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Saturday, May 05, 2007

 

'The Aristocrats' from a writing perspective

Okay, if you haven't seen the movie The Aristocrats, you may need a bit of catching up; if you have, you can skip this first paragraph. 'The Aristocrats' is a joke that apparently has been told for generations by comedians - but usually to each other, rather than on-stage. The basic structure is this: a man goes into a theatrical agent, and says, 'I've got a family act: my family and I come on stage, and...' at which point the comedian describes the most revolting and horrific things he can possibly think of, generally involving wallowing in excrement and deviant sex. The agent gapes and says, 'What do you call that act?', and the man says, 'The Aristocrats'.

Not a very funny joke, really, basically a shaggy dog story where you really do shag the dog. The movie actually gave me bizarre and disagreeable nightmares, but it's very interesting to watch different comedians give their different perspectives on this Roscharch blot of a joke. (Here's a link to one of the better performances, involving some fantastic prestidigitation with cards and a fairly classic telling of the joke itself. I wouldn't necessarily look at it at work, or if you're easily offended, but trust me, I still picked one of the nicer tellings.) More than that, though, there are some interesting points to consider from a writer's perspective.

Telling a joke is an act of improvised narration, and with a joke that can be told any number of different ways, you get to see different ideas about writing. When telling 'The Aristocrats', there seem to be two basic ways a comedian can go; they can go with the structure, or they can go with the content. That is, they can try to make it into a story - what's with this man? does he think the act is good? is he trying to scare the agent or impress him? why does the agent ask what this horrible act is called? - or they can focus on making the description of the act itself the funny bit - how can I make the act as gross and funny as possible? (There's a particular motivation to do that when the punchline is either known in advance or not very good, both of which are true of this joke.)

In the movie, for example, you can see two excellent comedians going in different directions: Whoopi Goldberg decided to make the act bizarre as well as disturbing and started telling a story about men doing tricks with their foreskins, and got so involved in doing the sound-effects and visual demonstrations that I'm not sure she actually bothered to deliver the punchline. Billy Connolly, on the other hand, started wondering why someone would ever consider this act in the first place, and invented a scenario where the act is actually a perfectly normal song-and-dance turn, but the agent embroidered it somewhat when pitching it to theatres - meaning he has to return to his client and explain the new plan, over cries of 'You said I'd do what with a donkey?!?' Goldberg is in for the duration, Connolly wants a plot. Which are two poles of storytelling between which every writer has to find his comfortable midpoint.

Picaresque or structured? You tell the joke and decide for yourself.

There's also the question of how interesting, artistically speaking, you find the act of transgression. For some people, though I'm not one of them so I'm describing this tendency from the outside, the act of breaking a taboo, shocking people, or otherwise transgressing the norms of the acceptable has a value in and of itself. Personally I see shock as a means of getting people's attention, and if you don't then say something worthwhile once you've got it then you've effectively yelled, 'Hey!' - and then when they turn and say, 'Yes? What', basically stared at them in silence, or possibly taken a bow and said 'Ta-da!'. (Come to think of it, I'm going to try that some time and see what happens.*)

This is partly temperamental, but I think it has an artistic aspect as well. The comedians who went for the really shocking renditions tended to be the ones who were less interested in structure; artistically, they had an aversion to order - not only did they like to disrupt it by shock, but they were less interested in creating it within their storytelling. Comedians who were interested in the punchline, on the other hand, tended to be less interested in making the act as shocking as possible - it only needed to be shocking enough that the punchline had a point. Which is to say, for some people, transgression is an end in itself, and for others, it's a means to an end. For some people, structure is a vital part of the story, and for others it matters less than the incidental content. Different people have different ideas about what the point of a joke is.

That shows up particularly well because 'The Aristocrats' is a pretty pointless joke. You have to create the point for yourself. It's notable, for instance, that despite the punchline, very few of the American comedians saw it as a joke about class. In the extras, on the other hand, a singing duo called 'The Royal Debonaires' do a decidedly English rendition (I've tried to find it online, but the closest I can get is an extract here, number 38), in which the agent works in Denmark Street (very central and posh), and the song lists the fancy theatres his acts perform at, describes the man with the act as 'working class and five foot four', describes the agent as 'a discening man of culture and impeccability', and includes in the act a turn involving throwing balls of excrement at the Royal Box - and the perfomer seems to think the act is clever and stylish. The upper-middle-class agent, the working-class performer and the royalty in the audience: all of this brings class into it, and suddenly the joke has a point: the performer, being a man of the people himself, has some rather peculiar ideas about what constitutes aristocratic behaviour. (Whether the joke is on the working class or the aristocracy remains up to the viewer to decide.)

But it also occurs to me, which it didn't seem to occur to the comedians in the film, that 'The Aristocrats' is also the ultimate agents' joke. If you've ever been in charge of a slush pile, and I imagine the theatre is the same, then you know that everybody who approaches you thinks that by bringing you their idea, they're doing you the best turn anyone's ever done you. This is an opinion held entirely regardless of quality; no matter how awful somebody's work is, they think it's terrific - and often, humility is in inverse proportion to quality. (People smart enough to produce good work are smart enough to know their limitations, but the direst work comes from people who think it's genius.) Hence, after a long day reading the slush pile and the angry letters people post after rejections, the idea that someone could have an act that involved nothing but throwing balls of crap and shagging donkeys, and still think it should be called 'The Aristocrats', seems eerily plausible.


*I went into the kitchen and tried it on my boyfriend, and it pissed him off and I had to apologise. He was not amused, but he seems to have forgiven me now. Here endeth the experiment; I have tried it, so you don't have to. The things I do for you...

Comments:
The sacrifices we make for our readers ;).

Funnily enough, only today I made a comment very similar to yours about the quality of a piece being inverse to the author's pride in it. Synchro!
 
Tried to leave this comment three times and it just won't let me.

Just came through from another link and read this. What an excellent analysis. I saw The Aristocrats - and it's strange as the Whoopi Goldberg telling was one of the few I actually remember (and one of the few that made me laugh). I don't think she was one of the gross-outs - instead she seemed to have a curious quality of taking something very disgusting and rendering it ridiculous and warm which made it less alienating. Which was the opposite effect that most of the others were after, who went for the bigger and grosser and more alienating. There did seem to be an interesting difference between how the women and the men told it which was not gone into in too much detail but might be another aspect to look at.

This thing you have pinpointed between structure and anarchic freewheeling is very interesting to me. It seems to me that a lot of comedy takes a lot of effort to appear anarchic and freewheeling when it is carefully structured/crafted/scripted and that somehow that sense of in the moment, off the cuff spontaneity is very important to whether we find it funny or not. I have no idea why that is though. There are comedians I have thought were totally brilliant and made the mistake of seeing them twice and you realise quite how much is prepared and repeated. And, although it is unfair, I feel disappointed. Perhaps because we want to believe it is some sort of spontaneous expression of feeling? I don't know.

Now, I rambling off the point entirely of course.

Just wanted to say - great post. Thought-provoking.
 
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