To get the ball rolling, old-timer Jay Marshall tells the joke in its sparest possible form, which takes less than a minute. It involves the attempt of an appalling "family act" to get a booking agent to represent them. A debauched reconfiguration of the Trapp Family Singers, they call themselves The Aristocrats. The stripped-down version, while pretty funny, isn't much in itself. But in the hands of the master comics who retell it, it's like a simple musical phrase in which a classical composer or jazz musician can discover limitless possibilities. Only the opening and the punch line are set in stone; the middle, in which the act itself is described, can be infinitely varied and endlessly extended. George Carlin, who comes across as the senior theoretician of this phenomenon, describes the joke as "a blank slate. ... You get to play." We're told that Chevy Chase used to host parties in which guests were challenged to keep the joke going for well over an hour.
To organize these anarchic proceedings, director Paul Provenza presents the reworked jokes in groups defined by their prevailing mode of degeneracy. A section of scatological retellings serves as our baptism by fire, and then we move on to an extensive treatment of incest within the family (sometimes with, sometimes without, grandparents and infants), with side excursions into bestiality and blasphemy. If "The Aristocrats" were playing at as many theaters as the vulgar "The Dukes of Hazzard" (almost 2,900 as of this writing), the airwaves would be filled with cries of "Think of the children!" Ah, but the children have been thought of already, in merciless detail, perhaps most memorably by the cherubic, and incredibly filthy-minded, Billy the Mime, as incarnated by Steven Banks.
George Carlin offers the closest thing to a justification for this torrent of obscenity when he speaks of "the joy of saying something that violates someone's boundaries." "The Aristocrats" is, indeed, a joyful film, full of men and women alight with the pleasure that comes from negating every compliment civilization has ever paid itself. Particularly remarkable in that regard is Bob Saget, who seems positively giddy as he recounts incestuous horrors, thereby divesting himself of the dreadful paternal wholesomeness foisted upon him by his role in "Full House."
The movie builds to something of a climax when it presents footage of one of the rare public tellings of this joke, which occurred in New York a few weeks after 9/11 at, of all things, a Friars Club Roast for Hugh Hefner. Having bombed with his planned material ("I was worried flying out from L.A. because there was supposed to be a connection at the Empire State Building"), the fantastically shrill Gilbert Gottfried throws down the gauntlet by launching into his own version of the joke. We're asked to see this gesture as a way of challenging the stunned New Yorkers to turn back to life. It's a measure of the film's success that Gottfried's rant takes on the air of an off-kilter benediction.
"Catharsis" can mean spiritual cleansing, but it can also mean a medicinal evacuation of the bowels. "The Aristocrats" takes some of the mystery out of that semantic curiosity. NR 90 min. *****S
Letters to the editor may be sent to: email@example.com