Unless you're on the stand up circuit, chances are you won't have heard the one about the agent and the vaudeville act... Not because it's a new gag – in fact it dates back to the early twentieth century – but because the pros deemed it too filthy for public consumption. It was an insiders' joke, something to be passed on and savoured between the cognoscenti after hours, off-stage. Like the old jazz cutting contests when Charlie Parker would pick up his sax in the small hours and show Lester Young what he'd got, this was a joke malleable enough for the young guns to take it on and make it their own, improvising new outrages and infelicities as inspiration struck them. If you could deliver this gag, then you were a man my friend.
Well, if you've never heard it before you'll know the joke inside out before The Aristocrats is over. A documentary by Paul Provenza, this has a cast list which reads like a who's who of American comedy… Try this lot on for size: Jason Alexander, Drew Carey, George Carlin (hilarious!), Billy Connolly, Andy Dick, Phyllis Diller, Carrie Fisher, Whoopi Goldberg, Gilbert Gottfired, Eric Idle, Eddie Izzard (oh, dear), Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Howie Mandel, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Emo Philips, Kevin Pollak, Paul Reiser, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, Rita Rudner, Harry Shearer, Sarah Silverman, The Smothers Brothers, Jon Stewart, Dave Thomas, Fred Willard, Robin Williams, Steven Wright... and they're all telling the same joke.
Does it get repetitive? Well, it certainly flirts with deja vu, but you learn a lot about the art of comedy (it really is in the telling), the nature of taboo, and the personalities of these stars. The movie won't play as well in Britain where some of the performers are less well known. On the other hand it will likely introduce you to some funnymen and women you might like to know better.
It goes without saying that a broad mind is required – one cinema chain in the US refused to show the film, and when I saw the movie at Sundance one female critic lectured me at length about how sickeningly puerile it was, and how she despised the predominantly male audience who had laughed all the way through it. I had to 'fess up that I was one of them (heck, even the mime made me giggle), but I could point to several women who laughed along with me. And the joke? Sorry, you'll have to see it for yourself...