Maybe "The Aristocrats" could air on broadcast television if President Bush were taking part.
As you found out this week, the leader of the free world can say a bad word on the air without getting broadcast outlets in trouble with the FCC.
On the other hand, "The Aristocrats" contains lots and lots of bad words, not just a presidential expletive or two. Furthermore, the bad-words-brimming joke at the core of this film has traditionally been the province of career comedians, not the commander in chief.
For these and other reasons, "The Aristocrats" is better suited to premium cable (safely beyond the FCC's reach), sparing Bush. It will make its TV premiere on HBO, Wednesday at 11 p.m. EDT.
This flagrantly filthy and funny documentary, which mounted its original offensive last year in theaters, is the handiwork of magician/provocateur Penn Jillette and comedian/actor Paul Provenza.
They thought it was time to go public with a joke so debauched, so indecent, so gross that comics had kept it under wraps, for their own private pleasure, since bygone vaudeville days. As Penn says in the film, comedians deem this joke tantamount to a "secret handshake of the whole culture." (Sort of like with Skull and Bones?)
Thanks to "The Aristocrats," the secret's been exposed. But if making this film was a breach of trust, a heckuva lot of people are complicit: The filmmakers consulted with some 100 comedy performers and writers, from Jason Alexander and Hank Azaria to Robin Williams and Steven Wright. (Yes, Carrot Top is here, too.)
Comedic catnipThe array of faces and voices is meticulously crafted into a mass discourse on humor, as each twisted expert ponders the joke and maybe, as a bonus, delivers his or her personalized version.
What qualifies the joke as comics' catnip?
To begin with, its limitless capacity for vulgar embellishment. Plus, its infinitely malleable state: No two tellings need (or should) ever be the same.
The basic joke is quite simple.
A vaudeville agent is auditioning a family of performers. He asks what they do. The description should contain every conceivable kind of depraved behavior (anything, come to think of it, the FCC might fine you for saying on the airwaves). Then, after hearing all this, the astonished agent asks what the act is called. What else? The Aristocrats!
Here's a joke with a clear-cut starting point, a two-word punch line, and, in between, wide open spaces for lewd improvisation. The joke declares open season on unmentionable actions, anatomical parts and bodily emissions. It's a comic crucible for crude urges.
As Paul Krassner notes, "The more vulgar it is, the more ironic becomes the punch line."
It's comedy carte blanche: "There is nothing you could come up with that would be wrong," marvels Paul Reiser.
Eric Mead fortifies the joke with card tricks. Billy the Mime does a raunchy wordless variation.
Rita Rudner pretends to fret about the human toll on those performing as The Aristocrats: "Those people are abusing each other! There's incest!"
Sarah Silverman fondly recalls her childhood touring as a member of the act (along with her mom, dad, brother "and my nana").
Everybody takes a crackGilbert Gottfried's high-decibel rant convulses the audience at a Friar's Roast. In an animated clip, Cartman jabbers the joke to his "South Park" chums. And by the time Bob Saget is through his coarse riffing, you've forgotten he ever resided on that squeaky-clean "Full House."
"It kind of makes its own gravy, this joke," says Michael McKean admiringly.
And far be it from these professionals to water down the recipe.
Catching them on the fly with his handycam, Penn provides a peep at the cloistered world of comedy. "The Aristocrats" unreels as a vulgar home movie.
Though, mind you, not the Pamela-and-Tommy kind. There is no on-screen sex or nudity here, nor any violence. The film is a bunch of talking heads. What's shocking is what comes out of their mouths.
Somehow reassuringly, the shock value endures, even as the 90-minute documentary itself begins to feel overlong. (As if a film about a joke gone wild could be reined in!) But therein lies a moral: A good joke releases its surprise with its first telling, but a great joke will always pack a punch.
Celebrating this one, George Carlin says, "It leads me down one path and then it switches the path on me suddenly — and then it hits me with a hammer. And BAM!"
Bam, right! "The Aristocrats" is a tribute to creative fortitude undefiled by decent manners.
What, you can't take a joke?