The cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz believes our rituals tell us stories about ourselves. The teacher/activist Noam Chomsky believes the capacity for language is genetic, and most of what we speak is a variation of a few basic forms that are wired into our brains.
And then there's Gilbert Gottfried, the shrill, scrunched-up little comedian who, some believe, told the definitive version of "The Aristocrats" at a Friars Club roast for Hugh Hefner in Manhattan, three weeks after Sept. 11.
In The Aristocrats, a panoply of comics reflect upon and tell this demi-legendary joke in what becomes a sort of rumination -- or perhaps expectoration -- on humor, language, culture, performance and personality. We've always known that humor is violent at its core, but rarely has a film so thoroughly explored and even embraced the subliminal nihilism of wit.
"The Aristocrats" isn't a joke that comics tell to an audience. It's a sort of hazing joke they perform for each other. Its variable elements depend upon who's telling it, but it must end with the same punch line: "The Aristocrats." And even that's not strictly immutable, for some versions end with "The Sophisticates" or "The Debonairs" -- anything that suggests people of breeding.
In the course of the many versions of the joke -- which is about a family vaudeville act -- feces, urine, vomit and semen may be consumed and transferred from cavity to cavity (oral, anal, vaginal); children (sometimes infants) become catamites for their parents, and vice versa; and various participants engage in various disgraceful behaviors, not always with human or living subjects (e.g., the family dog, or Grandma's corpse). When the South Park kids tell it, the joke ends with an impersonation of the victims of 9/11.
The Aristocrats was directed by the actor/comic Paul Provenza and produced by Penn (and Teller) Jillette, so it's somewhat autobiographical (or, if you like, in-bred). The comics interviewed for the film spend as much time parsing the joke and its urban legends as they do telling it. Because "The Aristocrats" is a joke of perpetual improv, each version tells us something about the teller (Geertz, 33, op. cit.). "In all of art," says Jillette, "it's the singer, not the song." Or as paterfamilias George Carlin explains, "You get to play with people's danger zones," and when they cross the line with you, they're glad they did.
Other jokes get told in the process, so The Aristocrats is a persistently funny movie, adroitly edited to weave its reflections into a seamless riff. Each performer tailors the joke to his or her style, and when someone you don't know tells it -- Sarah Silverman, for example, who adds rape to her version -- you begin to understand that comic's persona. There's obviously no "best" telling because that's a matter of (bad) taste. Personally, I laughed hardest at Billy the Mime: After all his graphic hip thrusting, when he sips a cup of air tea and extends his pinky, you know he's saying "The Aristocrats."