So here's the template, if you haven't heard it by now,
... and that's it. The middle section, which usually involves a family act -- in all senses of the phrase -- is where the comic gets to improv and riff, and the filthier, the better. The movie The Aristocrats -- dozens of comics all telling variations of the one joke -- was released yesterday on DVD. TA was one of those movies that, if it opened in my little pocket of New Hamster at all, had the theatrical lifespan of a mayfly, so I stopped in at our local video place to rent and finally watch it. TA runs a little less than 90 minutes, working out just about right for me. I popped it into the DVD tray around 4;30, and had just finished watching the last of the contest winner's versions in the special features section when Peggy came in from work. As I had suspected, it's not a Peg movie, as much as she loves stand-up comedy. And TA doesn't have much to do with comedy, except as a examination of the nature of what makes something funny, and the nature of comics, and especially of the comic's relationship to his/her audience.
"This guy walks into an agent's office...
'...we call it, 'The Aristocrats!''"
Heavy shit, huh? Don't get me wrong. It can be a very funny movie at points, especially when after the same joke -- or sections of the same joke -- has been repeated dozens of times, a comic will suddenly throw in a new variation that makes the whole routine fresh again. But, as several people in the movie point out, the joke isn't very funny, because it's not meant to be very funny. It's a comedian's joke, primarily designed to show off your stuff to people who appreciate the making of comedy. Or, as Gilbert Gottfried will demonstrate at the movie's close, something to use to show the audience that anything can be made funny... even when it shouldn't be.
Delivery. "Sometimes," as Old Lodge Skins says in Little Big Man," the magic works. Sometimes it doesn't." It's fascinating to watch different comics try to make the TA joke their own. The successes are often surprising, but I suspect every viewer's list about who pulled the joke off and who didn't would be different. The Smothers Brothers would be high on my list, adopting the joke perfectly into their act. Penn and Teller make it a Penn & Teller routine, complete with coke bottle prop. The South Park kids version will probably make you reflect on how over-the-top our society has already become. If the joke showed up in an actual episode of South Park, there'd be the usual few days of outrage, complaints to the FCC, and then we'd all move on. "Hell," someone says in the movie, "I could sell the basic premise to any network tomorrow. 'Listen, there's this dysfunctional family, see...'"
Magician Eric Mead turns the joke into a card trick, and delivers possibly the best variation in the movie. The winners of the "live" and "animated" contest (Check out the "Special Features" section) both turn in versions that show that no matter how many times the joke is performed, someone can always have another take on it. Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg (I kept wondering, "Why no Billy Crystal?"), and Drew Carey all take turns at not telling the joke, with Whoopi's non-telling the funniest, "Nah, I'm not going to tell you the joke, but if I was it'd have something to do with these guys with enormous foreskins who pull them over their heads while singing, 'Mammy'." "I think you need to tell us the joke," someone says off-camera. Mario Cantone does his turn by channeling Liza Minnelli, including references to "Momma," and full theatrical belting.
My God, there's even a mime who does a great version. If you haven't seen the movie, watch the woman who passes by ol' Billy with a "oh, how cute, a mime" half-smile on her face, oblivious to the fact that Billy is miming the shtupping of a dog.
And sometimes the magic doesn't work. When the film was first released much was made of Bob Saget's, he of Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos, segment. It probably does rank as one of the most scatalogical, but it's also one of the most boring, as Saget keeps ladling on detail upon detail until you're ready to cover your ears. Steven Wright, whose deadpan humor I usually like ("I used to love washing my cat. But the fur kept sticking to my tongue."), does a reading in a camera-skewed hotel corridor that was apparently set up to demonstrate how the joke could be adapted to Wright's surreal style, but falls flat. I was admiring Sarah Silverman's delivery, especially her dead-on facial changes over the course of her routine, while simultaneously uncomfortably wincing at her story. Of course, making the audience uncomfortable is Silverman''s style, so maybe she should be in the "success" category.
There are high notes and clinkers. It's like one big jazz jam session after hours, someone blowing a note, another picking up the theme, someone else going, "you think that's hot? Listen to this!" and wailing away. Some of the variations -- like Silverman's -- are Colemanesque free jazz riffs and won't be to everyone's taste.
And then there's Gilbert Gottfried, whose performance, taped at a NY Friar's Club Roast (nominally for Hugh Hefner) three weeks after September 11th, 2001, is the movie's capstone. Unshown on-screen, Gottfried attempts a joke...
"I have a flight to California. I can't get a direct flight," Mr. Gottfried said. "They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first."... according to reports. And this was reportedly greeted -- unsurprisingly -- with boos and shouts of, "too soon!" The movie picks up the performance with Gottfried, full maniac gleam in his eye, looking out at the audience with a "Fuck You!" stare and launching into "The Aristocrats" without warning. Other comics at the podium first look on in amazement, and ultimately in falling out of the seat hysterical admiration as Gottfried blazes on with the story.
It's a defining moment of comedy, a tour-de-force example of someone taking a hostile audience in-hand and bringing them along, kicking and screaming, with you. "Who's in control here?" Gottfried's stare seems to be saying as he layers on the fucking and the shitting and the peeing, and the more fucking, "I'm in fucking control here, and you're coming along for the ride." And willing or not, the audience does come along. You might not like Gottfried -- I don't -- and you might hate yourself for laughing. But laugh you will.
The Aristocrats is dedicated to Johnny Carson, which might surprise you unless you ever caught Carson's very blue off-the-air act in Vegas. Reportedly, TA was one of Carson's favorite jokes, and you can see why. It's a joke that has nothing to do with punch lines, and everything to do with delivery, which was Carson's genius. It would have been nice to see Carson run with it. Mark Evanier mentions in a December `05 review that Penn Jillette wanted Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield, too, both of whom declined because of failing health, and both of whom, especially Hackett, would have been likely to turn in bravado readings. Our loss.
I had a conversation with my ah, hair stylist and friend Diane yesterday, where she mentioned a Steve King book, Rose Madder, I think, which she had been raving about to every customer during my last visit about a month ago. "I stopped recommending it," Diane said this time around. "I still like it a lot, but I hadn't finished it then, and the violence got more and more over the top as it went on. Some of my customers are probably reading it now and wondering, 'what the hell was Diane thinking of'? How could she like this?"
The Aristocrats is that sort of movie. If you're looking for a good laugh, go buy or rent something else. If you're looking for a great documentary, I think it is that, one of the best I've ever seen. And you should be forewarned by now. Maybe you'll like it. Maybe not. In either case, don't blame me.