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August 3, 2015 9:44 PM   Subscribe

Nevada Public Radio has made an oral (no comment) history of the making of The Aristocrats, the infamous documentary about the offensive joke that comedians tell each other. The movie has many, many great performances, but I'm partial to Wendy Liebman's and Martin Mull's, which are kind of riffs on the joke and not the actual joke. For that, you need to see Bob Saget or Gilbert Gottfried.
posted by anothermug (24 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
The article doesn't mention it in any detail - probably because it was so upsetting to Joe Franklin that he threatened to sue - but Sarah Silverman's was arguably the standout one. ( obviously NSFW - Eh, this whole thread probably needs that warning )
posted by Bwithh at 12:05 AM on August 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


All too often, The Aristocrats (both the joke and the film) relies on us all pretending that the 1950s taboos against swearing and discussing sexual behaviour in public are still active. In fact, we all hear material that matches any version of the gag on the media every day and no-one much bats an eye-lid. The element of challenge which the joke once presented to its audience - "sit through this" - is gone.

What's required is an Aristocrats joke - equally baroque and extensive in its construction - which instead targets all today's taboos about racial insults, gender discrimination, child abuse and so on. Parts of Silverman's version do exactly that. A full Aristocrats routine built round that type of material might have a chance of restoring the joke's shock value, rendering it genuinely uncomfortable listening again and making its punchline work once more. Silverman's one of the few modern comedians I can think of who might have both the balls to attempt this and the chops to pull it off.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:15 AM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


In my fantasy world, Donald Trump is elected president and at the inaugural, he quietly looks over the crowd before speaking and says only, "The Aristocrats" before ripping off a mask to reveal he is actually John Stewart, dropping the mic, and walking off stage.
posted by Muddler at 5:01 AM on August 4, 2015 [39 favorites]


Muddler, you've made my day. That is now also my fantasy.
posted by numaner at 5:30 AM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


anothermug, thank you so much for this link.

Paul--Have you seen the movie? Sarah Silverman does the joke in a way that I think would satisfy you. Anyway,

1) Those taboos were still pretty entrenched even 10 years ago and still are today. That is one reason the joke was so cathartic for the Hefner roast audience (the other being that he launched into it immediately after some of the audience rejected his 9/11 jokes maybe a month after it happened).

2) But the documentary makes it pretty clear that The Aristocrats is not a joke for a typical standup routine. The thesis is not that you can make an audience laugh by telling the joke in a vacuum. It examines the joke as a comedian's joke, one they tell to each other as a shared medium of expression, jazz improv the way Penn Jillette talks about in the link, myth-making the way comedians talk about Gottfried's telling. The Bob Saget version is funny, but what makes it so funny in the movie is that he's telling it backstage at a kids' comedy show. The movie teaches the audience how to place the joke in its backstage cultural context--provides a window into comedians' world. That's why you are still laughing at the 10th telling in the movie--not because it's funnier than the 9th, but because, with each telling, you see into that world a little bit more. That's what makes it a good documentary.
posted by radicalawyer at 5:48 AM on August 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


I have seen the movie, and I mentioned Silverman's rendition of the joke in my post. I realise the joke's one told by comedians for other comedians, but even then much of its premise rests on its (supposedly) shocking content. The inventive "riffing" is another big element in the gag, as you say, and that's what I meant to refer to when I mentioned the need for baroque construction.

I doubt if there's anything in the film the BBC wouldn't be prepared to broadcast after 9pm here in the UK - albeit perhaps with a "strong language" warning beforehand. Any shock expressed - at least on this side of the Atlantic - would be pretty minimal, I think.

The moment of the film that stuck most firmly in my own head came in its DVD extras when one male comedian was showing another male comedian his brand-new baby daughter. Looking down on her in her cot, he said something like, "Give me a dollar and I'll let you finger her." That made me gasp a bit the first time I saw it, and genuine shock was an element in that reaction. Part of what also makes it funny, I think, is the fact that he set the price so low.
posted by Paul Slade at 6:16 AM on August 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


This film in particular is a strong argument for going out to the movies in a darkened room full of other people, rather than watching yourself on DVD or Netflix or whatever. The stretches of uncomfortable silence, the moments when one person broke and laughed despite themselves (and it wasn't always the same person), the times when laughter spread uncontrollably around the theatre. Even the person who walked out partway through was part of the experience, not that this would be a consolation to that person.

Ah, to go back in time and do it again.
posted by Shmuel510 at 6:17 AM on August 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Shmuel--I saw it in Bethesda, MD when it come out. About 15 minutes in, half the theater got up and left. I thought, "How could you possibly have not known what you were getting into? There were signs on the door saying 'No one under 17 admitted.'" Then, about 15 minutes before it ended, another quarter of the theater left. I thought, "What, the seventeenth bestiality joke was the straw that broke the camel's back?"

