Jun 03

…and it all goes downhill from there. I just watched “The Aristocrats“, a documentary film about a joke called, as luck would have it, the aristocrats. The joke goes right back to the days of vaudeville and is considered to be the “inside joke” that comedians tell other comedians. Now, depending on your sense of humour and any set of beliefs that you might hold, you might find the subject matter the joke addresses to be either hilarious, incredibly offensive or somewhere in between (personally, I tend towards the “that’s hilarious” end of the spectrum, but that’s just me). I won’t go into the joke itself here (I leave it up to you to do your own research on this one, so don’t say I haven’t given you fair warning!) but I would like to take a moment to talk about what the film got me thinking about.

The documentary was interesting in a lot of ways, but to me the fascination was in the structure of the joke itself and seeing so many different comedians (all with their own styles) adapt the joke and tell it in their own way. It was all in the performance: the joke only really required the performer to open with some variation on “A man walks into a talent agent’s office…” and end with “The Aristocrats!” and everything else was subject to the comedian’s own tastes.

Penn Jillette, talking at one point about his take on the gag, said that the joy of telling the aristocrats was in “…the singer and not the song”. As I watched the film and heard version after version of the joke, I began to see what he meant. Sometimes I would laugh at one version, but not at another. Sometimes the slightest thing could change how the punchline worked, or didn’t – the raise of an eyebrow, a sentence that was just a half syllable too long or a pause that lasted just the right amount of time and no more – I came to see that so much of the telling of the joke had nothing to do with the words used at all. An accent could swing it one way or another. The rhythm of the speech employed (Gilbert Gottfried’s version was a good example of one that worked for me, while Emo Philips just left me flat). The physical gestures (like Drew Carey’s click of the fingers at the end of his version). The pauses. The delivery. The point of view the comedian adopted while telling the joke, and the perspective that placed on the audience (Sarah Silverman was a good example of this, making her version of the joke autobiographical and placing herself in the story). It made me realise that a joke – like all human communication – is actually a very complex operation and that sometimes the slightest thing can mean the difference between a laugh at the punchline and a quiet audience, the difference between successfully getting your message across and failing utterly. The interesting part for me wasn’t in how shocking the joke could be (though that held an great deal of interest, and amusement, all of its own as I watched it) but the whole structure of the delivery and the part the language played in holding the audience in the palm of the artist’s hand right until the punchline.

It’s often said that the world is formed by the words we use. The pen is mightier than the sword, and all that. What the film got me thinking about is just how much delivery of what is said, and also what is not said, play a part in that process. That made the documentary go from just interesting and amusing to genuinely intriguing. I might just be small fry in the blogging world, and I’m fine with being that one single voice in a million strong chorus, but it enthrals me that the chorus has so many different ways to sing.

2 Responses to “A man walks into a talent agent’s office…”

  1. RC Says:

    i think the joke is kind of funny, but i don’t think i’d at all want to sit through so much heavy handed offensive joke telling.

    –RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

  2. Otis Says:

    Great review. It’s funny how some people can tell the exact same joke and get totally different reactions. Some people are storytellers and some just plain suck.

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