MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

"The Aristocrats" is a new documentary about what is said to be the dirtiest joke ever told. The joke dates back to the vaudeville era. It's a favorite of professional comedians, but one that's rarely told in public. The film was made by comedians Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza, and it stars some of the biggest names in comedy. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, "The Aristocrats" takes a rare and, yes, funny look at the sometimes dark behind-the-scenes world of comedy.

ELIZABETH BLAIR reporting:

Shocking, grotesque, sexually explicit, this joke and this documentary are not for everyone. And Penn Jillette, the tall half of Penn & Teller, seems almost proud of it.

Mr. PENN JILLETTE (Comedian): What we're trying to tell people about this movie is, you know, `You're welcome to come, but you know, there's going to be some obscenity.' And if a word has ever offended you, you know, maybe you better stay away because that's what we're going to be playing with. We're playing with words, and we're playing with all the words. We're not just choosing the special dictionary that the FCC picked.

BLAIR: Of course, we can't air a lot of those words on public radio, but we can give you an idea of just how dirty they are. Here's comedian and sitcom star Paul Reiser.

(Soundbite of "The Aristocrats")

Mr. PAUL REISER (Comedian): So the way I heard it was--it was always a very sweet beginning, that is what killed me, the sweetness of the guy who walks in, knocks on this very talented talent agency, and says, `Hi. We have an act. I was wondering if I could have just a moment of your time. We'll'--`Go ahead. You have one minute. Tell me about your act.' He says, `Well, it's a very different act. It's a bit of novelty. It's myself, my wife and my kids. First, I come out. I'm in a tuxedo; my wife is in a gown. We take a bow, the music starts, we do a little dance. My wife lifts her skirt, I start (censored) my wife. She starts (censored) me. My son comes in. He drops his drawers, now he's (censored). I have a daughter, she's 15, she comes in. It's a beautiful thing. When the music comes to a big finish, we all (censored). My wife is singing, and then we all drop our drawers and (censored) down the stage.' The guy says, `Well, it's a hell of an act. What do you call yourselves?' He says, `The Aristocrats.'

BLAIR: And that's one of the tamer versions. Others may be offended by the punch line, which isn't really funny. As one of the comics puts it in the film, the joke's (censored), but we'll get to that later. To make "The Aristocrats," comedians Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza spent four and a half years filming their friends telling the joke. The obscenity-spewing comics include George Carlin, Judy Gold, Jason Alexander, even Bob Saget from the family friendly sitcom "Full House."

(Soundbite of "The Aristocrats")

Mr. BOB SAGET (Comedian): I'm just following my inner voice, you know, my inner, immature, dumb-boy child.

BLAIR: There's also a mime and the kids from "South Park" telling the joke. The extremely graphic language might seem gratuitous, but over the course of the film, it becomes clear that in taking on the same joke, comics are allowed to show off their own individual style. In other words, says Penn Jillette, comedians improvise, much like jazz musicians.

Mr. JILLETTE: Five years ago when we started this, I was starting to become obsessed with jazz, specifically bebop jazz--you know, Miles Davis, Coltrane--and thinking about what improvisation means. And because Provenza and I have lived our lives in comedy, I was talking to Provenza about the difference between a kind of chaining links--you know, little hunks of stuff strung together that you've already done--and true improvisation and how that's used in both music and comedy. And then I was talking about how you hear jazz musicians blow over the same changes, do solos over the same tunes; it is the singer and not the song.

BLAIR: And when jazz musicians play for each other, they're likely to make music a general audience might not appreciate. Comics are no different, says Paul Provenza, a lifelong friend of Jillette's.

Mr. PAUL PROVENZA (Comedian): Professionally, comedians always have to deal with issues of taste and audience response and how audiences perceive them and their image and what they're saying and what have you. And this joke, backstage amongst other comedians, is really a chance to not care about those things. It's a chance to roll around in the mud, a chance to finger paint and not care about getting paint on the walls or the floor or the carpet. And that's liberating and it's free and it's a beautiful creative exercise.

BLAIR: Those who don't have a problem with the language will find "The Aristocrats" moves at a vigorous pace, with energetic editing and amusing montages of comics reflecting on this joke's peculiar appeal. Here's George Carlin, HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht, Richard Lewis, Robin Williams and Pat Cooper.

