We were about twenty minutes into the screening of "The Aristocrats" when I realized something was wrong with me. My fellow critics were falling out of their seats, doubled over with hysterical laughter. But I was scribbling notes on the back of my press kit, trying to remember the quote: "Obscenity is the last refuge of...." Of whom? For the life of me, I couldn't remember, perhaps because onscreen, George Carlin just detailed the consistency of his stool, a routine which sent the room into spastic guffaws. Yes, patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrelbut obscenity? The answer, just out of reach, wouldn't come to me. There was an hour of movie left, and I hadn't chuckled once. Was my funny bone terminally fractured?
In case you missed the hype, here's the setup: filmmakers Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette ask their friendsjust about anybody who's anybody in the world of comedyto tell their version of a classic insider joke that's so filthy that for decades, it has been kept backstage. The joke itself isn't particularly funny (the film's title is the punch line) but its structure is unique. There's a middle section that allows for improvisation, and comics have used it as an invitation for wild flights of obscene fancy.
The movie's tagline is right: there's no nudity, there's no violence, but "The Aristocrats" is full of vulgarity. The jokes begin with sex and all the associated four letter words, and then quickly move on to incest, bestiality, and scatological excesses that could have made the Marquis de Sade blush. The filth has already prompted the AMC chain of theaters to refuse showing the movie--which of course has done nothing but stoke the anticipation. So why did this verbal orgy of pornographic excess, abused sons and daughters, raped dogs, vats of urine, and grandmothers subjected to necrophilia leave me cold while the screening room around me exploded with hilarity? Then I remembered: "Obscenity," the saying went, "is the last refuge of the inarticulate motherf**ker."