A friend once told me that he doesn’t believe in the strength of words. But he was drunk and is a complete nutcase, so I didn’t take him very seriously. Besides, it’s not like he mimed it to me.
Aside from finding his comment hilarious, I disagreed with it. Not because I think words are particularly strong, but because words are often given too much power.
As a writer, an avid crossword puzzler and an occasional X-rated Mad-Libber, I love playing with words. We all know the entertaining ways in which the context of a poop can change its ball-gag (sorry, Mad-Libbing again! Make that "word" and "effect"); we've heard George Carlin rant about it. He's dead-on, of course, in his amusement at the intense reactions that can be provoked by the mere juxtaposition of certain otherwise innocuous words. His interest in language makes him a perfect choice to open the new documentary The Aristocrats with his version of the title joke.
The movie is about an age-old joke told by, and primarily told to, comedians. Which is one of the reasons you may not have heard it. Another reason is that it's not quite fit for mass consumption. Not everyone can handle all the dirty words employed to illustrate the filthy details required to make the joke effective, and it needs the right audience before it can be safely unleashed (i.e. no Evangelicals or Boy Scouts.) So it’s an insider kinda thang for comics, often referred to as their secret handshake.
The set-up goes like this: “A guy walks into a talent agent’s office. He says he has the best act in the world. The agent says, ‘Okay, what’s the act?’” The body of the joke comes next, as the guy pitches his act to the agent, and it’s different in every telling. Each comedian goes on to describe the act their own way, and the point is to be as gross, and as shocking, as possible. To that end most tellings involve the scatological and most involve sex. Some bring incest, rape, bestiality, sacrilege, racial slurs and more (trust me, there’s plenty more) into the fold. When I tell it, I like to throw Jesus into the mix, but that's a personal thing: the bastard wronged me and I owe Him.
After the act is described (some versions can last up to a half-hour) the punch-line lands: "What do you call the act?"
The body of the joke is far more important than the closing zinger, for the point of it is the stark contrast of the act’s pure ghastliness with its absurdly out of place name.
You can surf around the net to find more specifics but you’re better off just seeing the movie, in which about 70 different versions of the thing are performed (some just in snippets), each by a different comic, ranging from Carlin to Gilbert Gottfried to Howie Mandel to Sarah Silverman to Bob Saget.
The documentary is more than just countless retellings of the joke. It explores how it's comedy's version of a jazz riff: it’s not the song itself that matters, but the singer, and it’s all about improvisation. Directed by Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) and Paul Provenza, and filmed in an amateurish, intimate style (it’s basically the two directors interviewing their friends and colleagues), The Aristocrats goes on to explore what makes the joke shocking, what makes the shocking funny, etc.
On a basic level the movie is about artistic freedom; freedom from restraint, from censorship, from boundaries. There are no taboos, except, of course, that there always are. And the film explores that too. Even comedians can be scared about going too far, but the movie deals with exactly what is too far, and why?
It’s interesting and funny (if a bit repetitive) and shocking and vulgar and obscene. There is no nudity, no action, no live enactments of the joke and Jesus Christ doesn't get whipped bloody for 20 minutes. It's nothing but people talking about shit and sex and shitty sex (literally.) With copious amounts of swearing. In short, it's nothing but words. And for some people it will be more offensive than gay marriage.
Comedy is one of the few remaining arenas in our increasingly sensitive culture in which lines can be safely crossed. And I'm just glad that there are still people out there willing to explore what happens when they are, even if there are still morons out there that can't stomach it (like the president of AMC Theaters, which banned the film.)
I may not be a part of the secret club of comedians that tells "The Aristocrats" joke, but I am a fan of pushing the envelope. If you’ve read my columns before you probably know I’m not averse to swearing or making a comment or two that to some people might seem offensive. I like pushing buttons and as a result I occasionally hit a nerve. Not much is sacred to me. Amongst my friends I am known as the guy who tells the disgusting jokes, who says off-color things about God, etc. I'm the guy who, when you meet me for the first time, is as likely to ask your name as I am to make a crack about fucking a dog.
