Films

A MASTER CLASS IN SMUT

Star comedians put on a show of virtuoso profanity In The Aristocrats

Brian D. Johnson August 1 2005
Films

A MASTER CLASS IN SMUT

Star comedians put on a show of virtuoso profanity In The Aristocrats

Brian D. Johnson August 1 2005

A MASTER CLASS IN SMUT

Films

Star comedians put on a show of virtuoso profanity In The Aristocrats

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH loves to talk about freedom, that precious thing soldiers are dying for in Iraq. So you’d like to think that back home assaults on freedom of speech would concern grave matters of national security. But no, debates over what’s permissible in the world’s proudest democracy have been inflamed by the terror of Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple, the gay infiltration of SpongeBob SquarePants, the right of a cartoon rabbit to have same-sex parents—and now a movie about the filthiest joke ever told. This Sundance hit is a documentary called The Aristocrats, which features some 100 comedians

telling, and dissecting, the same dirty joke in jazz-like flights of improvisation. They include such stars as Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Paul Reiser, Jason Alexander, Billy Connolly, George Carlin, Eric Idle, Bob Saget and Jon Stewart. But AMC Theatres, America’s second-largest cinema chain, has decreed The Aristocrats will never show on its screens, either in the U.S. or Canada. This summer, however, it will play nonAMC theatres on both sides of the border. And ThinkFilm, the nervy little company that owns world rights to distribute this fabulously dirty movie, is Canadian.

If you haven’t heard the joke—a backstage favourite among professional comics—you’re not going to read it here. Well . . . okay. Here’s the gist, without the dirty bits. A guy walks into the office of a talent agent to pitch a vaudeville “family” act—the guy’s family performs an orgy onstage involving children, a dog and every bodily function, fluid and orifice imaginable. “So what do you call the act?” the agent asks, and the guy replies, “The aristocrats!” Not funny? Without the filth, and flourishes of comic timing, there is no joke. As Le Corbusier apparently observed, “God is in the details,” and the same could be said of humour, or obscenity.

The Aristocrats may be the first American movie to provoke a censorship controversy that has no images of sex or violence. Just words. And it has the foulest language of any movie I’ve ever seen. But once the shock wears off, there’s something sweetly affectionate about this backstage portrait of comedians letting loose. The words become meaningless, just notes in a bebop cadence. With agile cutting, the film is itself a master-

piece of comic timing—and an eloquent discourse on the nature of obscenity, wit and the thin blue line of taboo.

The joke, which goes back to at least the 19th century, “was always the secret handshake of the comedy circuit,” says magiciancomedian Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller), who bankrolled The Aristocrats and executiveproduced the film with Paul Provenza. Seldom performed, “The Aristocrats” serves as a jazz standard that comics like to practise among themselves. The set-up and the flatfooted punchline are always the same, but the improvised mid-section is infinitely variable. Michael McKean (This is Spinal Tap) remembers that, in the ’70s, cast members of Saturday Night Live would indulge in “Aristocrats” contests, stretching their improvs into scatological marathons. “It kind of makes its own gravy, this joke,” he says.

What’s most shocking is to see stars such as sitcom dad Bob Saget hurling themselves into the gutter. “But Bob has a rich history of this,” Provenza told me. “The surprise to most of us who know him is not that he talks dirty but that he did America’s Funniest Home Videos and Full House.”

Whether The Aristocrats provokes a backlash remains to be seen. But ThinkFilm’s Toronto-based CEO Jeff Sackman, who snapped up the rights at Sundance, says “This is the one that will put us on the map.” Calling it “the perfect frat-boy movie,” he adds, “The whole point was to get it on the national media agenda—similar to Mel Gibson and Michael Moore, but without those expectations.” Jillette, however, is wary of dramatizing the free-speech issue. “The fact that the AMC guy has a tiny dick is not my problem,” he says. “I’ve been fighting this guy since junior high. I was the guy telling jokes in the cafeteria, and he was the guy ratting on me to the principal. There’s nothing more American than the dirty joke. George W. Bush tells dirty jokes—I know that because he tells them to Kinky Friedman and Kinky Friedman tells them to me.” So, a guy walks into the Oval Office... M