The Aristocrats

What’s funny about one joke told over and over.

Gottfried’s telling is legendary, Judy Gold’s self-referential

The Aristocrats is a terminal movie. Its release marks the completion and end of something, or perhaps several things, though what, exactly, is difficult to determine or describe: comedy, or anyway joke-telling; obscenity, at least in its verbal form; self-reflexivity, in-jokes, and outrage. It all comes to a culmination, and hence to a close, midway through this quick, cheap, and surpassingly funny documentary, around the time, I’d say, when the comedian Gilbert Gottfried explains how a grown man manages to … well, I can’t really explain it here, in part because it’s truly filthy, and in part because it’s just too complicated. Suffice to say it involves nail-trimming as a prelude to an act of extraordinary debauchery.

By now you have probably already heard about TheAristocrats, Penn Jillette * and Paul Provenza’s huge little movie. (Click here for David Edelstein’s review.) It’s a documentary that takes as its subject a single joke, but it’s as much a performance film as a documentary, and the joke isn’t really a joke at all, though it’s very funny, and unexpectedly eminent, having been told from the days of vaudeville right up to the present.

The joke goes like this—and don’t worry, I’m not ruining anything, because there’s nothing, really, to ruin: A family of four and their pet dog go into a talent scout’s office. “We have an act we want to show you,” the father says. “OK,” says the talent scout. “Go ahead, then.” What follows is pure improvisation on the part of the teller, a series of scenarios both inventive and unregenerately obscene, a recitation of bestial acts, scatological acrobatics, and sexual transgressions so grotesque and despicable that they make the volumes of de Sade seem like so many greeting cards. This is the heart of the joke, and it can go on for 30 minutes or more: It’s usually compared to a jazz improvisation, though a better analogy is the dozens. Taboos thus far unknown to mankind are broached and violated, offense is created where before there existed only the dark, buried secrets of the primeval mind. It all ends with a punch line that is, perversely enough, the least funny part—a sort of anti-punch line, really, which is nevertheless as catchy as a pop hook.

OK: It’s not much of a joke. And yet to hear a real master tell it—and 75 different comedians tell the joke, or portions of it, in The Aristocrats—is like contemplating a Picasso painting of an apple. The inventiveness of the performance obliterates the banality of the material. What’s more, the variations are endless, and endlessly anatomized: the difference between the way men and women tell the joke, how it plays into the racial politics of comedy, and so on.

In fact, the pliable nature of The Aristocrats is part of what makes it so funny. You laugh at its elasticity the way children giggle over self-transforming superheroes or Play-Doh: because it makes the world seem slippery and surprising. Two people tell it backward—one of which gets a huge laugh, the other of which bombs. And there are all sorts of nice discoveries: I have never seen Whoopi Goldberg actually be funny, for example—except here. I’ve never heard of Sarah Silverman at all, but she deserves stardom solely for her dreamy, wandering Aristocrats routine, which ends with a perfectly timed accusation aimed at the superannuated public-access troll Joe Franklin. In one hair-raising segment, Andy Richter tells the joke in a cheerful voice to his newborn son; in another, a pregnant woman named Judy Gold tells it in the first person, using her fetus as an indecent prop; and Bob Saget’s career as a family-friendly, good-natured entertainer is, as of the release date of this movie, over.

And then there’s Gilbert Gottfried’s justly famous, death-defying recitation of the joke—probably the first time in years that it’s been told in public—at a Friar’s Club roast in honor of Hugh Hefner a few weeks after Sept. 11. The comedians in the film speak of Gottfried’s performance the way basketball players speak of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, and justly so, if the footage Jillette and Provenza show bears any resemblance to what it was like to see it in person.

“It’s the perfect joke,” one comedian says. “The joke sucks,” says another, and they’re both right. The joke is perfect because the joke sucks—in fact, it’s nonexistent. You get to the end, and it proves to be nothing, nothing at all, but an excuse after the fact for comedians to get as stupid and as clever, simultaneously, as they possibly can. It’s a sterling example of what I think of as Negative Surprise, that is, the shock you feel when something expected—redemption, explanation, narrative satisfaction, or even just a punch line—doesn’t happen. In fact, nothing happens in The Aristocrats: That’s what’s so funny. Watching it is like watching a scrofulous performance of Waiting for Godot (which, after all, Beckett wanted to cast with clowns). It’s all very postmodern: inbred, self-referential, and utterly pointless. It’s also absolutely hilarious, at least to some of us. At the screening I went to, I myself was laughing so hard I was in tears, as were many other people; but the gray-haired gentleman beside me remained motionless and expressionless (which made him as funny as anything that was happening up on the screen).

Allow me to tilt at philosophy for moment. Hegel says that when the human spirit achieves perfect self-knowledge, it becomes transparent to itself and transcends the trappings of mere consciousness, and at that point history ends. The Aristocrats is the stand-up version thereof—an absurdist aufhebung. Which is just a fancy way of saying that it shows comedy disappearing, almost literally, up its own ass.

Correction, July 29: This article originally misspelled Penn Jillette’s name. Return to the corrected sentence.