(Soundbite of "The Aristocrats")

Mr. GEORGE CARLIN (Comedian): It's a blank slate, and you get to play. You get to play.

Mr. CHRIS ALBRECHT (Chairman, HBO): How screwed up, how many new things could you think of to make this group of people truly bizarre?

Mr. RICHARD LEWIS (Comedian): Whether it's a shuffleboard, with a nice animal's behind or whether the people are swimming in manure.

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Comedian): A young girl comes on stage singing "Nearer My God to Thee" while juggling torches.

Mr. PAT COOPER (Comedian): These are my two children. They pass gas to the tune of "What A Wonderful World" in unison.

BLAIR: This joke `plays with people's danger zones,' as George Carlin puts it in the film, and with comedians, there are none.

Mr. STEPHEN ROSENFIELD (Director, American Comedy Institute): Comics are people who speak the unspeakable. That's part of what comedy is about.

BLAIR: Stephen Rosenfield is director of the American Comedy Institute, a school for performers and writers of comedy in New York. Rosenfield's been teaching stand-up for 15 years and studying comedy ever longer. When I first spoke with him about "The Aristocrats," he was skeptical, even though he hadn't yet seen it. He assumed the film would show how many of today's comics resort to extreme profanity because they lack imagination. But then he saw it.

Mr. ROSENFIELD: You know, it's a great way to see the different styles of the different comedians because they tell it so differently, from the, you know, most gross telling of it to the Smothers Brothers.

(Soundbite of "The Aristocrats")

Mr. TOM SMOTHERS (Comedian): So the William Morris office wants to work with this act. It's a family act.

Mr. DICK SMOTHERS (Comedian): That sounds like it'd go with the Smothers Brothers, a family opening act.

Mr. T. SMOTHERS: Yeah.

Mr. D. SMOTHERS: What do they do?

Mr. T. SMOTHERS: They do some juggling.

Mr. D. SMOTHERS: It's a juggling act?

Mr. T. SMOTHERS: A juggling thing. And then the father drops one of the clubs and asks his son to pick it up. He says, `Dad'--just knees him right in the (censored). The mother...

Mr. D. SMOTHERS: You're putting me on, aren't you?

Mr. T. SMOTHERS: No, no, no, no.

Mr. D. SMOTHERS: Just the...

Mr. T. SMOTHERS: And then the mother...

BLAIR: Rosenfield says, yes, comics improvise, but that doesn't mean good comedy is entirely spontaneous. The point of this joke is to see how many different ways you can tell it; inside-out, backwards, with a deck of cards or even with a different ending. Rosenfield points to this discussion in the documentary over which word makes the best punch line.

(Soundbite of "The Aristocrats")

Mr. REISER: It almost sounds quaint, that you can put a cute cap on something that rancid, that it's just as ugly as you can be, and it's like, The Aristocrats.

Unidentified Man #1: Now I have heard the twist of calling them The Sophisticates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REISER: That also worked. Actually, maybe even a little better.

Mr. CARLIN: Maybe a little better, even. That's nice, The Sophisticates.

Unidentified Man #2: An English one, apparently, is Debonairs, but that doesn't really grab me.

Unidentified Man #3: When I had the--it was The Debonairs, which I think is even funnier. It has its own je ne sais quoi.

Unidentified Man #4: The Debonairs are not the...

Unidentified Man #5: The Aristocrats is pretty funny, the more you think about it!

BLAIR: Rosenfield says this is comic minds at work.

Mr. ROSENFIELD: This notion that brevity is the soul of wit is true, and good comedy is very sparse in terms of language and the use of words and every word is very carefully calibrated. The idea that it's sort of spontaneous and that these people are funny, you know, just off the top of their heads--well, of course they are, but their work, their acts, really are a reflection of a tremendous amount of craft.

BLAIR: And that's what Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza wanted to convey with their new film. "The Aristocrats" won't be this summer's family blockbuster; at least one large theater chain won't be showing it. In the end, they've made a movie that looks at comedy's dark underbelly, something they've been doing their whole lives.

Mr. JILLETTE: In high school, Provenza and I were sitting at the cafeteria tables making jokes, and there was one guy over at the principal going, `Aren't they getting a little loud? They use swear words.' I got thrown out of school in high school; I loved it. I'm getting thrown out of school now; I still love it. And my defense then was the same as Paul Provenza's defense right now, which is...

Mr. PROVENZA: It's just a joke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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