You’d be hard pressed to hear anyone who considers him- or herself to have even a smidgen of class left telling a “Polack” joke. The only place I hear jokes about black people anymore is in e-mails from my father (who has a good old-fashioned “screw everybody” sense of humor that is the hallmark of those who are retired and have been around a long, long time). Years ago Redd Foxx had a one-liner: “Hire the handicapped. They’re fun to watch.” You won’t hear anything like that on network television any time soon.
Humor has been politicized, like nearly everything else in our society. Bluenoses abound—we just spent four years with an attorney general who had to put a drape over the statue of Justice, solely because she bared a little breast. And don’t get me started on political correctness. Those who consider themselves “anti-PC” find it a useful tool to drag out every old racist attitude and every bit of retrograde snark about gender or sex issues while waving a proud flag as if it was an excuse for bad behavior. It still isn’t.
The difference always comes down to intent. Klan members rarely march through the streets anymore, flaunting pride in their backward ways. Male chauvinists in power rarely cavort through offices smacking secretaries on the ass the way they used to—all the aforementioned and more now hide behind their bland veneers of the power-stripped angry white male, pissed that the world just doesn’t allow him to make everyone he looks down upon the butt of the joke. If you want to tell a joke like that, you’ve got to know the person. You have to know that they know you well enough to understand whether or not you have any malice hidden deep in your heart. And as we saw in local legend H.L. Mencken’s diaries, published years after his death, sometimes even that isn’t enough.
There are few who can transcend these behavioral proscriptions, most obviously comedians. Professional comics are tasked with the hardest and most merit-oriented of pecking orders; they rise and fall on one thing and one thing only—the ability to make enough of us laugh that they can continue to make a living at it. Dying is easy, they say—comedy is hard.
Like any other profession, the comedian’s world has its legends, its history. And this week a movie comes out that digs into two things—the freedom of speech Americans possess to be really and truly offensive in the service of comedy, and the history of one single joke in particular that few outside of show business have ever heard until now.
The movie is called The Aristocrats. It consists of nearly 100 top comedians using the English language to push past every barrier of decency to plumb the depths of humor by telling one joke. The trick is, the joke isn’t that great on its own—like jazz, what’s important is where the interpreter takes it. As Penn Jillette, one of the two main filmmakers behind The Aristocrats, points out, it’s “the singer, not the song.”
The premise is this: A family walks into a talent agent’s office and tells him they have an act they’d like him to see. Then they go into a litany of the most disgusting, revolting, and obscene acts that you can imagine, and many you haven’t ever thought of before. When they conclude, the stunned agent asks, “So, what do you call this act?” Their answer, proudly stated: “The Aristocrats!”
As a movie, it is an incredibly political work. At the start, filmmakers Jillette and comedian Paul Provenza point out that their movie features no nudity and no violence. The content is solely about ideas and the words used to transmit them. But those words and ideas are such that many in our society might seek to curtail them on the basis of their, well, degeneracy. This movie is really the film version of the audiobook of Sodom and Gomorrah, as envisioned by Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.
When George W. Bush talks ad nauseam about the terrorists who hate our freedoms, he’s talking about our freedom to make movies like this. Except in this instance, many of those haters are ourselves—the Puritans, the fundamentalists, the control freaks who see themselves as the whip-cracking custodians of our moral virtue. This movie is a figurative middle finger raised in their direction, alongside the words found on the men’s rest-room wall of a popular Fells Point restaurant and bar: those who are easily offended should be.
It’s one hell of a funny movie, too—and that’s what makes America great.
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