When I am scolded for my bad taste I am quick to reply that I am not the author of the jokes I tell, I just think they’re funny. And I do think they’re funny. Not so much because they actually are funny but because they go so far and are so off the wall in their attempts to be. There is nothing humorous about violently raping your own son, unless you think it’s funny that someone would make a joke out of it. Anyone? Why am I the only person with a hand up?
People take words too seriously. Dirty jokes and vulgar swears aren't the end of the world. Save your outrage for real issues, like who got robbed on ABC's dancing show.
We have a responsibility to challenge the limits of taste in a society in which intolerance is still far too prominent. It's hard to get to the heart of the matter when you're constantly afraid someone might blush along the way. Why is the C-word such a big deal? Why shouldn't I take God's name in vain? Who is your daddy and what does he do?
I'm not gonna pretend I say shocking things in order to advance the culture or to create a meaningful dialogue about important issues. I do it because I like seeing people's reactions, and I like making hypocrites and prudes uncomfortable. I don’t honestly think incest and rape and bestiality are laugh riots and I certainly wouldn’t be caught chuckling were I to witness such things, but I don't mind letting people know I think those jokes are funny. Words are words. And I guess, in this case, I don’t believe in the strength of them.
And that's why I'm gonna tell my version of "The Aristocrats" this weekend at my friend's rehearsal dinner. Get ready for a big surprise, Dave. Uncle Larry's gonna love it.
Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".
ABOUT MIKE JULIANELLE
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
8.10.05 @ 2:00a
On the subject of this film, here's something you might be interested in, Mike (from another website):
"New York, New York – August 9 th , 2005 – Following the sensational theatrical opening in NY and LA of THE ARISTOCRATS, THINKFilm today announced a contest that invites fans of THE ARISTOCRATS to present their own takes on the “unspeakable obscenity” at the heart of the joke showcased in the movie. Running July 29 th through September 30 th , the contest is presented by THINKFilm with promotional partners Heavy.com and iFilm.com. A contest announcement also follows credits on the film on all theatrical prints.
Submissions of the infamous joke will compete in two separate categories: Live Action, and Non-live action (animation, claymation, flash, etc..). One grand prize winner from each category will have their rendition of the joke presented on THE ARISTOCRATS DVD, and each will receive a $1,000 cash prize. 8 runners up will receive a THINKFilm DVD pack. Depending on space, there is a chance the 8 runner ups will be presented on the DVD.
After screening the movie, entrants are encouraged to come up with highly original creative renditions of the joke –a true challenge given that the film includes extremely diverse versions told via pantomime, a card trick, and a juggling act."
More here: http://www.auntiemomo.com/cakeordeath/aristocrats.html
8.10.05 @ 9:24a
I'd love to hear Lenny Bruce's version, wouldn't you?
8.10.05 @ 9:27a
Sure, but not so sure it would register the same way today. Everyone talks about how filthy Bob Saget's version is, and it is pretty filthy, but if you go in already knowing of his rep as a filthy comic, it's not too shocking. My favorite version in the movie involved a ventriloquist and gun violence.
8.10.05 @ 9:48a
I probably should have put this in the column, but I wish we could get the same kind of support for a movie like this that something like The Passion got. It's far better to support a movie that has somethign to say and can dissect this kind of material than just to support a glossy action flick or sensationalistic indie that merely tackles offensive stuff in a meaningless way.
8.10.05 @ 10:19a
I think this kind of filmmaking should get more support, but I would not want to see this stuff become "mainstream." Not because it's offensive, but because it's refreshing to have that little pocket of intelligent, experimental and slightly subversive stuff out there.
8.10.05 @ 10:26a
Fuck refreshing! Why shouldn't intelligent films be mainstream? Keep the fluff to the side, make THAT the refreshing detour rather than the depressing, repetitive norm.
8.10.05 @ 10:33a
Mainstream is mainstream because it offends fewer people than the really interesting stuff. That won't change.
Is Ricky Jay in the movie? The mention of a card trick made me wonder.
8.10.05 @ 10:35a
Why shouldn't intelligent films be mainstream? Hello? Are we grossly overestimating the intelligence of the average consumer or what? We're talking about the same people who pay actual cash money to keep Owen Wilson and Keanu Reeves working.
