The jokes were mediocre at best, but it was the way he sold the material, the way he relished the set-up, embracing the fake drama before the twist in the punchline. It wasn't until I sat in on one of his classes that I really appreciated how he enjoyed shaping the material in his delivery, his students hanging on most every word. Now retired, he's working on what I'm sure will be his last great published work: a collection of the nastiest limericks you'll ever hear. Seriously.
My dad's no vaudevillian, but he is of a generation where sensitivity stultified the subversiveness of humor. Certainly something doesn't have to be obscene or vulgar to be funny, but as the hilarious new film, The Aristocrats, proves, our hesitance to offend sometimes robs humor of its vitality. In telling the history behind the world's dirtiest joke, The Aristocrats speaks of a bygone era, of vaudeville, of the Borscht Belt, of a time when telling jokes dominated the current vogue of observational humor. It's also funny as hell.
The joke itself works its way through a hundred comics and writers interviewed by comedians Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, passed around like a lump of clay and molded to the performer's satisfaction. The framework of the joke is fairly simple: A guy walks into a talent agent's office and tells him he's got a great family act that involves, more or less, his wife, two kids, maybe a grandmother. And what they do, to each other and beyond, creates the opportunity to express just about every vulgar, deviant and violent form of human behavior imaginative. We're talking just about every form of sex -- including incest, bestiality, felching, sodomy, rape -- and bodily function that can be described.
The set-up provides the opportunity to use any form of sexual slang, from the Dirty Sanchez and the Strawberry Shortcake to the Rusty Trombone, and to stretch the joke out as long as needed, so that the punchline becomes both a contrast to all before it but also a kind of anti-climax. It's the ultimate inside joke for comedians, who obviously can't tell the joke onstage (or at least not on TV) but use it as a way to show off their storytelling skills in a form of one-upsmanship -- the way the Algonquin Roundtable served as a forum for New York's literary scenesters to take their brain out for a walk.
"You get to play with people's danger zones," notes George Carlin, one of the first comics in the post-Lenny Bruce era to explore obscenity as a way to understand language. There's no question that The Aristocrats serves as a Rosetta Stone, a decoder ring for comics looking for a way to sell a joke to an audience. And what makes this film so special is how the joke is told so well by so many different kinds of performers, including some comics who I have almost never found funny -- not the least of which is Bob Saget of Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos fame. His telling of the joke, just as he's about to go out onstage, confirms his peers' contention that he's one of the best, probably due to the same kind of smug sincerity that marked his TV persona. But then there's also Kevin Pollack, who channels Christopher Walken with all his stops and the stutters, the emphasis on the odd syllable, the shrugs; card sharp Eric Mead, who turns the telling into a card trick; Mario Cantone, telling it as Liza Minnelli; and, of all people, a street mime. The most fascinating example comes from Gilbert Gottfried, but to say more would really be giving away the punchline.
"In all art, it's the singer, not the song," Jillette says, and while I would argue that this notion suggests that style always wins out over substance, it's always more impressive to watch somebody make something out of nothing. In seeking the lowest possible denominator of language, the comics of The Aristocrats show that vulgarity might just be the most liberating form of expression. How sad, then, that the AMC theater chain refuses to show the film.
Before his current limericks project, my dad had written or edited two books on the dangers of censorship. I can't help but think a book of limericks is the next logical step. I know one thing: He'll know how to sell it.