Maccewill Yip breaks down the nature of taboo and one of the classic jokes of comedy with The Aristocrats.
Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, motherfucker, cocksucker and tits. These were the words George Carlin listed back in 1972 as words that could not be said on broadcast television and radio. Which is some of the many reasons why this film was never submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America, which would probably saddle the film with a NC-17 based on the language alone. But for the subject matter of this movie, there’s no way around it.
I’m trying to remember when I first heard about the movie. It could be when I was looking through some random movie news. It could be it popped up when I was checking out projects Penn and Teller were doing, guys that I’ve been interested in back in the days when I was deeply into magic. Whatever it was, what I do remember is reviews talking about a joke that cannot be mentioned in the review itself, partly because of spoilers, but mainly because of the content of the joke. That was what really intrigued me, so I went to the closest theater that was playing it to see the film.
Since the movie took a little time to build up to the joke, I was anticipating how great this joke might be…until they finally told the joke. When it was first delivered in the film, I was doubly disappointed, because (A) I realized that I’ve encountered this joke before back when I was a kid looking up dirty jokes on the internet, and (B) admitting to myself that back then, I did not get the joke. However, as the movie showed different comedians telling the joke in innumerable variations, I realized why I didn’t get it initially. I first encountered this joke reading it online, but just reading it doesn’t really do the joke justice. It must be performed, especially with the punchline in the end. As the joke repeated itself, it developed something that I call the rake effect. A convention I had named after a scene from The Simpsonsinvolving Sideshow Bob and rakes, basically it’s having a joke repeat itself and one of two thing happens: either it was never funny, but becomes funny after repetition; or it is at first funny, stops being funny, then becomes funny again due to the absurdity of it being done over and over again.
Not only did I enjoy the joke more with each new telling, but I also admired how the filmmakers were able to create a whole movie breaking down this one joke.
So what is the joke? It usually starts with “A man walks into a talent agent’s office.” The man will try to sell the agent on an idea of a family act. When the agent inquires about the act, the man will go into details that includes whatever depraved acts the teller of the joke can come up with: scat, incest, bestiality, murder, necrophilia, and whatever other taboo subject the teller can conjure. Stunned, the agent asked what the man calls the act, and the man declares, “The Aristocrats!” Get it? Yes? No? Again, it works best when seen performed. That, and if you’re not offended by vulgar jokes.
What makes this joke so interesting to so many comedians? Of course, there’s the vulgarity of it itself that can build and build. Paul Krassner likens it to a jazz set with a bunch of improvisation. If you can sustain it, you can make it last as long as you want. Some have even made a game of it, including rumors that Chevy Chase had parties and gatherings for such a purpose. Jackie Martling says you get to be a comic for the comics. Paul Reiser felt that it was a “front-loaded joke,” where the punchline is intentionally weaker since the journey to it was more important. However, some feel that the body of the joke is so ridiculous and over-the-top that “the Aristocrats” is the only line that can carry it to the end, although there were some that have tried to make other suggestions, such as the Sophisticates or the Debonairs. Drew Carey even used a little hand flourish to add to the punchline and it was eventually used by others throughout the film. Some comedians add their own signature to the joke, such as Steven Wright keeping it somewhat deadpan, or Eric Mead using it to narrate a card trick.
Rewatching the movie now, it’s still shocking to hear some of the renditions of the joke, especially through some people I grew up watching as a kid. I remembered Bob Saget’s version because it is just so vulgar that I now link him to this film, and so he wasn’t as surprising as my first viewing. However, Howie Mandel was someone I remembered from watching Bobby’s World as a kid, so it is still surprising to see him in this. Whoopi Goldberg’s take on the joke broke me up laughing, especially when she does a bit about foreskins. Another one that I had almost forgotten about was Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. Being the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, she added a little, shall we say, Hollywood prestige to her version of the joke. In fact, these last two examples showed one thing in this film we don’t get to see too often in the media: female comedians. Besides Goldberg and Fisher, we also have Sarah Silverman, Susie Essman, Judy Gold, Lisa Lampanelli, Phyllis Diller, and several more. Some of them never told the joke to play up the role of being prim and ladylike, others tell the joke demurely with a subversive twist, while others just went for it and was just as wonderfully filthy as some of the boys.
However, my favorite version of the joke, both in my first viewing and my re-watch now, is the one done by Billy the Mime. I always appreciate artists who are able to create and convey a lot of story and themes out of simplicity or with self-imposed limitation. That is why I loved Billy the Mime’s take, who was able to present and act out the joke without saying a single word. Another element that made his version enjoyable was, since he decided to perform it outdoors in public, seeing the reactions of people walking by as he is pretending to hump unseen family members and an invisible dog. Also, I find it hilarious to see that, for some unknown reason, the filmmakers had a mime wear a mic pack.
The version that gets the most focus, however, is Gilbert Gottfried’s rendition at the roast of Hugh Hefner. Many people that night were not on the top of their game because it was not too long after 9/11. Gottfried himself started roughly with flight jokes that were heckled at as being too soon. Seeing as he is limited to what he could say in context of the show, he decided to take a dive and went straight into a telling of the Aristocrats. Other comedians that night who recognized the joke soon felt a kind of unity and catharsis as this inside joke is being shared within the community. It was incredible, and some watching this film thought that this documentary was made because of that performance; but apparently Gottfried did a segment of the film before the roast, leaving others to believe it was this film was an inspiration for him to perform the joke at the event.
