Gag reflex 

The legendary joke called "The Aristocrats" can be the most vile, offensive gag on earth -- if told properly. In the documentary The Aristocrats, co-producers Paul Provenza (who directs) and Penn Jillette give stand-up comedy a kind of cultural colonoscopy to reveal the joke's profane influence.

First, it's not a very good joke. As told, in whole or part, by dozens of comedians in the film, the joke essentially consists of a description of a bizarre vaudeville act, followed by a perversely anticlimactic punchline. Explaining the history of the joke, The Aristocrats' interviewees call it a comedy club "secret handshake," not meant to be told to an audience, but to other comics after hours. Its appeal lies in the joke's malleability. Comedians freely incorporate into it their own flights of filthy fancy, which can involve everything from incest to defecation to donkeys to kazoos to Hitler.

The film shines a spotlight on the id of its teller. Via a single joke, it explores the competitive one-upsmanship of comedians, their love-hate relationship to showbiz and some unnerving obsessions. Steven Wright's take on it hinges on violent misogyny, while Andy Richter tells a queasily graphic version to his infant son. With today's tolerance for toilet and sex humor higher than the joke's vaudeville-era origins, the shock value may be obsolete: Lisa Lampanelli's ridiculous, racist version breaks far more taboos.

The Aristocrats takes a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of entertainment, but it isn't always the laugh riot you might expect. The filmmakers rely on attention-deficit editing and overlapping interviews until some jokesters' verbal rhythms are trashed. Comedians venerate Gilbert Gottfried's rollicking performance from the post-9/11 Friar's Club Roast, but The Aristocrats interrupts him -- shame! -- to air sound-bytes about how great he was.

The Aristocrats' biggest laughs -- and it has huge ones -- come not from the joke itself, but the commentary that surrounds the joke. Gottfried and Rita Rudner pick apart the joke's lack of logic. Bob Saget makes embarrassed asides while cracking a particularly nasty version. Sarah Silverman improvises herself into a modern-day "epilogue" to the joke. With its hemorrhoids-and-all close-up of one of showbiz's dirty little secrets, The Aristocrats becomes a rhapsody in blue humor. Opens Aug. 12 at Tara Cinema. 3 Stars.

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  • Re: Fresh air

    • Local band Manchester Orchestra, who provided the soundtrack, probably would have appreciated a shout-out.

    • on June 29, 2016
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