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Working Blue and Brown

Pity the daily-newspaper critic who must review The Aristocrats without using such phrases as "a longshoreman's arm up a little girl's ass," "then my wife goes down on my son while the dog's licking his balls," "my grandmother's covered in my come," and "is it shit before piss, or sucking before fucking?"

On second thought, perhaps it's just as well to keep such things away from family newspapers; one rarely likes to chase morning coffee with a glass full of bodily fluids, some of which receive more attention (and affection) in The Aristocrats than others. Yet sentences such as those above (only a dozen times worse, seriously) fill a good hunk of this 86-minute documentary by Penn Jillette (the tall, talky half of Penn and Teller) and Paul Provenza, about a single joke that's infamous among standup comics and was, till now, unknown among the rest of us, who were apparently quite lucky to live in ignorance of its existence all these years.

Whatever you have heard about The Aristocrats, which has gone out unrated and has been banned by the AMC chain of theaters, does not do it justice. It's not, as has often been written, a movie in which 100 comics tell the same joke 100 different ways. That was its rep at Sundance, where it was harder to get a ticket to see The Aristocrats than to get into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Neither is it "an essay film, a work of painstaking and penetrating scholarship," as A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times recently. It's far more joyous than that, a celebration of the naughty joke and the courage it takes to tell one in the post-Nipplegate era. George Carlin and satirist Paul Krassner, acting as the movie's sage voices of experience, claim the simple telling of the joke serves as a political act, assuming the language is foul enough. And The Aristocrats is a simple blast too -- a movie in which comics pull back the curtain and reveal the secrets of their craft; no longer will we wonder how they cut that woman in half in order to have sex with her (hey, it's part of the act!).

The joke itself, a sort of secret handshake between those who make their living working the two-drink-minimum crowd, isn't even much of a joke; "the joke sucks," barks former Howard Stern regular Pat Cooper. And its punch line isn't a punch line at all, only the title of this movie and nothing more. Its setup is simple: A man walks into a talent agency and pitches his family's act. When the agent asks its name, he is told the act is called "The Aristocrats." It's almost "the opposite of a joke," says one of the nearly 100 comics and actors interviewed for The Aristocrats, because the punch line isn't meant to get the laugh.

Instead, it's about "the body of work in the middle," says Paul Reiser, who clearly digs the opportunity to work blue (and brown and yellow) for the video cameras. The teller must fill in the blanks with as much semen, blood, diarrhea, and urine (the spackle, if you will) as possible, not to mention copious acts of incest and bestiality and, perhaps, even murder. "I think you can put people to death for what happens in the best versions of this joke," deadpans David Letterman favorite Jake Johannsen, who can't understand why the authorities don't bust in and arrest the family act on the spot.

The joke is of unknown origin -- it dates back perhaps to vaudeville, maybe even further. As Jillette and Provenza reveal in their movie (which plays as much like a comedy primer as a documentary about a single story), it's more urban legend than anything else, a dirty joke upon which comics cut their teeth while killing time backstage with fellow performers, each trying to one-up the other with sicko shit involving grannies and doggies and babies having things shoved into them. No one tells it the same way: Some comics tell it clean, one does it with an Amish twist ("'Tis well we call ourselves 'The Aristocrats'"), a mime performs it in silence, a magician tells it using a deck of cards, and two jugglers proffer their version while trading flaming sticks. As Krassner says, "It's a jazz thing," meaning it's the singer and not the song: Where former Late Night with David Letterman writer Merrill Markoe imagines a version with "aborted fetuses," Eric Cartman recounts it to his South Park pals with a September 11 twist.

Legend has it Chevy Chase used to have parties where attendees were prodded into telling the joke for more than 30 minutes, and rumor is that Bob Saget's version, heard here in horrific bits and ghastly pieces, lasts longer than an hour. Saget, in fact, gets the biggest laughs in the movie, due in no small part to the fact that he seems to appall himself; "What the fuck am I doing?" he wonders, hanging his head in shame while reminding the audience he used to be a dad on Full House. Sarah Silverman tells the joke as though recounting her own experience as part of "The Aristocrats" act; her punch line is more severe and accusatory, the result of years' worth of trauma. And then there is Gilbert Gottfried, who resorted to the joke at a September 29, 2001, Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner only after his September 11 jokes tanked. As it turned out, the foulest joke ever told turned out to be a curative balm on fresh wounds. It's the tonic that tastes awful, sticks a little too long in your throat, but goes down just swell.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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