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Photograph by Robert Kirk/Courtesy Sony Pictures

The Lowest-Common Denominator: The documentary 'The Aristocrats' proves that Gilbert Gottfried was born to tell the world's dirtiest joke.

Gagging

'The Aristocrats' chronicles the infinite varieties of the world's most disgusting joke

By Richard von Busack

SO THIS CRITIC walks into a theater where The Aristocrats is showing. I guess he thought it was a Merchant-Ivory movie. Instead, it is a documentary about a joke, the worst, most degrading joke ever—a backstage joke about a disgusting variety act auditioning in front of a talent agent. It is a joke that becomes more baroque and physically impossible with each telling. The joke chronicled in The Aristocrats isn't outrageously funny, but that's what makes telling it a challenge. Anyone can coast on a good gag. For The Aristocrats, co-directors Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza assembled the largest cross-section of the comedy world ever corralled for one movie: everyone from Whoopi Goldberg to Eric Idle, from George Carlin to Billy Connelly. A spirit invoked in The Aristocrats is that martyr to sick comedy, Mr. Mike. Writer/performer Michael O'Donoghue is as mourned by those who grew up with The National Lampoon as our elders miss Lenny Bruce. "[O'Donoghue] died telling the joke," claims Harry Shearer, lying. It is easier to believe Shearer's claim that O'Donoghue could stretch this hideous little story wider than anyone.

As for the winnahs among the comedians at this particular cutting session, we have a three-way tie. Sarah Silverman riffs up a bright bit about recovered memory. The squinting Gilbert Gottfried, with his sandblaster voice, was born to tell this infamous joke, just as Chopin was born to play the piano. Gottfried may have been the first to unveil the deadly joke in front of a camera. It happened right after he had bombed at a Hugh Hefner roast, trying to get a laugh out of 9/11, three scant weeks after the attack: "I'm sorry I'm late, but my plane made an unscheduled stop at the Empire State Building." "Too soon!" shouted killjoys. Proving Jerry Lewis' rule, "When a comedian is in trouble, he goes to the toilet," Gottfried unholstered the assault weapon of jokes.

The film doesn't presume to the kill the joke by analysis. But I'd guess that the popularity of this evil monologue among comedians must be due to two points. First is the anxiety of auditioning, of pretending to have something really swank, when what you've got is a handful of crap. Second, the joke serves as a revenge against the audience. So many variations describe "the front-row seats"—the high-rollers, the rich creeps—being sprayed with unnamable bodily fluids. According to two tellers in The Aristocrats, the hosing down is such that even Gallagher the Melon Slayer would envy it. You don't have to be Freud to suspect that the joke is a story of anal-aggressive wish-fulfillment.

As a film, The Aristocrats is a choppy piece of work; it is the quintessential example of a talking-heads movie. Still, it's a remarkable look into the heart of darkness of humor. A suggested topper for "The Aristocrats," quoting Bugs Bunny to Daffy Duck after the latter immolated himself onstage: "Whaddya do for an encore?"


The Aristocrats (Unrated; 86 min.), a documentary by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza, opens Friday at selected theaters.


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From the August 10-16, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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