Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Aristocats, I mean -crats

I wasn’t going to go see The Aristocrats the first time I heard about it, but I’ve read so many reviews and it was playing at the Regal Union Square where I could use a discount coupon I had and I was in the mood to laugh and see what all the fuss was about.

It is a funny movie, a funny documentary, but maybe not as funny as it should’ve been. There was a lot of dead moments, a lot of repetition. Yes, it’s basically about the same joke and all the variations that comedians today whom Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza could get in front of a camera actually told when put on the spot. But I think there was too much repetition of the set-up and the history and not enough of the analysis and the telling.

That said, it did have me laughing quite a bit. And I wasn’t really that offended after a while. There’s been wall-to-wall coverage of the thing, in every media outlet that will deign to talk about obscene language, so I knew what sort of categories of obscenity I was in for. But of course it’s not the punchline, it’s the build-up. It’s the journey, not the destination. Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show comes to mind: “I see you shiver with antici ... pation.”

The obscene words and descriptions start to lose their meaning very quickly, and the humor then lies in the execution of it all. One of my favorite techniques was when two comedians told the joke as if they were other celebrities: Kevin Pollak as Christopher Walken, which had most of the audience going crazy, and Mario Cantone as Liza Minnelli, which didn’t get as many laughs as it should have, but had me in stitches, perhaps because he doesn’t tell you who he’s aping, and you just have to figure it out from the accent and the singing and all the references to “Mother … Mother …”

Bob Saget is deliciously “blue,” running off midway into his marathon telling of the joke to actually perform before a live audience, and at one point, even suggests the filmmakers send a tape of it to “the kids” from “Full House.”

A guy who tells it with a deck of cards and a mime who does it wordlessly are other great examples that got a good reaction. Much is made of Gilbert Gottfried’s telling at a roast shortly after 9/11, but I laughed more at the version he did in an anonymous back room for Penn and Paul.

And Sarah Silverman does a subdued riff on the Aristocrats theme full of dramatic irony, where she gradually uncovers the punchline like it’s a dirty secret she’s afraid to admit out loud. As George Carlin points out, sometimes it’s less about shock than it is about surprise.

For all its crudity, the documentary has a lot to say about the art of comedy and what buttons different kinds of humor push and how stand-up and TV humor have developed. And it’s rare to see so many great funny people together in one space at one time.

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