It's a hook as nearly irresistible as "Garbo speaks" (or "Garbo laughs") or the hush-hush around a crucial plot appendage in The Crying Game.
The punch line of said filthy joke is the film's title, and given that there's nothing inherently funny about the words "the" and "aristocrats," it goes without saying that the joke is in the setup. However, viewers may find themselves scratching their heads the first time they hear it because it's not a particularly funny joke--a truth that is acknowledged by more than one of the dozens of renowned comics interviewed in The Aristocrats. Moreover, it's not even a joke that's told in public very often. As one pro says, in a trade that demands off-kilter personalities who play off their own particular tics with one-liners, only hacks and incompetents stand up on stage and tell "jokes."
The fabled gag at the center of The Aristocrats is really just a joke-book sort of joke that people ordinarily tell at office parties and bars. But professional comedians, we learn, prize this joke. It seems to be a guild requirement that every comic have his or her own version of it, even if only to amuse the musicians and other comics, which is most often the case.
One is left marveling that such a slim topic could be stretched out into a feature-length movie. But, if Nicholson Baker can turn a trip up an escalator into a novel called The Mezzanine, then one middling joke that inspires testimony from comics Chris Rock, Lewis Black, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Drew Carey, Whoopi Goldberg and many others could be a film well worth watching. And The Aristocrats is worth watching, but it might wear better in heavy rotation on cable television, whereby you can catch snippets during your normal channel surfing routine.
The best thing about The Aristocrats is that, by the sheer volume of stand-up stars on display, we appreciate the deep fraternity of these jesters. Comedy is a notoriously difficult business, with endless humiliating gigs in podunk bars for very little money. Loneliness and failure are always close at hand, and many comedy stars (and non-stars) have had serious personal problems along the way. It's even a little bit revelatory when the now healthy, rich and middle-aged Robin Williams off-handedly tells us that he first learned the joke "while doing blow with Richard Belzer."
But most of the comics we meet in The Aristocrats are quite successful and have a high old time demonstrating their versions and expounding on the joke's history and meaning. A few stars are conspicuously absent, such as Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno, Sandra Bernhard, David Letterman and Janeane Garofalo. But otherwise, it's a murderer's row of mostly white and Jewish comedy stars.
Part of the joke's appeal to these comics is that it speaks to their own showbiz aspirations and frustrations. All versions start something like this: "A man walked into a talent agent's office and said, 'Have I got an act for you.'" And before the joke is over, the listener will have heard every vile and taboo sex act the fearless comedian can improvise, which generally include incest, bestiality, anatomically improbable acrobatics and anal, vaginal, seminal and vascular excretions. George Carlin puts chunky diarrhea into his version (complete with undigested bits of corn and peanuts), while the very pregnant Judy Gold tells the story in the first person and includes her unborn infant in the joke. Wholesome television star Bob Saget has a dirty one, too, while the fetching Sarah Silverman (School of Rock) makes a very strong case for more screen exposure as she deadpans through her version while reclined sideways on a couch.
While everyone agrees that taboo jokes are liberating because they tap into our deepest fears and all that post-Lenny Bruce babble, the film's inspiration and piéce de résistance is an ironic refutation of such cheery tributes to the salubrious benefits of dirty jokes. Three weeks after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, Gilbert Gottfried brought down the house at a Friar's Club roast for Hugh Hefner by dusting off "The Aristocrats." But Gottfried only went back for this chestnut after bombing with attempts at airplane jokes. "Too soon!" the audience cried, clearly not ready to have their worst anxieties mocked.
Infuriatingly, the film botches Gottfried's rendering of the joke by constantly interrupting his rhythms and beats to cut to talking heads--including an earnest journalist--who tell us what an amazing job he's doing telling the joke. Elsewhere, the film's quick, TV-style editing suits the short attention span demanded by this material, but when it comes to showing Gottfried's celebrated rendition, we just want to see him deliver the damn thing uninterrupted and in its own context, which should also have included his failed 9/11 jokes earlier in the routine.
And now, for something completely different, is the new Italian comedy-drama Caterina in the Big City, a story of a country mouse who moves with her family to a posh life in Rome. As played by newcomer Alice Teghil, Caterina is little more than a wide-eyed cipher struggling to find her way through the hell-hole known in America as junior high. The Italian version of this penal institution seems to be absolutely identical.
Well, not quite identical, for Caterina isn't enrolled at just any old Roman school. It's the school where the children of prominent diplomats, poets and thinkers go. While most American schools are divided between jocks, geeks and their various subsets, this particular Italian school contains two main cliques: the young fascists and the young communists. The former are rich and well-dressed while the latter are rich and badly bathed. We're never told just how Caterina gained admission to this school--her family's finances seem to be quite modest. Nor is it quite clear why her class's battling bitches--hippie Margherita and Paris Hilton-esque Daniela--are both so keen to recruit Caterina to their entourages.
However, our lack of interest in nice-girl Caterina is probably a symptom of writer-director Paolo Virzi's real concerns. His film seems more fixated on evoking upper-class life in Rome--there are even a couple of shots that seem to be lifted from La Dolce Vita. Daniela's father is a right-wing minister who's only barely removed from the unrepentant fascists and gangsters who put him in power, while Margherita's bien pensant radical parents are contemptuous of the working classes they purport to defend.
Hovering over Caterina's social difficulties is her pathetically striving father Giancarlo, played by Italian mainstay Sergio Castellitto. Though a mere schoolteacher, Giancarlo is convinced of his worthiness for the upper literary and social stratum of Rome, but his character repeatedly makes a fool of himself in the film's funniest and most cringe-inducing scenes. However, the obtuseness of his character is so overdrawn--as is that of his clueless wife--that it's impossible for us to invest any real emotions into his plight.
The Italian-ness of Caterina in the Big City is its best selling point, but it's no match for The Best of Youth, the sprawling (if flawed) six-hour epic that played earlier this month. That film was a feast that lasted only slightly longer than a proper Italian feast. Caterina in the Big City, on the other hand, is a day-old biscotti from a good bakery.