The Aristocrats (documentary)

Few people understand the mechanics of comedy better than George Carlin. I don’t mean that he’s necessarily the funniest comedian there is (though I do think he’s up there), but that he can pontificate on the workings of comedy — how to construct a joke, why things are funny, and so forth — better than almost anyone.

So he’s ideal for introducing “The Aristocrats,” a documentary that purports to be about a specific dirty joke but that is actually a study of comedy in general. Carlin mentions how people are always decrying comedians who use dirty words for “shock value,” but then he observes that “‘shock’ is just an upscale word for ‘surprise,’ and a joke is all about surprise.” Surprise is, ultimately, the very essence of comedy. You laugh because you didn’t see it coming. If you saw it coming, you don’t laugh. Call it surprise, call it shock, either way, the point is the same.

“The Aristocrats” is the name of a particular joke that has been a sort of secret handshake among comedians for the better part of a century, maybe longer. They never tell it in shows — not because it’s a secret, and not because it’s too fithy, but because comedians, by and large, don’t tell “jokes.” They make observations, they tell stories, they crack wise on current events — but they don’t tell “a guy walks into a bar”-style jokes, you know? And so “The Aristocrats,” which relies on improvisation and is thus ideal for funny people to tell to each other, has existed primarily out of the spotlight.

The film, directed by Paul Provenza and Penn Gillette, is simple. They go to some 80 comedians (as well as a few actors and producers — Carrie Fisher is in there, for crying out loud) and have them tell the joke, which ultimately becomes known simply as The Joke. The Joke has infinite variations, as you will soon see, but the bulk of the film is not people telling it so much as talking about it. And in the process, we get a brilliant comedian’s-eye view of comedy, an analysis of Why Stuff Is Funny.

I am going to tell a very tame, PG-rated version of The Joke now, which is not really a spoiler, because you hear it within the first 10 minutes of the movie anyway, and because it’s really only the loose outline of a joke for which the teller fills in the details. But so you have an idea of what we’re dealing with, here goes.

A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says, “I’ve got an act that you’re gonna love!” The agent says, “OK, what’s the act?” The man says, “Well, it’s a family act. First I come out, drop my pants, and begin farting the national anthem. Then my wife comes onstage and accompanies me on the belch. Then our little son and daughter come out and urinate on the audience.” The talent agent says, “My goodness! What do you call it?” And the man says, “The Aristocrats!”

So. It’s not even a very good joke, really. It’s basic juxtaposition: The family does all these crude, vulgar things, then calls it “The Aristocrats.” (An alternate version has them calling it “The Sophisticates.”) Not much of a joke, but OK.

But here’s where the comedy is. That part in the middle — the part where the man describes his family’s act — that part has no official version. No one even knows, when the joke was first told, what went there. Instead, the person telling it improvises that part, making up whatever vile, vulgar, filthy things he can think of. I used bodily functions because those are the easiest to tone down for a genteel review, but you can use whatever you want. (Deviant sex generally becomes involved.) It is that rare joke where it is impossible to overdo it: The more disgusting it is, the funnier it is when you get to the punchline, where it’s revealed that the man has the audacity to call his stage show “The Aristocrats.” Some of the comics in the film talk about legendary parties where they stretched that part of the joke out to 20 or 30 minutes, spouting a litany of vulgar deeds until they literally couldn’t think of any more.

You can see why comedians like the joke. It gives them a chance to ad-lib, which they love, and there are no rules of decorum or good taste. When telling it to other comedians at parties, after shows, in the backs of clubs, the goal is to offend the audience, because when a comedian is offended, it just makes him laugh harder.

The joke is sort of a safe zone for taboo ideas. You laugh because you can’t believe someone actually SAID that, and then you realize that’s the point. No one is actually endorsing any of the awful, illegal acts perpetrated in their version of The Joke. In fact, the very fact that they’ve included it is proof that they don’t endorse it, since the very nature of the joke is that what’s being done is inappropriate and wrong. Anything a comedian actually approves of would, by definition, not belong in the joke.

The film is utterly, unbelievably, pants-wettingly hilarious. Carlin tells the best version, in my opinion, because of his delivery. The man in the talent agent’s office isn’t speaking outrageously; he speaks in a very matter-of-fact tone, like he’s describing the most normal stage show you can imagine. Paul Reiser, surprising to me, uses a similar deadpan delivery, though his details are different: Carlin focuses on bodily functions; Reiser, sex. Another comic uses violence, then sex, then combines them. Whatever you consider most inappropriate to joke about — incest, religion, domestic abuse, whatever — that’s what you use in the joke. It’s a way of making dreadful things less scary. Maybe it’s even cathartic.

What was definitely cathartic was Gilbert Gottfried’s appearance at a Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hufner three weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. The event, apparently now legendary among comics, is recounted by other comedians in this film, and clips of it are shown. Basically, Gottfried made a 9/11-related joke that was met with some awkward laughter, some boos, and cries of, “Too soon! Too soon!” from the audience, which consisted mostly of comedians and humor writers. In response to this rebuffing, Gottfried proceeded to tell “The Aristocrats.” His particular version of it was not necessarily funnier, dirtier or better than anyone else’s, but that wasn’t the issue. The very fact that he was telling it — a joke everyone in the audience knew, a joke that united them in a fraternity of comedians — well, it was genius. The audience cried with laughter, and the subtext was that the tragedy of 9/11, like all other too-serious, too-awful subjects, would eventually pass, and life would go on. We would rise above it, and we would do it with humor. Gottfried became a folk hero then, for uniting the audience during a very difficult time. (The moment, needless to say, did not make Comedy Central’s TV version of the event.)

Provenza and Gillette had the unenviable task of whittling down hundreds of hours of footage, recorded over a space of two years, into a film of reasonable length. Included in the final cut: Drew Carey, Dom Irrera, Howie Mandel, Martin Mull, Don Rickles, Bob Saget, Harry Shearer, Fred Willard, Steven Wright, Jason Alexander, Carrot Top, Susie Essman, Eric Idle, Eddie Izzard, Jake Johannsen, Cathy Ladman, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Kevin Nealon, Emo Philips, Kevin Pollak, Chris Rock, Jeffrey Ross, Rita Rudner, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart, Rip Taylor, Robin Williams, and about 60 others. A mime “tells” the joke, and so does a magician with a deck of cards.

The directors promise the DVD will be stellar, and they are already hearing from comedians who hesitated to perform in the film (among them Jerry Seinfeld, who didn’t want to conflict with the release of his own documentary, “Comedian”) who now wish they had. Perhaps what the film shows most of all is the sense of community among people who create laughter for a living, the common bond that even the strangers among them have with each other. What better than a dirty joke to bring people together?

B+ (1 hr., 32 min.; Not Rated, would have been NC-17 for non-stop harsh profanity, vulgarity, comic descriptions of sex, and crude language.)