Rants & Raves

By Lynne Murray

Once upon a time, there was a short cartoon called Bambi Meets Godzilla. For those who haven't seen the unequal contest between small, romping fawn and city-destroying giant reptile, I won't reveal the ending. But it was a bad day for Bambi.

The Bambi Syndrome in regards to X-rated material arose when a novelist friend got hold of a book on writing sex scenes in hopes of spicing up her novels. Alas, the how-to turned out to be hardcore. She didn't get far before she dropped it with a heartfelt, "Ewwe! Do people actually do that? And people want to read about it?" Her amused husband started calling her "Bambi."

When I first heard about The Aristocrats, comments fell into two camps—Godzilla: "I laughed so hard I forgot to breathe," and Bambi: "Monumentally filthy, but not funny."

Co-producers Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza present the joke as a kind of secret handshake among comedians, always told backstage to the uninitiated as a kind of rite of passage—too obscene and outrageous to ever be told on stage. Some of the funniest comedians now breathing take part in The Aristocrats. Who could resist that? Not I.

The skeleton of the joke (which I had heard years ago somewhere—definitely not backstage at a comedy club!):

A group of performers walks into a booking agent's office and announces: "Have we got an act for you—it's a family act!" The agent asks to see it.

Here the joke-teller describes the most outrageous atrocities imagination can conjure up. The film versions most often included nudity, sex of every variety, incest with children, bestiality, scatology. The performers conclude with a big, finish, possibly including bloodshed and dismemberment.

The agent says, "That's quite an act, what do you call it?"

"The Aristocrats."

In the film, the punch line didn't get as many laughs from audiences and the camera people, as the X-rated improvisation section of the joke.

The first person to tell the joke was George Carlin, with an exuberantly scatological version. I've never thought of myself as the wide-eyed Bambi type, but I began to feel nauseated, which is not my preferred physical state when experiencing comedy.

I'm not a fan of gross-out bodily fluid jokes, and Carlin's version affected me so viscerally, that I had to admit I was falling into the "Bambi didn't laugh much" camp. Later told a different joke in a similar vein (or sewer), but by then I had learned to mute the DVD when he embarked on a joke. I felt sad about this, because I can still remember where I was when someone said, "You've gotta hear this." And played Carlin's landmark "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine that was broadcast on the radio and sparked a trial for obscenity that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The mute button made it possible to get through those parts of the movie that made me wince, as when some comedians choreographed the vaudeville act with gross bodily mutilation.

Humor has descended (how far is arguable) from the howl of triumph after defeating an enemy. In Homer's Odyssey, the hero always takes a moment to gloat, "You tried to kill me, but I cut off your head, ha, ha, ha!" I'm guessing that sounds a lot classier in ancient Greek.

In modern stand-up, the audience is both friend and foe. Comedians will say, "I'm dying out there" when the audience doesn't laugh, or "I killed," when a performance was successful.

The audience is victim and opponent in Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain commented in a letter that he had tried to clean up a venerable, filthy story to tell it using his traveling con men/actors, the Duke and Dauphin. The rascals squeeze the last pennies from a small town by performing "The Royal Nonesuch"—an act involving nudity, paint, and not much else. The Duke's poster reads: "LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED." He comments: "If that line don't fetch them, I don't know Arkansaw!"

Nowadays, women are admitted—even backstage at comedy clubs. But the female comics interviewed for the film seemed more aware of how often The Aristocrats joke revels in descriptions of violence toward women and children.

Phyllis Diller reported that she fainted when she first heard the joke decades ago, and she described the repressive comedy atmosphere then with signs backstage warning against "blue material." Rita Rudner clutched a couple of large, stuffed animals throughout the interview—another Bambi Syndrome victim? Sarah Silverman toyed with a fuzzy puppet, turning it inside out while she turned the joke inside out, portraying a former child star of The Aristocrats, who suddenly realizes while describing the act that it, and her show biz childhood constituted child rape.

Humor is often built on a skeleton of dangerous truths. Some of the realities this joke is hung on are: "There are performers who will do anything, pay any price, degrade themselves and their loved ones to stay in show business," and, "Child performers have been shredded to produce so-called Wholesome Family Entertainment."

Chris Rock pointed out that the Aristocrats joke held little appeal for black comics, who had always been free to use blue material. Usually playing to segregated, less uptight audiences, they had no reason to restrain their words or to aim for the mass "family" audience, mainly because they had no hope of going on television.

Ironically, Redd Foxx, a black comedian who broke through to a wider, mixed audience on his "Sanford and Son" sitcom, came to national attention because of his X-rated "Party Records." In the 1950 and '60s, as taboos began to shatter for society as a whole, recordings of adult comedy became widely available. Even those who couldn't afford to go to nightclubs could buy an album of adult material and entertain friends. Aside from Redd Foxx, some Party Album performers were: Rusty Warren (the famous "Knockers Up Gal"—who is still alive and performing), Tom Lehrer (for the thoughtful crowd), and Lenny Bruce, who went through years of legal battles for using "obscenities" in live performances.

Although most people who attempt humor will not be threatened with arrest as Lenny Bruce was, it's always a risk to tell a joke. The edge between what makes people laugh and what makes them angry (or nauseated) changes with the cultural climate. Even when no taboos are broken, the moment of silence that may or may not become laughter is familiar to anyone who tries to commit humor. Comedy is not for the faint of heart. Courses in stand-up are now offered as a therapeutic boot camp for people who need to develop self-confidence.

Humor is so highly prized because it offers a glimmer on the path out of dark times, sparking hope by refusing to see seriously even grim things, and puncturing illusions with irreverence. A really funny joke shatters reality, releasing us for a few seconds into a little death in the orgasmic sense—a moment or two of pure pleasure.

That's why I persevered with mute button at hand to enjoy a great deal of laughter from the brilliant performers in The Aristocrats, often in spite of the notorious joke.

Verdict: Lots of swamp, with many water lilies—those affected with the Bambi Syndrome who wish to attempt the journey may want to keep the mute button at hand.


© Lynne Murray