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The Dirty Truth

The Aristocrats is more than just a filthy joke.

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The Aristocrats director Paul Provenza (left) - and pal Penn Jillette deliver the big finish to the filthiest. - Joke. Ever.
  • The Aristocrats director Paul Provenza (left) and pal Penn Jillette deliver the big finish to the filthiest. Joke. Ever.

The Aristocrats' premise -- more than 100 comedians deliver their own versions of the same dirty joke -- doesn't sound like much to hang a movie on. But the joke -- not a terribly funny one -- serves not only as a secret handshake among stand-ups, but also as a jazzy riff, a comic story that's malleable in the hands of the teller. More important, it's a revealing look inside the comic mind.

Here's the joke: A family walks into a theatrical agent's office for an audition. Its act consists of just about every vile, taboo-breaking stunt imaginable (excrement, sodomy, incest, rape, and the family pet figure into it). After the performance, the puzzled agent asks the name of the act. It's "The Aristocrats."

"It's the absurdity, not the punch line," says Paul Provenza, the actor and comedian who directed the documentary with collaborator Penn Jillette, the talkative half of Penn and Teller. "It's the singer, not the song."

The joke goes way back. Most of the folks onscreen -- including Andy Dick, the South Park gang, Jason Alexander, Gilbert Gottfried (who kills), and Bob Saget (ditto -- really) -- recall hearing it after-hours, within a group of other comedians. "I first heard it when I was a baby comic, in one of those moments," says Provenza. "I have an emotional connection to it, because I heard it very early on. And I got a real clear idea of camaraderie because of it."

The endless variations on the joke -- that execrable middle part allows for some major riffing -- prevents The Aristocrats from becoming a 90-minute, one-trick gag. A few of the film's funny folks claim to have heard hour-long versions of it. Most of the comics -- who span age, race, and sex -- twist the tale to their own styles. Sarah Silverman, for example, puts herself in the middle of the yarn. George Carlin, Drew Carey, and Jon Stewart recount their introductions to the joke and offer theories on its underground popularity.

"There's this unfair impression that this is something conscious, like it's a union card," says Provenza. "It's such a piece of minutia. It's not omnipresent. It's not like we've all heard it or told it. Most of us heard it, had a laugh, moved on, and maybe told it to a couple of other people.

"But it's fascinating to hear all these different versions. It's so revealing. Everyone makes it their own, and you really get to see who they are. It's the perfect joke, because of its improvisational nature."

But not everyone is laughing. The AMC theater chain refuses to screen the unrated film. And sensitive viewers will undoubtedly flinch at the constant barrage of incest, rape, and scatological sex that's related onscreen. "Who knows where you can take the joke?" says Provenza. "In the telling and the treatment of it, you can create new boundaries to cross. It's not just about what bodily fluid has never been used before. I'm sure it will sound different 50 years from now."

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