of his dream. There isn't a bare ass in it, and no bloodshed; just a lot of comedians riffing on a famously filthy joke.
It is, probably, the dirtiest movie I've ever seen and occasionally the most repulsive -- it has the same effect of Pasolini's "Salo" in that days later, you still can't wash it out of your mind -- and occasionally one of the funniest. It's a movie that pushes all the boundaries, which is, also, exactly what it's about, sometimes in unintentional ways.
The joke in question -- which dates back to vaudeville and up until recently was rarely if ever told on stage -- is simplicity itself. A guy walks into a talent agent's office with his family, claiming to have a terrific act. (In some versions, he walks in alone and merely describes the act.) The agent says show me. From there, depending very much on the resourcefulness of the comedian, the father and his family (wife, daughter, son, possibly an infant) break every imaginable law of decency. They relieve themselves on each other, wallow in their own filth, puke, have every possible type of group sex, sometimes bringing in grandparents and animals, or acrobats. (The movie even has a pair of acrobats telling the joke.) This family is the Flying Wallendas of incest, bestiality, coprophagia, and torture.
The agent says "Wow! What do you call yourselves?"
The father says "We're the aristocrats!" (Usually said with some kind of dramatic flourish; Drew Carey prefers snapping his fingers like a tango dancer.)
As the comedians interviewed often note, it isn't all that funny of a joke. Depending on whose telling it -- and Jillette himself notes in his own interview that it's very much a matter of "the singer not the song" -- it's a joke whose plot is often a lot funnier than its punchline. Harry Shearer and Michael McKean recall how the late Michael O'Donoghue (guiding danger-humor theorist behind both National Lampoon in its heyday and the early Saturday Night Live) once told a 90-minute version of the joke. George Carlin's version (which had me howling) relies heavily on diarrhea. Some female comedian whose name I didn't catch tells a clean version with a filthy punchline. Paul Reiser ponders whether the joke is best told by starting with incest and moving to bestiality, or the other way around. An actual mime performs the joke; that was interesting. Gilbert Gottfried (who first made the joke public when he told it at Hugh Hefner's Friuar's Club roast in 2001) tells a version that involves fisting a child, and tries yukking it up all the way.
It was at this point that the movie became less funny than just disturbing and unpleasant to sit through -- but it also seemed to be raising the question of what is and isn't funny. It began to remind me of why I never much liked Andrew Dice Clay. (Where was he, incidentally?) If Michael O'Donohuge introduced or at least was the first to popularly theorize on the idea that comedy involves danger, Clay and so many others like him made it clear that danger can also be an act of desperation. The nastier the joke got, in some tellings, the more the comedian seemed to be milking it.
P.S. At the same time I'm reminded of a reviewer years ago who said there are times when Richard Pryor seems deeply psychotic -- and that is at those very moments that he's also the funniest man in America. I'm tempted to look at "The Aristocrats" as a group improv between a bunch of crazy assholes trying to pursue their own brand of insanity. It isn't THAT good, though; it's a movie with a cherished belief that comedy is only truly funny when it takes risks, and offers plenty of evidence both ways that the risk doesn't always pay off.