Aristocratic Joke

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Aristocratic Joke

This is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore Watching Television for KCRW and dumbstruck -- well, almost -- by a documentary that boasts of its "unspeakable obscenity." I'm speaking, of course, of The Aristocrats, which comes to HBO Wednesday at 11p.m.

Released in theaters last year, this is the film about the joke.

You know -- that joke, which dates back to vaudeville days and ever since has been exchanged between comedians as a sort of shared taboo, a private pleasure kept strictly off-limits to the outside world. That is, until Penn Jillette, the magician and provocateur, teamed up with actor-comedian Paul Provenza to produce this naughty little expose, then rallied scores of performers and writers to go public.

The Aristocrats, whose title refers not to these comic participants but happens instead to be the joke's punch line, compiles numerous versions of that joke... reflections on the joke... musings about humor in general... and a lot of gratuitous raunch.

Of course, maybe you wonder what's so great about the joke that festers at this film's rancid core? Why is it such catnip for comedians?

George Carlin answers this way: "It leads me down one path, and then it switches the path on me suddenly, and then it hits me with a hammer -- bam!"

The essence of the joke goes something like this: A talent agent is about to audition a family of performers -- say, Dad, Mom, a daughter, a son, Granny and a dog. He asks them what they do. Here's where the lewd details go: (bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep). Then the astonished agent says, "My goodness! What do you call this act?"

And Dad says, "The Aristocrats."

Now, that's comedy. Here's a joke with a clear-cut starting point, a two-word punch line, and, in between, wide open spaces for debauched improvisation.

As Michael McKean marvels, "The joke kind of makes its own gravy."

For that matter, so does the film: It's a remarkable dish, hearty and hilarious... if sometimes stomach-churning.

Shot on the fly with camcorders, The Aristocrats is a candid, 90-minute-long home movie about comics. And mind you, for all its disgustingness and shock effect, there is no on-screen sex, violence or nudity. Just pure (if "pure" is the right word) talking heads.

The hundred or so heads include those of Paul Reiser, Gilbert Gottfried and Sarah Silverman. Phyllis Diller, Drew Carey, Penn & Teller, even Carrot Top all weigh in. And by the time Bob Saget is through, you'll forget he ever resided on that squeaky-clean Full House. Plus Billy the Mime with his raunchy wordless version of the joke, though technically he isn't a talking head.

The sum effect is overwhelming. Declaring open season on unmentionable behavior, anatomical parts and bodily functions, it takes the audience to distance reaches of human depravity. Then it challenges us to imagine what might lie even further beyond. In fact, after watching "The Aristocrats you may be inspired to give the joke a try yourself, stamped with your own psychotic impimateur.

Ahhh, to heck with the FCC! I'm gonna give you my version of the joke right now:

You see, a guy walks into a talent agent's office and says, "I have a great act!"

"Oh? Could you tell me about it?"

"Well, first, we all get --"

Oh, phooey, I'm out of time. Maybe next week. If I'm still here.

Watching Television for KCRW, no matter how shocking, this is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore.