Essay

'Aristocrats' Reveals Stand-Up's Underbelly

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 20, 2005

As it advances under its mantle of hipper-than-thou smugness, the novelty folklore documentary "The Aristocrats" charms many in the audience and sickens a few others -- though of course the sample is self-selected by theater attendance so that the ratio of gigglers to groaners in any one theater is meaningless.

One thing, however, is certain: Hate it or love it, people are talking about it. (And lining up to see it: Landmark's E Street Cinema has been regularly selling out its showings and expanded the run to include Bethesda Row; the movie took in $1.6 million in its first three weeks on just 86 screens.)

It has that shock thing going for it. The film, as many know, features roughly a hundred retellings of a standard comics-only joke that has been around for almost a century. It is a filthy, repulsive joke (the movie is not rated) and of the hundred tellings of it, this viewer found only tellings 13, 32, 51 and 87 actually funny. No. 26 was almost funny and I had high hopes for 91, but 91 really let me down at the end when Robin Williams just didn't go for it hard enough. Robin, where'd your famous nerve go? There's a real dreary run, from 51 through the 70s, and lord, when Bob Saget gets all wound up in 76, you begin to wonder what you're doing there.

Anyway, yes, people are talking. But are they saying anything, other than "I laughed till it hurt"? What does this film tell us? Does it have lessons? What are its meanings? Is there a template by which its meanings can be probed?

Yes, there is. A gentleman named Gershon Legman -- G. Legman, his actual name! -- made a life's work of studying dirty jokes. His marginal claim to fame came via Playboy magazine, to which, in the early years (the magazine's, not his) he was a contributor. Among his books are "No Laughing Matter," a compendium of dirty jokes; "Love and Death: A Study in Censorship," a compendium of dirty jokes; and an 811-pager called "The Rationale of the Dirty Joke," which was, surprisingly enough, a compendium of dirty jokes. The pieces he wrote for Playboy, by the way, were compendiums of dirty jokes.

He was born in 1917 in Scranton, Pa., became a researcher for Alfred Kinsey, yet ultimately pursued his erotic interests in other directions than Kinsey (with whom he quarreled). Ultimately, harassed (he claimed) by what is now the U.S. Postal Service, he moved to France; he died in 1999.

In any event, when he wasn't compending dirty jokes, Legman was doing what none of the 95 comics in "The Aristocrats," much less its director and producers, did: He was thinking about them. These weren't particularly insightful thoughts, and they certainly weren't funny (he was never funny) but they were genuine thoughts.

His key belief was that "a person's joke is a key to that person's character; in other words, the only joke you know how to tell is you." Jokes, he believed, after pioneering work by Freud in the incredibly unfunny "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious," are not only a manifestation of sexual neurosis but actually a symptom of psychopathology. As one critic has explained Legman's thesis, " . . . dirty jokes are attempts to express or allay people's fears about sex, and to project these fears onto others." A further argument is that dirty jokes create an arsenal of weapons against neurosis, a defense to ward off anxieties about sex. Hmmm.

So since the "you" of this particular joke appears to be show biz culture as a whole -- a fair supposition based on the glee of the 95 -- what does that tell us about show biz?

Well, it's simple: They hate us. They, the performers, hate us, the audience. As absolutely no one has pointed out, the joke seethes with hostility and anger. It's a viper strike, a toxin-laden arrow at its target and like many weapons of mass destruction, it reveals far more about its source than its victim.

They hate us because that masks something so much deeper: that they fear us. And they should fear us. If they can't entertain us, we'll destroy them with utter cruelty and indifference by the simple act of looking elsewhere.

The joke, as many will know, is based on the sexual and scatological destruction of a family unit. It involves a family man -- a dad, usually, but the trick of the joke is the improvisations its tellers invent, and so the point of view drifts -- who comes into an agent's office and offers him an act that will knock his socks off. Then he either narrates or, in some variations, with the full family involved, performs a variety of sexual, scatological, sadistic, masochistic contortions, all described in loving detail (the movie loves the details!), at which point we reach a punch line reported 95 times.

"Wow, that was some act. Whadaya call that act?"

"I call it . . . The Aristocrats!"

What you see here isn't so much sexual neurosis but career neurosis. You see the entertainer's fear and loathing of that regular place most of us would call the world. He hates the square ideas that are the foundation of such a place: the family structure of parents nurturing kids in healthy, loving relationships, the economic underpinning known as a job, attended regularly rain or shine, sickness or health, out of some wretched sense of obligation, the slow socialization of children so that they can ultimately survive in that same world.

What a nightmare! For the comics, life is lived onstage, in the limelight, to the love and applause of anonymous crowds. It involves a great deal of travel, friendships with other gifted, crazed people but just as frequently, bitter rivalries, endless feuds, treachery and betrayal. If you win, you win the power of fame, which after the second day gets you nothing but good tables in restaurants where rubes bother you for autographs as you suck down your linguini, the right to fail with a better class of woman and, of course, the emptiness of being unconnected to anything larger than the self.

Boy, that's some act. Whadaya call that act?

The losers.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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