Saturday, February 18, 2006


Filming the World's Most Vulgar Joke

Among professional comedians, it's the stuff of legend -- a joke that has been passed down since vaudeville, with one purpose, to become the most vile, disgusting, putrid, obscene joke ever told. It's rarely performed in public. This is a joke for comedians to tell comedians. Every one who hears it tries make it dirtier than the one who told it to him. The joke is called The Aristocrats, which also happens to be the name of the documentary about it (not to be confused with Disney's animated film The Aristocats). No film ever made has taken language this far into vulgarity. When you watch it, you're in shock (or at least I was), but the joke itself is not that funny. However, after you've had time to let it settle in, you may find yourself laughing out loud at the shear concept of it (or at least I did). The joke generally starts and ends the same way. It's the middle section that allows comedians to riff. Legend has it that some performers have held private contests to see who can tell it for the longest time. The joke has sometimes gone on more than two hours. And each comedian makes it his or her own. Executive producer Penn Jillette (the talking half of the act Penn & Teller) was able to gather together 100 of the country's top stand-up comedians to discuss the nature of this "joke" and tell their version for the film. That alone makes it worth watching, but beware; you will never see a film with more taboo vulgarity than this one. It's a triumph of first amendment rights that this film was even made and shown (albeit in limited release). DVD, of course, has now made the film a blockbuster and available to all, in the privacy of their homes. One of the interviewed points out that this joke sort of holds a mirror up to the person telling it. In some regard, it also holds a mirror up to a society that, at times, pretends to be something better than its lowest, most basic instincts. The joke, as it were, is also completely organic, changing as society changes, from the inclusion of sexual taboos and scatological references, to racial and homosexual ones, etc. But, at its core, the joke has remained the same; that is, it's about people who want to be known as something greater than they truly are, in this case -- Aristocrats.

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