At one point, I was the guy who couldn't stop laughing, even during the more meditative stretches where no one was actually telling a joke. I had lost control of my body.
posted by radicalawyer at 7:24 AM on August 4, 2015 [12 favorites]


I would love to have seen the film in a movie theater.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:55 AM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Give me a dollar and I'll let you finger her." –bob saget
posted by kliuless at 7:56 AM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


"How rude!!"
posted by Atom Eyes at 8:53 AM on August 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I saw it in theaters in the south. I was 1 of about a dozen patrons and by the end every single one of them had walked out, bless their hearts.
posted by Monochrome at 9:09 AM on August 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


The one thing I wish they had video of somewhere is the original telling at the Friar's Roast that Gottfried did. As they mention in the movie, it was what inspired the documentary. He had just bombed by telling a really tasteless and awful 9/11 joke mere weeks after the event and people booed him. Apparently he then took a deep breath and said "ok," and promptly launched into The Aristocrats. I would pay money to see that one.
posted by shmegegge at 9:57 AM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just bought the DVD on amazon, that is a horrible DVD cover. Also, only 14 left in stock!
posted by numaner at 10:01 AM on August 4, 2015


> Apparently he then took a deep breath and said "ok," and promptly launched into The Aristocrats. I would pay money to see that one.

They cut between it and other things, and they don't show any footage of the 9/11 joke that bombed, but this is absolutely in The Aristocrats.
posted by savetheclocktower at 10:03 AM on August 4, 2015


The one thing I wish they had video of somewhere is the original telling at the Friar's Roast that Gottfried did. As they mention in the movie, it was what inspired the documentary.

There's a bit of it in the film... though, as explained in the first link in the post, the inspiration was actually the other way around.
posted by Shmuel510 at 10:12 AM on August 4, 2015


The moment of the film that stuck most firmly in my own head came in its DVD extras when one male comedian was showing another male comedian his brand-new baby daughter. Looking down on her in her cot, he said something like, "Give me a dollar and I'll let you finger her."

Doug Stanhope's bit with the kid is worth seeing too.
posted by anothermug at 11:52 AM on August 4, 2015


a really tasteless and awful 9/11 joke mere weeks after the event

Trigger alert, I guess, so don't read any further if this might be upsetting ... but for those who are interested I think the joke makes a reference to the fact that people should have been concerned because there was a scheduled layover at the Empire State Building as well.

In her (great) standup DVD Jesus Is Magic, Sarah Silverman has an equally nonPC 9/11 joke: she says that American Airline should have used the crash in their promotions: "American Airlines ... first through the towers!"
posted by anothermug at 12:06 PM on August 4, 2015


For God's sake, RTFA.
posted by Shmuel510 at 12:08 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Those taboos were still pretty entrenched even 10 years ago and still are today.

Yeah; just this morning a friend of mine on facebook commented that she wished there was something like John Oliver's DC statehood song without all the swearing. That content, she believes, would put off a section of the world we need to convince.

I am not real receptive to this idea for a number of reasons that aren't pertinent here. But the point is that this lefty person without an issue with the language is prepared to believe there are folks with such an aversion to profanity that they're going to discount an argument for political representation to American citizens because someone says "asshole."
posted by phearlez at 1:52 PM on August 4, 2015


I liked the mime.
posted by y2karl at 4:57 PM on August 4, 2015


@Paul Slade: I don't think you entirely got Radicallawyer's point, and the whole point of the Aristocrat joke. Shock has NOTHING to do with it. It is entirely in the telling and the movie states it pretty obviously, too.

The whole purpose of it is not to shock anyone, but to 'do' the joke; to show of one's mastery of ones craft to others in the business, to show of your mastery of your own style by bending a (by now hackneyed and well-known to those who hear it) story to one's style and show off your mastery of the finesses of being a comedian through your delivery, the placement and lenght of your pauses, the tricks of the trade.

It's like a chef making a dish for other chefs, where the dish itself might actually not be fine cuisine or even tasty, but the other chefs approval is found through the mastery and skill involved in the creation, garnishing and presentation of this bland dish.
posted by MacD at 12:06 PM on August 5, 2015


We'll have to agree to disagree, MacD. Virtuosity in telling the joke is one part of it, yes, but equally central is the idea that you're being virtuosic with a piece of such deliberately tasteless/shocking/extreme* material. Indeed, part of that virtuosity lies in how far and how inventively you can push the joke even further into bad taste. The further you venture into those realms, the greater the appreciation you're likely to get from other connoisseurs of this particular joke.

I'd argue that It's inventiveness plus daring which makes for a truly great telling of The Aristocrats - and if the only taboos you're busting are those society as a whole has already discarded, then where's the daring in that?

* Use whichever word you prefer.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:15 PM on August 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think you're partly correct, but MacD is more correct. That is to say, I think that being shocking isn't primary, but is a function of this particular form of virtuosity. Think about it: you could tell this joke very badly by just coming up with the most shocking scenario available. The shock isn't primary, but it is a key stylistic constraint in the exhibition of technique. And so you could still tell the joke well by subverting that constraint somehow. But you can't disregard or subvert the requirement that this be a technically masterful shaggy dog story.

You could say it's a mom fucking the shaggy dog story.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:03 PM on August 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


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