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The joke that is the joke inside the Movie, "The Aristocrats"

August 21, 2005

Last night I finally saw, "The Aristocrats", a documentary about the dirtiest joke of them all.

Many years ago, I got into the world of Stand-up Comedy. I wasn't even 21 and I started performing onstage. This was at the tail-end of the great era of the 80's when anyone could be a headliner because there were more clubs than comics. You could tell dick jokes on stage, make $100,000 a year and be flown across the country to gigs. It was quite a party. It broke people, both financially and mentally. I did it for a while and I realized that I never was a great performer on stage at the time, but that time lead me to doing sketch comedy which lead me to fire performance, which lead me to covering my body with fireworks, dancing around on stage as they explode, which has impressed a lot of people much more than my joke telling ever did. Although I have to admit that the stand-up act was funnier than the Pyro Boy act.

Since that time I have helped Ron Reid produce the Seattle International Comedy Competition for the last 11 years. So I have spent a fair amount of time around comics, around green rooms and consumed possibly one or two beers along the way. In the 20 years I have been in the world of comedy, I have heard almost every offensive funny joke there is. I have heard some truly miserable jokes. Now my friends, I have recently experienced one of the funniest jokes of them all.

The Aristocrats.

You see folks, I have recently seen this movie and if you have any love of stand-up comedy or the concept of stand-up comedy, you should see this film. Either in a theatre or rent the DVD. It features some amazing stand-up comics telling the same joke over and over. It's worth it just for the fun of watching comics from across the spectrum tell the same joke.

But first I want to let you in on a little secret. The movie bills this joke as the ultimate dirty joke. A joke that pushes the limits so far that indeed, no joke could equal it. Such a dirty joke, the über dirty joke, should have been bantered about in green rooms for years. The one joke that rules them all. The joke that can be followed by no other jokes. The joke that uses all the funny in the room. But the joke is, nobody ever tells it. You see, in all that time of being in the world of stand-up comedy, I have only heard the joke, maybe once or twice and chances are it was told by someone on the outside attempting to be funny. It's a street joke. A joke anyone can tell, but it's not even that funny. It's not like the joke is left in reserve like the holy hand grenade, it's simply never told because as a joke it's not really funny.

There are some really terrible street jokes that comics do tell that we find funny for their brutal honesty. For instance, "What is the first thing a woman should do when she leaves the battered women's shelter? The dishes if she's smart." There is nothing funny about domestic violence, but what makes that joke funny (excuse the pun) is the punch-line. In reality, the first thing a woman should do when she leaves the battered women's shelter is file for divorce, get a restraining order, move on with her life. You expect that the joke would follow some logical course on how to get away from the abuse and not revert to the perspective of the abuser. This is the kind of dark humor comics love.

Another good example is this one: "What does it mean when the flag at the Post Office is flying at half mast? There's a job opening!" It brings to mind the postal shootings of the 1990's and the fact that when someone important dies in public office, we lower the flag.

The whole premise of the movie is that a few weeks after September 11, 2001, there was a Friar's Roast scheduled for Hugh Hefner in New York. The mood of the country was a little grim. Nobody knew if there would be more attacks like the World Trade Center. The country was caught up in a paranoia not seen since the Cold War or just after World War II. The world was unified in being appalled at the tragedy and it was a beautiful time to unify the world in the same way we did after World War II and created the United Nations. The world was united on a cause. Possibly the only building in the world that would have killed more people from different nations of the world is if the attack happened on the United Nations headquarters. In the midst of all of this tragedy, there wasn't much joke telling going on.

At the Hugh Hefner roast, Gilbert Gottfried, one of the most beautifully annoying comics around, went on stage to roast Hugh Hefner. Gilbert is at his best when he is offending everybody, which is generally any time Gilbert is talking. He goes up to tell a joke about how hard it is to get a non-stop flight from LA to New York. The closest he could get was a flight with a stopover in the Empire State Building. That joke went over like a turd on a wedding cake. Here's Gilbert who really wants to offend people, but he wants them to laugh, not kick the shit out of him backstage, so he has to come up with a different direction and quick. Some would say that Gilbert went for a joke that would unify the room. A joke that everyone knew. The holy joke, the lifeline, the joke that would bring humor to this room full of comics. I think Gilbert was kind of pissed off and thought, 'well fuck you guys. If you're not going to laugh at funny original material, I'm going to torture you by telling the worst street joke I can think of and make it as dirty as possible.'

The Aristocrats.

Gilbert could have told hundreds of other street jokes the comics in the room knew. He could have launched into his act and offended everyone as well. Instead, he chose to torture the room by telling that joke. The room was unified by not the fact he chose the one true joke, but that he told such a terrible street joke, on stage, on tv, in front of a room expecting much more creative humor. Oh and Rob Schnieder was high on goofballs, which became the actual unifying experience to the room. It was Rob's laughter that people found so funny.

Then people started talking. What was this Aristocrats joke? It turns out the joke has been told at least since the days of Vaudeville. It could be even older. Paul Provenza thought the concept of comics telling the same dirty joke would be really funny and make an interesting documentary and it really is a great film.

To me, the best part of the film was leaving the theatre. Everyone was jazzed and couldn't wait to tell their friends this joke. A joke from the inside world of comedy. But the real joke is that it's not a joke everyone tells. If you watch the film, it's obvious some of the people never heard the joke before, but they are pretending they have heard it for years and then tell their version and many of them are telling it for just about the first time. But in truth, the joke is not one of the hallowed pillars from the world of comedy, it's just another street joke and that inside joke is what is what the joke is all about.

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