The Aristocrats is a documentary about a joke that goes like this: a guy walks into a talent agent's office and says, "I have a great act for you—

(Oh, yeah, I guess in this joke we're pretending that vaudeville hasn't been extinct for close to a century.)

A guy walks into a talent agent's office and says, "I have a great act for you: I bring my family out on stage and we perform various scatological and/or incestuous acts." The agent says, "Good heavens, what do you call yourselves?" The guy says, "The Aristocrats!"

In this movie, approximately eight hundred comedians discuss this joke and many perform their versions of it. None of them are funny, though with a few exceptions the comedians find the joke hilarious. All admit that it's not because of the punchline, the comedic value of which is negligible and which is based entirely on the fact that "The Aristocrats" is an inappropriate label for a lowbrow vaudeville act. What the comedians like about the joke is the improvisation it allows in the description of the act. They frequently compare it to jazz.

My eleventh-grade English teacher really liked jazz. He would sometimes take a day off from teaching us about Othello or whatever and put on some jazz records. At other times he would put on comedy records; George Carlin was one of his favorites, and Carlin gets a lot of screen time in The Aristocrats. But Mr. Sawaya (for that was his name) also taught us a lot of stuff, and the very first thing he taught us on the first day of school was the difference between intrinsic and instrumental value. The setup to a joke is supposed to have instrumental value: it creates the background that makes the punchline funny. But the eight hundred comedians in The Aristocrats treat the setup of the joke as if it has intrinsic value — that listening to the teller's wild improvisations is where the enjoyment lies. They talk about how the great thing about the joke is the can-you-top-this aspect of it. Now, breaking the bounds of good taste has a place in comedy. I remember laughing at a Norm Macdonald joke that went something like, "A new hangover-free vodka is about to hit the market. The ads claim that the 80-proof vodka is so pure, it's virtually headache-free. But before you run out and buy it, there is one small side effect: massive anal bleeding." But that's a punchline, not a half-hour setup. It's funny because it comes out of nowhere. It's not the world's greatest joke even so. But it beats the aristocrats joke, whose sole reason for existence is to give comedians the opportunity to spin an elaborate tale of shit-eating and dog-fucking.

You can try to make a case that the comedy of the aristocrats joke lies in the inappropriateness of someone talking at length about such things. But I think at this point stand-up comics would have to top the list of people from whom an obscene story would be least unexpected. Nah, the movie makes pretty clear that the majority of the eight hundred comedians simply take glee in wallowing in coprophilia and bestiality. They talk a lot about how wonderfully transgressive it is. And that, to me, is the fundamental disconnect between me and them. I do not delight in breaking rules. That doesn't mean that I automatically respect every law of the land in which I find myself; I must confess that I repeatedly committed crimes against chastity in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when I lived there, and it didn't particularly bother me to do so. But the fact that I was breaking the law didn't add to the fun, and I follow the rules I believe in even when they're trivial. I believe in traffic laws, for instance, so I wait at DON'T WALK signs even when there are no cars coming. Part of the reason I cannot stand to be around alcohol is that when I first started to encounter it, back in college, it was part of a web of illegal activity: not just the underage drinking itself, but the fake IDs and broken dorm rules that invariably went along with it, and I want no part of any of that. In short, I am basically of Lawful alignment. The Aristocrats is a movie for Chaotic audiences. I turned it off after forty minutes.

It was briefly interesting to note that various comedians were fixated on different transgressions: George Carlin was all about intricate descriptions of the composition of diarrhea, whereas Paul Reiser spent his rendition going on and on about various permutations of incest. And speaking of the various permutations of incest, the first book I checked out of the Berkeley Public Library is chiefly concerned with that very topic. That book is Watch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket. Lemony was kind enough to write a very nice blurb for my own book back in the day, so I bought his book The Basic Eight. Unfortunately, I didn't like it — it was trying so hard to be clever with all its cutesy meta jokes that after a while it actually made me a little angry. And while I hate to say it, because I feel indebted to the guy, Watch Your Mouth is even worse. The narrator begins by describing the book as an opera, and this turns out not to be a throwaway metaphor. You get a piece of dialogue and then "Foreboding from quivering violas." Scenes begin with phrases like "A simple chord from the oboes spotlights me" and end with ones like "shuddering so completely that the orchestra has to extend its budget and hire some additional percussionists just for these ten measures or so." This starts off annoying, quickly becomes unbearable and eventually feels like the book is kicking you in the head.

The opera thing, plus the fact that the characters didn't feel like people, plus all the cutesy meta stuff, contributed to me bailing out at page 111. I knew I wouldn't be finishing the book when I started to encounter passages that reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading: sentences and paragraphs that parsed quite well, all the nouns and verbs in their proper places, but which didn't add up to anything. The professor who assigned this book seemed to think it was marvelous that this supposed narration didn't equate to anything the reader could imagine — ah, true fantasy! — but it is this sort of thing that turns me into a literary reactionary. Because, yes, when they are done well, I do like gimmicks such as skipping around in time and the occasional acknowledgment that the text in question is a wrought object and stuff; I use them myself. But books like Watch Your Mouth leave me thinking, "Stop it! Stop it! Just tell the story! Start at the beginning, say in a straightforward manner what happened, and then say in a straightforward manner what happened after that, and then say in a straightforward manner what happened after that, and if the story isn't very compelling that way, then tell another story instead!"

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