Penn Jillette, the bigger, louder half of the magician duo Penn & Teller, has built a career on not taking his profession too seriously—in flagrant opposition to the magician's code, Penn & Teller's act is often about revealing how the trick is performed. Teamed with co-director Paul Provenza, Jillette applies a similar philosophy to comedy.
Conventional wisdom says that funny can't be taught and that if you have to explain a joke, it isn't funny, but Provenza and Jillette's film The Aristocrats is a master class in comedy that chooses as its fulcrum the comedy culture's most enduring inside joke, a filthy dirty gag with the punchline "The Aristocrats." Infamously the basis of an insiders' party game, "The Aristocrats" is a jazz piece that proves, as Jillette puts it, "It's the singer, not the song."
Over 100 top comedians appear to comment on the joke and, in many cases, tell their own variation. Generally, the more fecal matter, vomit, incest, and perversion, the better. George Carlin is the film's nutty professor, deconstructing the joke he calls "a show-offy kind-of inside thing" and offering his own puckish version. Paul Reiser delivers an expert take, and Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Saget, and Carrie Fisher offer notably disgusting variations. (A mime version proves more funny in concept than execution.)
Some of the comedians appear to be afraid of stacking their version against everyone else (some admit it), while others cleverly offer different dirty jokes that might be considered cousins to "The Aristocrats." There's a friendly argument over which punchline is funnier: "The Aristocrats" or the variant "The Sophisticates." Sarah Silverman demonstrates the smart way of standing out in a crowd telling the same joke: take the joke apart and reconstruct it in an inmitably unique manner (with Silverman, the joke becomes a sick video confessional: a dawning realization of personal abuse).
Part of the fun is tracing humor from vaudeville to South Park. There's a spectrum here of "working blue," but the fundamentals never change. Comedy manifests through wordplay (Dana Gould scores by transposing "giddy shit-covered incest" with literature) and character (from Tim Conway's elderly vaudevillian bit to Stephen Wright's droning persona), whether is deceptively avuncular (Fred Willard, Kevin Nealon) or aggressively designed to take the audience off-guard (Pat Cooper, Don Rickles).
The point is clear: the heart of comedy is the distinct "voice" of the comic, and knowledge of timing and construction that becomes ingrained. With practice, comic rhythms can be imitated by dullards, but only a true comedian understands how to create humor by separating the comic wheat from the unfunny chaff.
For aspiring comedians, The Aristocrats will become a new shrine to worship and inspire. Tourists can come to have their spirits refreshed with laughter, but if they're paying attention, they should also be moved by the social role of the comedian. The recounting of Gilbert Gottfried's version at a Friar's Roast just after 9/11 reminds us that irony will never be dead. It's the role of comedy to test our assumptions and our boundaries of comfort with daring freedom.