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The Worst Joke Ever.

You see there’s this cat burglar who can’t see in the dark…” No, not that oneThe Aristocrats, which I heard told several times over in the first leg of my Labor Day movie marathon. By now, you’ve probably heard the setup for both the documentary and the joke…but, just in case, a gaggle of famous comedians tell their respective versions of a crusty and filthy old vaudeville yarn involving a “family act” audition in an agent’s office. The name of the act, as the punch-line tells us, is “the Aristocrats” (or occasionally “the Sophisticates” or “the Debonairs.”) The act itself varies in the telling, but generally includes lots of micturition, bowel-loosening, vomiting, sodomy, incest, bestiality, and sundry other vile depradations you usually can only see on cable TV. And the funniness of the joke depends a good deal on the talents and twisted imagination of the teller. All in all, I’d say the movie is funnier than the joke and worth catching (if you’re not easily offended), but it’s nothing you need to rush out and see in the theater.

In all honesty, be it due to exposure to Deadwood, Grand Theft Auto, or the school bus, I found most iterations of the joke less transgressive than they were just repetitive. While some comedians bomb with the joke (Taylor Negron, Lisa Lampanelli, David Brenner, and Emo Phillips, to whom the years have not been kind), others seem to have never heard it (Chris Rock, Eddie Izzard), and still others hedge their bets (Paul Reiser, Drew Carey), I’d say up to 85% or so of the tellers just seem content to swim around in the same sex-and-defecating pool like demented eighth graders afflicted with the giggles. Sick-and-twisted-funny, sure, but not over and over again (which is why the movie wisely begins throwing in a mime version, two magic versions, and other more idiosyncratic iterations after awhile.)

Still, some comedians do shine with the material. George Carlin and Bill Maher in particular offer sound insights into the joke’s past and present. (As Maher and Lewis Black note, the Aristocrats stand in increasing danger of being overtaken by Reality TV.) Martin Mull, Carrie Fisher, “Christopher Walken,” and Sarah Silverman deserves points for telling roundabout or slightly off-kilter versions of the same sordid story. And Bob Saget gets a gold star for performing a bizarre career self-immolation and running with easily one of the most inventive and disgusting versions of the joke…no more America’s Funniest Home Videos, for him, I’d wager. (Jason Alexander’s isn’t bad, either.)

Much is made of a cathartic public telling of the joke by Gilbert Gottfried soon after 9/11, but, frankly, it doesn’t come across. In fact, in a way that version belies the problem I had with most tellings of the joke. By avoiding the 9/11 tragedy to focus on ungodly shagging and bodily fluids, Gottfried wasn’t being transgressive — he was playing it safe (and, to his credit, uniting the comic world with a joke they all shared, which was more likely his intention.) Still, Jeffrey Ross’ riposte to Rob Schneider that night — “Hasn’t there been enough bombing in this city?” — seems closer to the anarchic, tasteless, subversive, and shocking spirit the Aristocrats needs to be anything more than an endless litany of fart jokes. Different strokes for different folks, I know. But, given that I was watching the film while the Aristocrats in office bumbled their way through the tragedy of errors that was Katrina, I just found myself thinking that, in today’s dark times, the strictly vulgarian canoodling of most versions of the joke seemed, well, quaint, out-dated, and devoid of edge…in some ways, even tame, or as tame as a joke involved incest, bestiality, and sodomy can be. (For their part, the masterminds behind The Onion are, I think, the only comedians to broach politics in the film.)

Not to miss the forest for the trees, though, I wasn’t really brooding on this during the film so much as laughing at every third or fourth version of the joke…which, if you think about it, isn’t all that bad a hit rate. So, check out The Aristocrats on cable if you don’t mind the dirty-talk…but, please, don’t try this at home.

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