Here’s a joke: why did the chicken cross the road?
The road. The motherfucking road. The cocksucker crosses the road, the fucking cunt.
Isn’t that hilarious? See, it’s all in the telling.
I use the language above for two reasons. One, contrary to the comedy-jam sensibility, cussing is not automatically hilarious, and it will not blow fairy dust over the world’s lamest joke. Which describes the wheezy gag at the center of The Aristocrats, an exasperating documentary that addresses the nature of comedy by dissecting what is hyped as the dirtiest joke ever conceived. It’s a joke, the movie says, that has been passed down through generations of funnymen like a secret handshake—the kind of material comics save for themselves after hours.
The setup is, “A guy walks into a talent agent’s office”; the punch line is the movie’s title. It’s notorious because it’s what a friend calls a “map joke”: it has a point of origin and a destination, and how you get there is up to the driver—it’s an invitational challenge to freestyle blue. No matter how many fucks you chuck at it, though, it’s still a feeble joke, a desperate uphill windup to a dismal drop-off.
The other reason is more complex. Now that I’ve said there was some method to the madness of printing such filth in a free newspaper, it has no threat whatsoever. No punch. All the words had going for them was shock value, and now, thanks to this pedantic frame, they just sit there like grits on Grandpa’s chin. Take the combination of a lousy joke, defanged obscenity and a wet blanket of context, and the result is The Aristocrats.
On paper—as in the movie’s absurdly overhyped reviews—this promises a riot. Comics extending from the Catskills tradition of Shelley Berman to of-the-moment rant ’n’ ravers like Lewis Black each take a crack at the joke, putting their own poo-flinging spin on the nasty middle section. If the movie had consisted only of the joke told all the way through in infinite variations—a top-that round-robin with all the busted taboos and nuances of performance laid out side by side—the theater might have had to issue oxygen masks.
Instead, people explain the joke. And explain it. And then the movie does the unthinkable: it cuts away from the comics in the middle of telling it. What do you do when Robin Williams and Drew Carey are telling the same joke? Why, intercut them so neither one has an act. The performers who get the biggest laughs either bend “The Aristocrats” to their will (like Martin Mull) or escape the format altogether—behold the miracle of an amusing mime. All they have in common is that they get to perform it all the way through.
By contrast, the movie builds to two climactic performances—by squeaky-clean Bob Saget, who has an off-TV rep as one of the dirtiest comics alive, and by Gilbert Gottfried, whose impromptu delivery at the painfully post-9/11 Friars roast of Hugh Hefner has become legend—then destroys their momentum with useless cutaways. All visual hiccups and video pull-quotes, the editing disrupts the performing rhythm more disastrously than any heckler could. The directors, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, are able comedians who should know better. If Saget is really killing, or Gottfried is performing a national catharsis, I don’t need Dom Irrera or somebody giving me the go-ahead to laugh.
As for the filth—well, frankly, I expected more than the same half-dozen recycled obscenities. In this crowd, race and religion get a timid little toe-dance, while incest and scat are trotted out like old-timers on Veteran’s Day. The real taboo is joke-telling itself. As one performer notes, nothing in the post-George Carlin era of observational riffing makes a comic look like a bigger hack than an old-fashioned joke with a beginning, middle and end. If vaudeville’s dead, maybe “The Aristocrats” killed it.