8.10.05 @ 10:45a
No Ricky Jay, but someone does do a card trick.
And Juli, you were speaking hypothetically. "Shouldn't" and "aren't" are different. And the intelligence of a star has nothing to do with the content of a movie, and I don't think Wilson or Keanu are dumb people, regardless of the quality of their acting or their level of appeal.
And Jael, I found The Passion offensive, and I think a lot of other people did too, and that had HUGE success in the mainstream. Intelligence and depth and provocative content are not synonomous with offensiveness. Yeah, I'd rather have stuff that prompts discussion than bland middle of the road crap, but it doesn't have to be subversive to be worthwhile.
8.10.05 @ 11:09a
Er, that was Jael's point. Passion offended some people, sure, but less people overall and was thus successful in the mainstream.
Intelligent films aren't mainstream because intelligence is relative and maintstream success relies on appeal to the lowest common denominator, as has been pointed out numerous times in, even here on this non-mainstream website!
8.10.05 @ 11:10a
Again, I know WHY they aren't mainstream, I was jsut objecting to Juli's comment that they SHOULDN'T be, which I think is absurd.
And The Passion was mainstream because of the marketing and the press and Mel Gibson.
8.10.05 @ 11:10a
Forgot to mention something: this column completely offends me, YOU CUNT!
8.10.05 @ 11:15a
Intelligent films should be, I don't disagree with that. But the exact thing that makes some of us angry about many mainstream flicks -- their bland inoffensiveness -- is exactly what makes them palatable to much of the population.
I'm thinking of stuff like Must Love Dogs here. Versus, say, Memento, which I still think is one of the finest movies EVER, yet requires the kind of intelligent, active emotional and intellectual engagement from the audience that a lot of people just aren't up for.
8.10.05 @ 11:20a
Right. And I think that's partially because films aren't presented often enough as having the range that literature and other art forms do. Too many people view films as only escapism, and the fact that stuff like Gladiator wins awards and gets noticed more than movies with substance is a reflection both of the studio system and the audience's taste. But it's the chicken and the egg. Even independent films have been coopted by the studios now, reducing what was once a grassroots alternative to slick holloywood product to nothing more than a studio outpost for false credibility.
8.10.05 @ 11:32a
Absurd? You almost made my point for me there, Mike - the independent, intelligent stuff gets into the mainstream and it gets watered down. I'd like to see the experimental and innovative stuff have a bigger audience, but not the mainstream audience.
8.10.05 @ 11:40a
Memento, I think is the prime example here. It had suspense, action, and its form perfectly echoed the plight of the protagonist. It was, in my mind, way better than Pulp Fiction, which was cut in a similar manner, but was less intellectually challenging. PF was way more popular.
You mentioned Gibson's popularity above, could that be why PF was more successful than Memento, star power? Or was it just one step beyond the LCD?
8.10.05 @ 11:52a
I think it actually took someone with Mel Gibson's star power to propel Passion. Absolutely. There had been Jesus movies before, but those filmmakers didn't have -or, rather, didn't strongly and openly communicate- the personal belief system and personal monetary investment. For some, I think that mattered.
I still haven't seen it.
There will always be an underground beneath Main Street. The question is when stuff from the underground starts to seep up, boundaries are erased. I'm not talking about free speech, but something Mike mentioned in the column - things like rape, incest and such. Films do glorify these elements -granted, they're only found in certain stores or certain Web sites, but they're out there. If that type of element enters into commonplace culture and is accepted, what does that say about our society?
8.10.05 @ 12:04p
But I'm not promoting putting those images on film, at least not willy-nilly in sensationalistic ways. There are constructive ways to present those images and deconstruct them and dissect their cause and effect and etc etc etc. The freedom to confront those types of ideas is important, and the fact that simulated violence is apparently easier for this country to stomach than the use of some upsetting words is the heart of the issue. Why is it acceptable to present the disgusting torture scene in The Passion but people go nuts if someone uses the C word?
8.10.05 @ 12:16p
The C word has been synonymous with female degradation for centuries. I think that's why it still has a powerful connotation. It's almost always used in a negative fashion.
Hence, in the Vagina Monologues, Eve Einsler tried to take the word back, to defuse the power of hurt and make it, indeed, just a word.
