Sometimes a joke, even a bad one, takes on a life of its own. Such a joke becomes the subject of the 90-minute The Aristocrats, a hilarious documentary from Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza. About 100 comedians from the edgy George Carlin to the jittery Billy Connolly to the veteran Eric Idle to the regal Phyllis Diller all offer either their thoughts or their own versions of this old joke.
To be honest, the joke in and of itself isn’t that funny; the humor is in the telling and the style of the teller. Where and how far will they take it? How vulgar and raunchy will it be? That far, and even farther. The documentary lightly touches on a few themes, such as the expectations of women and humor, the expectations of race and humor (with Chris Rock as the only African American comedian represented), the variations on the joke, the reactions to the joke, and the joke’s insider status.
Dick Smothers, who didn’t know the joke, reacts the same way many of us would — just not quite getting it. Gilbert Gottfried’s telling of it at Hugh Hefner’s roast, however, really demonstrates the power of the joke among the comedy community. Many of the other retellings will depend on how much you like that particular comedian’s delivery style — I got a laugh out of Steven Wright’s version but his deadpan delivery isn’t for everyone.
I do have one question, though: Why was Steven Banks, doing his joke version as Billy the Mime, wearing a lavier mike?
And for those of you who have heard about Bob Saget’s version… Let’s just say he saw a “window of opportunity.”