Sunday 29 June 2008

The Aristocrats - Post-Bizarro

In this post-Bizarro Days world, I thought I'd go on a bit more at length about The Aristocrats - the 2005 documentary by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza about the dirtiest joke ever - instead of leaving it to my last post.

First of all, it's not just about filthy gags. It's more like a study of different approaches to comedy with the participants being 100 comedians telling the same joke. Well, not exactly the same joke. In this case the joke in question is essentially a framework for improv with the template consisting of:

  • a family walk into an agent's office
  • they proceed to show him their act which consists of the most disgusting foul things you can imagine
  • they finish by telling him what they call themselves

The punchline is the film's title. So by itself, it's not that funny. But it's the unique spin each comedian brings to that middle part of the joke where they create, sometimes on the spot, each part of the family's performance.

Some focus on the scatalogical. Some the sexual. Some both. Others try to "clean it up" a bit while still others push the boundaries of taste completely to the side (Bob Saget - shame on you!). Let me be clear: the movie is filthy. I'm not a big fan of "potty" humour for the sake of it, but I don't mind when it's used intelligently. I still winced during several sections though - particularly those done by some of the lesser comedians who thought that words beginning with hard 'C' sounds were funny in and of themselves. But when the humour is placed within certain contexts and told in inventive ways, it becomes a playground for some of these people. Several comedians describe it as a jazz tune where the musicians riff on the main theme. It's not a perfect analogy, but it works in several ways - the lesser comedians hammering their one trick over and over, the better ones developing the theme as they go not really knowing where it will take them and the great ones bringing shades of subtlety and various surprises along the way.

I re-watched it just a few days ago as somewhat of a tribute to one of those great ones - George Carlin. He gives his own improvised rendition of the joke near the beginning of the film that is simply beautifully told (while also making you kind of sick to your stomach). Carlin's take on the joke in this case is to make the description of the disgusting act sound so completely normal...As Carlin later states, he wanted it to sound like the guy who performs it was relating an everyday experience like fixing a car.

"I love the idea of floating right past it as if this is the most normal and the thing you're most used to doing..."

What I really loved about Carlin in the film is his way of digging into the reasons why the joke is funny as well as his own creative choices:

"You get to play with people's little danger zones..."

"I do like finding out where the line is drawn, deliberately crossing it, bringing some of them with me across the line and having them be happy that I did."

It's great fun to see the different styles of the comedians and how they tackle the wide open possibilities. Some reverse the tone of the middle and end, others change the actual punchline and a few even tell a different joke altogether. They get to play around with their creative styles at the same time as they get to be completely immature and totally filthy - without anything ever being wrong. It's the journey that is so much fun and you can tell the comics are enjoying the hell out of it (especially when you see all the laughter during the closing credits). Not just simply telling the joke but discussing it and the ways other people have done it. Jillette himself states that in the case of this joke, it is the singer not the song.

One of my absolute favourite parts of the entire DVD though, is a short 2 minute extra entitled "For Johnny". Johnny Carson loved the joke and the short contains a brief imitation of what it would have sounded like if Johnny himself did it, but even better is this telling of another of Carson's favourite jokes by Larry Miller (totally clean and safe):

That deadpan expression and the absurdity of the final line just kills me every time. And after having seen The Aristocrats, I have a better understanding of why it tickles my funny bone so much. And for me, that just enhances it.

1 comment:

James Yates said...

It's really funny that you wrote about "The Aristocrats." It's been awhile since I've seen the film, but for some reason it popped into my head the other day, and I've been browsing YouTube clips of it.
You also expressed a view that I share: there's nothing wrong with dirty jokes or toilet humor, as long as it has a point. In the case of Bob Saget (and his segment on "The Aristocrats") he can be funny at times, but it's also sort of sad, because it seems that his life in the past ten years has been devoted to distancing himself from his "Full House" persona.