Well, according to Wikipedia, publicity materials for “The Aristocrats” actually was where the term “world’s funniest joke” was used. Regardless, after seeing the movie last Saturday night I’m not sure the joke deserves that appellation.
But it surely is one of the most disgusting and obscene jokes in the world, which makes it damn funny. I laughed out loud a lot during the unrated movie’s 87 minutes. Laurel was her usual outwardly stoic self, as was the couple about our age next to us.
Most of the Salem Cinema audience was considerably younger. And they laughed even more than I did. A laudatory New York Times review notes that The Aristocrats features at least 60-70 retellings of the joke.
You’d think that would be unbearable (haven’t you said “Now, tell me if you’ve heard this before?” because you did’t want to inflict even a single retelling on your audience?). But this is a special joke, as the Wikipedia article describes.
It has (1) a setup: a “family act” going in to see a talent agent, (2) the act: described in as much detail as the teller prefers, and (3) the punchline: when the agent asks what the act is called, the answer always is “The Aristocrats.” It’s the middle portion of the joke that makes the movie so captivating.
For here the usual incest, pedophilia, and bestiality themes can be explored in as much delicious, disgusting, delightful, disturbing detail as the joke-teller desires, limited only by his or her imagination and any concern he or she might have for the delicate sensibilities of the audience (which, for the professional comedians featured in the movie, is next to zero).
Yesterday I had a coffee house conversation about the movie with some friends. Hans asked, “Why is potty-mouth language so funny?” I couldn’t come up with a good answer. Shit, fuck—it just is.
I don’t know. Why were the flaming fart jokes so funny on the early South Park episodes? They just were. Farting is funny. That’s a constant of nature, just like Newton’s laws of motion and other universals.
But in The Aristocrats we learn that unfunny things also can be funny. Many tellings of the joke featured young children engaging in marvelously nasty sex acts with their parents and grandparents, interrupted only by sex with donkeys, dogs, and other animals, capped off with the family’s bodily orifices being filled with urine, feces, and seminal fluid.
In real life, none of this would be funny. In fact, it’d be grounds for lengthy jail sentences. However, one of the marvels of comedy is that the abnormal can come to seem normal. Good comedians—and there are many in The Aristocrats—bring us to look at life through their crazed eyes, revealing that the boundary line between “normal” and “abnormal” is more blurred than we usually like to believe.
Along these lines, I just read a Science News article about child prostitutes in Thailand. It had been assumed by human rights groups that “prostitution and other forms of child exploitation stem from a toxic social brew of poverty mixed with a lack of education and job training.” The reality, though, is quite different.
Researchers found that parents in northern Thai families actually urge their children into prostitution in order to reap financial rewards. The article reports that most former prostitutes “said that they had worked short hours and had had the freedom to choose or reject clients. The women generally didn’t regret what they had done.”
This isn’t to excuse or downplay the problem of child prostitution. It’s just an example of how comedy that pushes the limits can help us realize that reality usually is less black and white than we generally take it to be. We like to make sharp distinctions between morality and immorality, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
The Aristocrats shows that when you hear nasty language for 87 minutes, it doesn’t seem nearly so nasty anymore. Boring, maybe. But not nasty.
There’s a few other jokes told in the movie. Here’s a version of my favorite, called in this case “Mbututogo.” As noted on that web page, the movie version substitutes “The Aristocrats” for “Mbututogo.” And the punchline is “Very well. But first…The Aristocrats!” A great joke, either way.
If you want the real thing, there’s a web site—The Aristocrat’s Joke—where you can read countless versions of the joke and even submit your own creative take on it to be rated.
I just looked at a few highly rated versions on the first page, one of which was extremely nasty, one was typically nasty, and one was politically nasty (Michael Brown, the ex-FEMA director, somehow got into the act).