Everybody’s buzzing about the phenomenally profane yet weirdly sacred documentary The Aristocrats (ThinkFilm), but no one is allowed to spell out what’s so wild about it—at least in a mainstream publication. And no one should. Folks, you just have to live the adventure.
The movie is a long deconstruction by a collection of comedians and comedy writers, of an old and archetypal vaudeville joke that’s rarely told in public. Indeed, the telling is a private ritual—akin, says one observer, to a secret handshake: It’s the joke you do for other comedians after the audience has left the club. TheAristocrats pops the lid on the psyche of people who make us laugh—and, as J.J. Hunsecker would say, they’re cookies full of arsenic. To watch them lurch from the vilest imagery imaginable to more sober discussions of the psychology and craft of comedy makes for a hallucinatory trip—and one that’s funny as shit. Provided, of course, you think shit is funny. Which you better.
The movie, directed by Paul Provenza with spiritual guidance from Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller), has been assembled with supreme showmanship. It’s practically a classical symphony with a theme, variations, variations that turn the theme inside out, and a coda. Inevitably, there are stretches of monotony and overkill, but whenever you think that it has all been played out, there’s a new rhythm, a solo you couldn’t have predicted, a taboo you never dreamed you’d see flouted. If The Aristocrats doesn’t shock you, there’s something deeply wrong with you. You need to be locked up—now.
Any critic who reveals the central joke should be locked up, too. But it’s fair to say that the key to it, as countless comedians explain, is not its anticlimactic punchline, but the middle section that its punchline makes possible. That middle can last for five, ten minutes—or longer. “The joke makes its own gravy,” explains Michael McKean. It is an invitation for comics to plumb the bowels of their imagination, surprising even themselves with how many lines of decency they can cross. Rita Rudner calls them “danger zones.” David Steinberg compares the teller to Coltrane—improvising, in this case, on acts of stomach-turning grossnesses.
In general, the tellers start with basic fornication and then move to sodomy and then to scatology (poop and pee, with extra points for eating or drinking the excretions). They soon leap to bestiality, incest, fisting and felching, and, most alarmingly, in the latter stages of the film, mutilation, murder, and necrophilia. Racism and blasphemy come late and seem, at that point, a tad superfluous.
Paul Reiser thoughtfully explains why sex should come before scatology: There is craftsmanship involved! But there is also the unconscious, and each comic brings a different style, a different emphasis, and a different level of disgustingness to the party. George Carlin is a loose-bowels man. Howie Mandel, now bald, is peculiarly given to variations on the c-word. Jason Alexander dwells on back-door acts. Bob Saget—well, best not to get into Bob Saget. It turns out it’s the most family-friendly network TV comic who would push even Ted Bundy’s needle into the red zone.
Is this a dirty boy’s joke? Yes, say female interviewees like Susie Essman, but feminist variants are possible. Essman ruminates on what grandma is forced to do (it involves a kazoo, an orifice, and “Begin the Beguine”) because the times would not let her express herself more fully. Whoopi Goldberg spins a routine around the stretching of foreskins. The nervily brilliant Sarah Silverman, splayed out ever so sexily on a sofa, improvises a monologue from the point of view of one of the joke’s participants/victims. This might not be a black man’s joke, though. The other African-American, Chris Rock, suggests it doesn’t attract black comics, who have always worked dirty. * He doesn’t tell the joke—he doesn’t seem interested in it.
No one mentions that the people most obsessed—some of the best renditions come from Gilbert Gottfried and Steven Wright—are Jewish. Are Jews more scatologically oriented—or is it just that there are so many Jews in comedy? I dunno. (Carlin, working from a counterculture perspective, is an obvious exception.) The notable WASPs, Jake Johannsen and Fred Willard (with a cravat, in a garden) offer extra-textual thoughts on the legal ramifications of the joke and the sadness of its subjects’ lives. Mimes, card tricksters, ventriloquists, Kevin Pollak doing the funniest Christopher Walken I’ve ever seen, and a special appearance by Cartman, Kyle, Stan, and Kenny give The Aristocrats extra fizz. And Provenza uses two cameras to give the talking-heads format some pop.
Jillette argues that the aristocrats joke proves that in art, “it’s the teller, not the tale” that matters most. That’s true in his abrasive magic act, which parodies and comments on old nightclub magician shtick, but it might be going too far here. There is something that unifies these men and women. As A.O. Scott points out in the New York Times, comedians work closer to the id than anyone else. This stuff is always bubbling just below the surface. There is a special kind of pleasure in hearing (and telling) jokes that have no redeeming social value. I’d like to think that this is their social value—that it helps us expel our poisons.
So, this Mohel and this rabbi are about to cut off a baby’s foreskin, when they notice that …
Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (Tartan Films) crosses a different line of so-called decency. It’s an arty hardcore sex film. Great: Movies don’t have enough sex. That’s not coming from someone with any attachment to porn—I’ve only seen two and a half porn movies in my life (a double bill of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones, and half of Insatiable, in the middle of which I nodded off). The point is that a lot of things get worked out in sex. It’s a forum for role-playing and stylized re-enactments of family traumas, with sudden inhibitions and sudden releases. These kinds of dramas are treated all the time in novels and short stories, but they’re off-limits to mainstream moviemakers. It has been 30 years since Last Tango in Paris.
9 Songs could have been Last Rock Show in London. Unfortunately, it’s stupefyingly dull, even at the short but resonant length of 69 minutes and with good rock music (by the Super Furry Animals and Franz Ferdinand, among other bands). A man flies over the Antarctic and meditates on a lost love—a skinny American nonactress who can certainly express sexual pleasure but little else. She’s not just emotionally unavailable—she’s a blank. The man is good-natured and well-endowed, but he has no one to play off. The most disturbing thing about 9 Songs—and the pop culture of our time—is that its completely normal, even vanilla sex, should be so startling on the big screen. Without even poop, or incest, or bestiality.
Correction, July 29, 2005: The original version of this article described Chris Rock as The Aristocrats’only African-American. Several readers pointed out (acidly) that Whoopi Goldberg is not exactly Swedish. I guess the fact of her adopted last name and her popularity with whites (she first made her name on Broadway) caused a slight malfunction in my synapses. My appologies to anyone who was offended.
Correction, July 30, 2005: Erika Evasdottir writes: “As a Swede, I am a little annoyed at the ‘Whoopi Goldberg is hardly Swedish’ comment… Sweden has a strong tradition of immigration and those who choose our country do become Swedish. We come in all colors. Usually I do not comment on your American statements of race, since you have such a long tradition that the words means something different here, but this seems so blatantly uninformed and misguided that I cannot be silent.” Also, Greg Frank thinks he remembers Steven Wright making a joke to the effect that everyone thinks he was raised by Jewish wolves, when in fact he was raised by Catholic wolves. At this point, I’ve decided to make no more jokes about race or religion and will stick to what I know—eating poop, bestiality, etc.