A Joke Too Blue to Repeat, and the Movie That Dares to Tell It, Repeatedly

I've wondered how exactly the movie, the Artistocrats, was going to be marketed. Apparently, very gingerly. If, after reading this piece in today's NYTs, you are curious about the hub-bub, I wrote up a little about the Aristocrats, here.

A Joke Too Blue to Repeat, and the Movie That Dares to Tell It, Repeatedly:
The documentary “The Aristocrats” has tons of top comics. But how do you sell a movie about the dirtiest joke ever told?
... “There is no violence or hostility of any kind” in “The Aristocrats,” explained Penn Jillette, an executive producer of the film, who is better known as half of the magic act Penn and Teller. “We want to say: 'We have 150 really funny human beings in the back of a room making each other laugh, but they're going to be swearing, and if you don't want to hear swearing, you better not come in.' ” Mr. Jillette; the comedian Paul Provenza, who directed; and the distributor, Think Film, have decided to release “The Aristocrats” at the end of July without any rating, a decision that will probably make the film even more difficult to sell, since some moviegoers may be wary of an unrated film.

But they preferred that option to releasing “The Aristocrats” with an NC-17 rating, which is what the producers figure it would get if submitted to the ratings board - a voluntary step for distributors like Think that are not attached to one of the seven major studios. NC-17 ratings are almost always reserved for films with explicit sexual images. Yet “The Aristocrats” features nothing more than talking heads.

Still, the “funny human beings” in the film - famous comedians from Robin Williams to Chris Rock to Phyllis Diller to Jon Stewart - are not merely swearing, as Mr. Jillette said. They're telling their versions of a joke that involves every imaginable form of sexual perversion in graphic detail, including but not limited to incest, scatology, bestiality and sadism. Rabelais would blush.
So what's the joke? Basically, it's this: a guy walks into a talent agent's office and says he has a terrific family act. The act, the guy explains, involves a husband who comes out onstage with his wife and two kids.

What follows is the part that can't be told in this publication, or most others, but it's the point at which each comedian in the film cuts loose in a can-you-top-this exercise in pornographic oratory. Cut to the kicker where the talent agent asks, What's the name of the act? The answer comes: the Aristocrats.

The point of the joke, and the film, may be freedom of expression, or self-censorship, or what happens among professional comedians behind closed doors. But for practical purposes, the joke is so absurdly obscene that the viewer is shocked into hilarity, or deep offense. Or possibly both. The conundrum for those marketing the film is encapsulated in its tagline: “No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity.”

“We're not selling sex, we're selling comedy,” Mark Urman, head of theatrical distribution for Think Film, said of the decision to release the film unrated. “To give it the same rating as films that have completely disrobed bodies writhing and throbbing is misleading and could turn off a lot of people who have no problem with language, who hear it and use it all the time.”

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on June 23, 2005 11:32 AM.

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