Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Aristocrats


Hold on! Stop! You’re about to make a terrible mistake! The DVD you’re holding isn’t the 1970 Disney feature-length cartoon, The Aristocats. That one is full of talking animals. This one is full of … well, shit, plus every horribly ugly thing you have ever imagined in your darkest moment, and then ten, a hundred, a thousand times more than that. Be very, very careful if you rent this film. If there is ANY possibility that you can be offended by ANYTHING, this film will offend you deeply.

If, like me, you cannot be offended by discussion about anything, you will laugh your ass off. But even I had to keep reminding myself, from time to time, that they were just describing these horrors, not doing them.

Here’s the set-up: There’s this joke that comedians tell each other but seldom tell anyone outside the trade. It goes like this, as condensed to its most basic form by Roger Ebert:

Guy goes into a talent agency to pitch his [family] act.

“What do you do?” asks the agent.

“We come out and crap on the stage.”

“What do you call yourselves?”

“The Aristocrats.”

Not much of a joke, everyone agrees. But apparently it was first told by Henny Youngopopolis as part of his opening monologue for Aristophanes’ “The Frogs” in Athens in around 450 BC, and comics have been elaborating on it ever since. The elaboration comes in the third line, and has been stretched by some as long as 90 minutes. The thing is, you throw in every disgusting thing you can think of any family could possibly do. The more awful the better. So by 2005 we have this family swimming in shit, vomiting on each other, engaging in incest and the most vile cruelty with any props, animals, and/or children that come to hand. It was never meant for “public” consumption, it was just funny people seeing if they could gross each other out. But Penn Jillette, who with Teller had been pushing the boundaries of bad taste almost as long as George Carlin has, and the actor Paul Provenza (whose next directing gig is listed in the IMDb as Everyone Poops, so you know where he’s coming from) decided to make this 90-minute examination of one disgusting joke.

The reviews were all over the map. Hilarious. Disgusting. Way, way, WAY beyond disgusting. EXTREMELY hilarious. I was intrigued.

At the 20-minute point I was ready to go with disgusting. It’s funny, in a second-grade eeeuw, yuck! sort of way to listen to George Carlin elaborate on the joke the first time, talking about kissing hemorrhoids and similar delights. It’s something else to listen to Comedian #50 ringing the 5000th change on the theme of fucking your brother until his head explodes. It was here the movie inspired Lee into the first of our night’s insights into the nature of humor. Something that might be funny in a group of people, or even better, when you’re all pretty drunk or stoned, just ain’t funny when you’re sitting in a movie theater or on your couch at home.

I was about ready to give up at that point, but I’m glad I didn’t. (And no, I wasn’t offended, not once. I was repulsed, but that’s not the same. The reason I was ready to bail out was because it wasn’t funny.) Because now they began to examine the joke itself, to deconstruct it, to ring variations on it. A mime told the joke, and it was side-splitting. Somebody turned the joke on its head: The act is wholesome as apple pie, but the NAME of the act is “The Cocksucking Motherfuckers.” Eric Idle claimed he had never told a joke well in his life, proceeded to prove it, and showed that blowing a punch line can be a lot funnier than the joke itself. He also claimed that the joke didn’t work for Brits, because they had always assumed their aristocrats were capable of absolutely anything. He suggested the act be called “The Sophisticates.” Sarah Silverman (a woman you should look out for, she may be the next Lily Tomlin) revealed that she used to BE one of the Aristocrats, that was her family. (“I don’t put it on my resume anymore.”) She explains with wide-eyed innocence what they did and how much fun it all was … and the subtext is that it was NOT fun, but she hasn’t realized it yet. Very edgy, very funny stuff.

There are only two black comics in the movie. Chris Rock says black folks never used to worry about working dirty, because they knew nobody was going to put them on the TV anyway. And the amazin’ Whoopi says most of the comics find it too easy to just go for the vile and disgusting, whereas with a little imagination you can come up with something bizarre, physically impossible, sexual, dirty and yet not disgusting, and the funniest bit in the whole picture.

There really IS seriousness behind this movie. If you pay attention you can learn some things, about comedy, about yourself and your limits, or at least have some food for thought. Someone points out that jokes exist in a world of their own, without rules of logic. Why didn’t the agent throw them out instantly? Why didn’t he call the police when the father started fucking his daughter? Because there wouldn’t have been a joke.

A priest, a preacher, and a rabbi are in a boat. (Huh? What are they doing in the boat? Well, they’re there because the joke demands it.)

George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton are stranded on a desert island. (What? How did they get there? Don’t ask, I got a joke to tell.)

An Irishman walks past a bar. (Well … it COULD happen.)

Somebody points out that, in today’s world, the agent would watch the act, no matter what it was, and immediately sign them and put them on a reality show called “The Osbornes.” There is a deep truth in this.

In Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein asks why it is that human beings laugh. So far as we know, we’re the only species that does, and in my book it may be laughter that is the thing that most distinguishes us from the other beasts. Not intelligence, not engineering, not fire nor writing nor speech. Laughter. (Sure, whales may have a terrific sense of humor, but we’d probably never get the joke. And I really don’t think they do. I think laughter is our own and nobody else’s.)

Heinlein said we laugh because it hurts.

I’ve been thinking about that for years, and while it may be a little simplistic, it is terse, and was meant to be, so you WOULD think about it. So you would apply that test to what makes you laugh and see if it fits. It ALMOST always does. To elaborate, we laugh because we see or hear something that, on the face of it, is painful. We must cry, or we must laugh. If the pain isn’t so serious that we can do nothing but weep, we find ourselves laughing.

The basic unit of humor is the pratfall. Somebody slips on a banana peel and falls on his keister. We laugh. Then … Oh, no, he’s broken his neck. He’ll never walk again. THEN it’s not funny, but we laugh at first, even though we know the fall is painful.

It’s the same with more “sophisticated” humor. Somebody says something inappropriate to the situation. It’s excruciating for him, but we laugh. Are we laughing AT him? Depends on whether he gets the humor of the situation. Often, he does, and we all laugh. The punch line of a joke can be cruel. In fact, it usually is. It involves either somebody being real dumb, or somebody being real smart and getting a jab at somebody else. Either way, it hurts. So we laugh.

Even puns (and it took me a while to figure this one out). A pun involves a deliberate misrepresentation, the punster is putting something over on you. Thus, you’ll probably groan while it is the punster who laughs at his own cleverness. That’s probably why so many people dislike them. It’s not considered high-class to be the one laughing loudest at your own joke.

Sure, there is gentle humor, cute humor, and you might even say that it doesn’t hurt. An infant makes a face, and mommy laughs. Isn’t he CUTE? But it’s not a big laugh, it’s not boffo, and only the mommy really gets it. It’s a chuckle, not a belly-laugh. (And if the kid knew how dumb he looked, he’d be mortified.) It’s a bigger laugh if the kid, starting to toddle, lands on his keister. We all laugh, even mommy. Even if the kid starts to cry, so long as it’s clear he’s not injured.

Jeez, that’s a lot of stuff to load on one little movie, isn’t it? But the movie really does invite it. In a few serious moments, the comedians interviewed muse about this stuff, and it’s what makes the movie so interesting. They KNOW they are WAY over any line of decency … and that’s their point. A comedian these days has to be edgy. (Maybe they always did, there was probably a Lenny Bruce type telling offensive jokes about mammoths fucking in the Stone Age.) They’re always looking for that edge … and how to cross it without being crucified, like Lenny.