While it was fun watching this documentary again, there were some moments I had felt a little twinge of sadness, seeing that some of the comedians featured have passed away, including one not too long ago. There’s the trailblazer, George Carlin. As with his predecessor, Lenny Bruce, Carlin helped open the floodgates of language in comedy, especially with the aforementioned seven words listed in the beginning of this article, as well as analyzing the nature of why they are considered bad. There is Phyllis Diller, one of the first female stand-up comedian that paved the way for others to come, whose personality matches her larger-than life voice and laugh. Finally, there’s Robin Williams, whose manic spirit couldn’t hide the incredible range of acting that humanized him and made us continue to miss him even a year after his passing.
It’s no surprise that Penn Jillette would get involved in this film. He is a successful comic magician in Las Vegas, where he had chances to hang out and observe all the great comedians coming in to perform at the strip. Also, he is no stranger to controversial topics, which is obvious when watching his Showtime documentary series, Bullshit, where he and his partner Teller examine controversial topics, from alien abductions and animal rights to vaccination and the war on porn. In fact, I found that a good companion piece to The Aristocrats is an episode they did on the topic of profanity, which focuses on its impact on culture and politics, especially in regards to censorship.
I myself have always been interested in the nature of the taboo and the banning of it. It kind of started when I was a small kid in elementary school and saw the word “fuck” scratched into the school play structure. I did not know what it was, so I pronounced it. Well, a kid who apparently did know the word narced on me and I got in trouble for it. From then, it always intrigued me what is censored or not, how that changes and evolve, and how people work around it. Some filmmakers were able to use the limitations to their advantage, most notably screenwriter/director Billy Wilder. Since there are certain topics, especially sex, that he can’t write frankly about at the period, Wilder’s dialogue, especially in Double Indemnity, was crackling with creative double entendre that were allowed to be passed by the censors and the Hayes Code. For those who don’t know, the Hayes Code was a self-imposed regulation in the film industry that lasted from the mid-thirties to the mid-fifties. Although there were some people, like Wilder, who were able to play the system and subvert the Hayes Code, there were many who couldn’t make it work, sometimes to their detriment. One example is the 1958 version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Although it is one of my favorite films, because of the moral attitude at that time, it failed to address the homosexual themes that was in the original Tennessee Williams play.
For this movie, it is easy to see why this could be a problem. As mentioned earlier, it was not submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America, more widely known as the MPAA. If it did, it would have gotten an NC-17 rating. For those who have seen This Film is Not Yet Rated, another movie that didn’t get submitted to the MPAA, an NC-17 rating could be a death knell for a movie. One of the main reason is that it cannot be widely advertised like other films because children might accidentally see these ads. If a movie can’t advertise itself, then it won’t be successful in theaters unless it can somehow draw an audience through controversy. For The Aristocrats, the filmmakers were able to bring in some viewers through reviews that talked about how the subject matter is about an obscene joke that can’t be printed in mainstream media, creating a mystery around it for audience members to discover the joke.
With the nature of the joke itself, you just can’t hold back, and that’s is what the documentary is partly about. As shocking as the joke is, we as a society have encountered other things that are similarly brash or even more vulgar, which can dampen the effect to some who hears the joke. It seems that for the joke to remain effective, you either have to perform it in an unexpected setting (such as when Billy the Mime did it in public or Gilbert Gottfried did it at Hugh Hefner’s roast), use topics and words that are still taboo (topics such as racism, words such as “cunt”), or try to get ahead of the curve by something going through the euphemism treadmill. Coined by cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, euphemism treadmill is the process where a benign term, meant to replace more obscene words, is later adopted and elevated into a vulgar term itself. A perfect example is the term “mental retardation,” which used to be a medical term, has now evolved to be insults, like “mental” and “retard.” There were some artists and entertainers who had it censored, and some who had the words change, like the Black Eyed Peas changing their song title and lyrics from “Let’s Get Retarded” to “Let’s Get it Started.” So when is it too far? That is part of a debate bigger than this review, but it was recently addressed by Jerry Seinfeld about being politically correct in colleges. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/08/jerry-seinfeld-college-politically-correct-racism-sexism_n_7534978.html) However, I believe George Carlin addressed it perfectly in this documentary, saying:
“I’m a great believer in context. I say you can joke about anything…I do like finding out where the line is drawn, deliberately crossing it, bringing some of them with me across the line, and having them be happy that I did.”
– The first two people who tell the joke are apropos: Jay Marshall, the first man to have published an early version of the joke; and George Carlin, one of the man who broke the barrier of comedy to allow profanity in.
– Chris Rock mentions that black comedians can use more vulgar material because they don’t expect to go into television.
– Kevin Pollak doing an impression of Christopher Walken performing the joke makes me want to see Walken himself tell the joke.
– There were some other jokes told, and the film had a great moment where it cuts back and forth between both Drew Carey and Robin Williams as they tell a same joke almost word for word.
– There is sooooo many comedians and so many viewpoints that I just feel guilty not being able to mention more of them in this review. I mean, look up the cast on IMDB, it’s insane!(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0436078/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast)
– To prepare myself for writing this, I decided to watch a couple of outside videos to help psych me up as well as looking into other possible ideas to add to the article. One was the aforementioned Bullshit episode on profanity. Another was this informative VSauce video on bad words:
– Jon Stewart with the ironic ending: “Yeah, I think it’s best if we don’t break it down. Would you agree with that?”