Very similar to the N word's place in society, actually.
Words may just be words, but the meaning and intent to use certain words still carries tremendous power. Just because someone throws the word "cunt" around in cheerful banter doesn't necessarily mean people won't use the word harmfully.
Again, with the N word.
8.10.05 @ 12:30p
Right, it's the context and intent that causes the problem. I had a paragraph about that very thing in an earlier version of this column, including references to the N and C words. They can be defused. And they should be.
8.10.05 @ 12:53p
Anyone watch "Rescue Me"? They had a full conversation earlier in the season about words that offend women, and they decided to come up with their own, but they couldn't decide between "cwat" and "twunt."
8.10.05 @ 1:30p
Very interesting point. Why should "those words" be defused? Language evolves, but people will always try to shock and offend. Let's keep the offensive words so we don't have to make new ones offensive - see: political correctness.
The Aristocrats joke could be very funny as a mild, inoffensive joke, and the set-up and punchline combo are the classic building blocks of comedy. It's the stuff in between that became a game of one-upmanship, and thus became offensive.
8.10.05 @ 2:28p
The Vagina monologues, in my mind, are actually worse for personifying the thing and thus illustrate the problem in nutshell.
Mike is all over the issue context-wise. I was called a wetback once. In PC America, that is a racial slur. But it wasn't really racial at all, the guy who said it was just trying to piss me off. I have to first adopt the stance of an oppressed victim, and them convince myself he was actually trying to degrade me based on heritage to be offended by that. (It didn't work, I laughed and told him to fuck-off!)
Same with the c-word. You can't really be degraded by anything anyone says unless you've already degraded yourself to a victim in the first place.
8.10.05 @ 4:51p
Why tell him to fuck off at all? It's no big deal, right? Just a word that you don't respond to and don't relate to in any way.
What if this same guy called your wife a cunt with you standing by? Are you going to laugh, slap him on the back and say, "HA! Good one, buddy!"
Or are you, indeed, going to get pissed off? How does the implication change then? Why defend your wife if it's just a word?
Any word can be turned into a bad word, for seemingly no reason. Used to be a faggot was a pile of sticks. How the hell did the term become associated with homosexuality, and often, in a negative way?
8.11.05 @ 9:28a
It's more fun to tell him to "fuck off."
Any word CAN be turned bad, you donut head! The solution, similar in spirit to Bulworth's solution to racism (everybody screw til we're all the same color), is to lighten the hell up and spread the offensive words like wildfire until they lose their potency. That's clearly part of the impetus behind the African-Anmerican community's embrace of the n-word as a slang term of endearment and kinship, no?
Why can't all your ladies just be my cunts and relax about it yo?
8.12.05 @ 12:47a
My wife actually is a cunt, a SERIOUS cunt, so if some dumb-ass called her that in front of me, she'd kick him in the nuts and then me to boot just for standing nearby and coincidentally having a like pair.
I'm just kidding. She'd actually just laugh and tell him to 'fuck off'. And that's because that's all people like that are worth. Not worth getting worked up about, and nothing more they want is for you to be miffed and come at them and try to correct them, demand some type of superficial respect that they'll never genuinely give you.
8.15.05 @ 10:52a
Saw this movie on Sunday and absolutely loved it.
Don't know how many people I'd recommend it to, though. My parents? Not really. There is an incredible amount of foul language and disgusting description in here. But the bulk of the movie is the discussion of the joke, why it gets told, some reversed or altered versions, how women tell it differently, descriptions of legendary tellings... it's a great deal more than just offensive language.
I just about cried during... well, I won't give it away, but it's the only animated sequence.
And the card trick was brilliant.
8.15.05 @ 10:59a
It's so much more than just the joke! It interesting hearing them dissect it, and hearing the variations on it (Wendy Liebman's was great). I was crying during the lousy ventriloquist's version, when the gun entered into it.
8.15.05 @ 11:42a
I hated the ventriloquist. Was he intentionally lousy? You could see his mouth moving every time.
8.15.05 @ 12:25p
That's what I meant by lousy. He wasn't a good ventriloquist but when he mentioned the gun and the bullet hole I was dying.