Thursday, August 04, 2005

"...what do you call this act?"

Mention you're a comedian these days, and talk invariably swings toward The Aristocrats.

The funniest unfunny joke ever.

I saw the movie last week and in my expert opinion, 'tis a fine documentary. It's an invaluable glimpse into the minds of comedians, as well as an entertaining look at how every comic makes the same "joke" their own. If comedy was a class, this would be required viewing.


(you knew there would be a "but")

I feel like watching these comedians riff on the many vulgar variations of the joke, I was really watching the end of an era. If "the Aristocrats" was the secret handshake of comics, the secret club just went public. And while I appreciate the chance to see giants like Carlin improvise on the most infamous shaggy dog joke around, I feel like the genius of what I saw is wasted on a non-comedy audience. A lot of people just won't get it. There's just something that separates comics' senses of humors from everyone else...and this joke personifies that. Not that non-comics can't appreciate or enjoy this documentary. But some things you either get or you don't. There's a reason comics entertain themselves with this bit when the audience has gone home; there's a reason they call it "playing to the back of the room."

It's the ultimate inside bit - passed down from generation to generation since the early days of vaudeville. Until now.

I can't help but feel that in just a few short months, open mikers around the country will start running "Aristocrats"-themed shows, trying hard to out-gross one another and completely missing the point.

Anyone can go blue. The magic isn't in the joke itself or even the dirty acts described. The magic is in who told the joke. The magic is in how it was told by master craftsmen (& craftswomen). Imagine hearing Johnny Carson regaling comics with inspired obscenities, spewing forth from his reserved mouth. Imagine Mike O'Donoghue waxing poetic for 1/2 an hour on the finer points of forbidden carnal pleasures. THAT's the magic of hearing the Aristocrats. Yet, now every open miker who can use Fandago can string together a few scatalogical references and suddenly, they think they're in the club and have the creds to tell their version of the joke.

They're not in the club. I'm not in the club. Most of us aren't in the club. But now everyone thinks they know how to get in.

Let me set ya straight: if the first time you heard about The Aristocrats was from hearing about this movie, you're not ready to tell your version of it.

Not that I'm an expert. But I do remember when I first heard about the mythical fella with the dirtiest family act in town.

I first heard it from the late great Jay Ginsberg, back in my child actor days at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. My personal patron saint of comedy, Jay set me on the path to ruin at a very young age, infecting my young impressionable mind with all sorts of archaic comedy bits and always reminding me that once I hit puberty and the cuteness wore off, my acting career was all over. Hm. I guess he was also my own personal oracle...but I digress. Jay's another tale for another time.

So, here I am, a young child actor (around Bar Mitzvah age) and I'm doing my third or fourth show with Jay, Enemy of the People at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. In one of the early scenes, a bunch of us are in the background sitting around the table and at some point, we all laugh. It became a running gag that I would (very quietly) tell a stupid joke right before the scripted laugh. Of course, I very quickly ran out of jokes to tell. So, I immediately went to the source of all things funny: Jay. And, every night, he would provide me with some raunchy or off-color little jokes with which I could softly regale my fellow actors.

Then, one night, while we're all sitting downstairs in the green room, I make my nightly request for a joke. Jay throws one or two clunkers at me and at this point, I'm being picky. After I reject a dirty little joke about two nuns on a bike, Jay looks at me with affectionate annoyance and a devilish gleam, as if to say, "who the hell does this kid think he is?" In fact, he may have actually said that. In any event, he takes a deep breath and slowly begins:

"A man walks into a talent agency..."

I can still hear him chuckling at the end of that opening sentence. Some of the actors already had a clue what he was doing and began giggling before he even got to the family's entrance. Others, who had never heard of the existence of the joke, doubled over with laughter at the dirty deeds described, shaking their heads incredulously at Jay's hilariously graphic descriptions and impeccable delivery. Me...I, uh, I ...I mean, it was cool...I was laughing and I knew I was hearing something unique...but the punchline? I didn't get it. I didn't get that I had just unwittingly learned comedy's dirtiest little secret.

"...and what do you call you this act?"

I can still see Jay sitting there, smiling broadly as he thrusts his arms outward in a "taaa-daaa" tableau:

"The Aristocrats!"

I smiled, knowing that he had just thrown the big guns at me to shock my little system. "I think I'll go with the joke about the nuns."

I didn't realize it at the time, but he had just rocked my world. I think I pestered him throughout the rest of the run to figure out what that "Aristocrats" joke was all about and why it should be funny. He explained that it was an old vaudeville joke and that I was just too young to understand. I was too young to understand.

I get it now. And I can't believe how lucky I am to have at least heard a (probably tame) variation of the joke by someone like Jay.

And now here I am, more than a decade later, working my way up the comedy ranks ... in no small part thanks to Jay's unrelenting torment and inspiration. And I know, somewhere behind the Pearly Gates, in the back of the room in the back of a lounge of a smokey club, the likes of Lenny Bruce and Sam Kinnison are howling with laughter. And there, 'neath a dim spotlight 'gainst a brick wall, stands Jay, smiling broadly with his arms outstretched in a "taaa-daaa" tableau, exclaiming:

"The Aristocrats!"