Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Aristocrats

The Aristocrats opens in Britain on Friday, which is my excuse for not writing about it before now even though I saw it a week ago. It's a documentary which has apparently been banned from at least one major American cinema chain on grounds of obscenity, although to be honest, you've got to wonder when American multiplexes became so documentary-friendly as to make this an issue in the first place. And is it offensive? Well, no, not unless you're missing the point by a mile.

The Aristocrats is a joke which American comedians have been telling one another for years. There's no real equivalent in Britain. There's a ton of versions of the joke here, but basically it goes like this: man walks into a talent agent's office, and says he's got an act. Tell me about this act, says the agent. So the man explains the act. Here insert the most appallingly offensive thing you can think of involving the man, his wife, his children, the grandmother and a dog, probably involving incest, bestiality and coprophilia. Wow, says the agent, that's quite an act. What do you call it? And the man says, "The Aristocrats!"

Now, here's the thing. The joke isn't funny. At all. It's a jawdroppingly lame punchline. Some of the comedians in the film acknowledge that. Some openly hate the bloody joke. Some actually like it and do it more or less straight, and those versions tended not to get the laughs from my audience.

The reason comedians like it is because you can do pretty much anything you want in the middle section, and it's all in the delivery. It's not enough to simply be horrifyingly obscene - you've got to be horrifyingly obscene in an imaginative way. Some comedians get away with relatively straight versions by playing it as character comedy, with the idea that the father is inexplicably unable to see that he's promoting an act which is not merely hideously wrong but probably criminal. Others do painfully detailed and elaborate central sections where the actual punchline is almost an afterthought (which is fortunate, because it still isn't funny). A couple add additional, and much better, punchlines onto the end.

But some of the best versions come from people who aren't even really doing the joke at all, so much as riffing on the concept. Gilbert Gottfried performs it to an audience of comedians in a way that only works because they all know it. Somebody does it in mime. South Park provide a version where the joke is really Cartman attempting to tell the joke, rather than the joke itself. The editorial team of the Onion have an editorial meeting about what should go in their version of the joke (but never actually tell it). And Sarah Silverman's "I was an Aristocrat" monologue is the best thing in the film, taking the same basic riffing but plugging it into an infinitely funnier framework. Silverman isn't remotely known in the UK, but I might try and track down some of her stand-up on the strength of her appearance here.

Is the joke funny? No, and hearing it repeated for ninety minutes doesn't make it any funnier. But what people do with the joke, that's funny. And that's why comedians love it - because it's a dreadful idea with infinite flexibility. The Aristocrats works as a film because it shows just how much can be done with a really terrible idea - far more than you'd expect when you first hear the joke.