Saturday, May 13, 2006

"The Aristocrats"

We watched "The Aristocrats" last weekend--the documentary by Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller, not the BBC costume drama. It was painfully funny and dreadfully obscene and put some images in my head that I'd rather were not there, but it was an interesting look at the world of comedians and a study of shock and humor and taboo. The parts I liked best were when the joke was twisted on it's ear. If you haven't heard it's about a joke that is as scatalogical and shocking as possible with a punch line, "The Aristocrats!" I man walks into a talent agent and says, 'I have an act for you' and proceeds to describe or perform (depending on the telling) the most vile, depraved, disgusting acts imaginable and when it's over, the agent says, "What do you call yourselves?" Ba da bam! The variation was to perform a very genteel act and then say, "We're called the C*ock-Suck*ing Mo*therfu*ck*ers." (Highlight to read). Part of the point was to look at what's shocking--it needed to be tasteless but tastes vary. VERY, VERY UN-PC. The writers of The Onion sat around trying to think of what could be thrown in to make it worse--scatalogical black face was mentioned. Part of it was to look at how context--who tells it and where--makes the joke. The squeaky clean Bob Saget was touted as giving (and gave) one of the most vile. Some of the women comedians tried to inject a slight level of feminism. Whoopie Goldberg's was the most delightful for the cringes it probably causes men (as does Puppetry of the Penis). Sarah Silverman and Rita Rudner gave versions which were very true to their acts. Hearing Emo Phillips and Stephen Wright do it with their particular voices was just weird.

So what is shocking? What is a word after all, but a metaphor for something else and if we disconnect it from it's meaning can it still be shocking? A few years ago I wrote an essay about reclaiming the "C" word (you know for female anatomy). I had to say it in a play, wanted to say it to someone in life and designed a show where a character was named that in short succession. It's just a word the character points out in the last play. What will it mean when/if words no longer have the power to shock?

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