I love telling jokes. There’s a craft to it – you can’t just mumble your way to the punchline and expect to get a laugh. It’s all in the delivery. It’s not even what you say, it’s how you say it – or in some cases how you don’t say it; a perfectly timed eyebrow-raise or sharp look can get just as many laughs as a witty bon mot.
I also love telling anti-jokes. Anti-jokes are in no way about the punchline – if anything, the punchline is usually a letdown. in an anti-joke, the point is the fun you have getting there. If I’ve never told you The Ducky Joke, remind me next time I’ve had a drink and I’ll show you what I mean. I’ve not told it in ages so I’m a bit rusty, but I’ll get back into the swing of it.
The greatest of the anti-jokes is The Aristocrats, the subject of this documentary. A legend from the days of vaudeville and variety, The Aristocrats isn’t so much a joke as a comedian’s exercise. The joke always starts the same way – a man walks into a talent agency and says ‘boy, have I got an act for you!’. He then proceeds to describe a family act, though in some versions he brings the family with him to act it out in the hapless agent’s office. The act is invariably a vile, crude, offensive, lewd, scatological, gross, abusive nightmare, getting worse and worse as the joke goes on, with all sorts of horrendous actions and bodily fluids all over the place. It reaches a crescendo and comes to an end, after which point the dazed and horrified talent agent asks ‘what the hell do you call an act like that?’ And the man says, ‘the aristocrats!’.
I told you, it’s an anti-joke. The point of it isn’t that the punchline is funny, it’s that the joke takes a long time to tell and racks up the horrified laughs. And this documentary discusses its form, its function, its merits and the different ways it can be employed.
The ‘cast’ of the documentary are a whole host of comedians, including the late great Robin Williams, many of whom tell their own version of the joke. It’s a fascinating insight into the mechanics of comedy and a chance to laugh at dick jokes all in one. The comedians discuss punchlines and why the joke works and tell other, similar jokes along the way. Some of the jokes hit better than others, but when someone like George Carlin or Whoopi Goldberg is onscreen, you can’t help but listen and laugh along with them.
As the documentary goes on, you find yourself thinking up your own version. You can’t stop yourself. The Aristocrats is an anti-joke in which you express your innermost squicks, because you inevitably fill the act with the things you find the most offensive. It’s like a game of Cards Against Humanity that way.
Get me drunk enough and maybe I’ll tell you mine…