The Passion of the Penguins – The Progressive, 10/30/2005

If my recent movie attendance is any indication of the national box office receipts, Hollywood can put a fork in it. They’re done. Since Wedding Crashers didn’t seem to be about gay marriage, and The War of the Worlds and The Brothers Grimm seemed redundant, I only went twice to the tiny Provincetown New Art Cinema all summer.

I did see The March of the Penguins, set in the Antarctic, which seemed like a good antidote to the unrelated-to-global-warming, sticky, freaky blast furnace of summer we had. But despite all the anthropomorphizing going on around me, I could not identify with this film. With its emphasis on procreation, monogamy, and heart-melting scenes of male penguins caring for their young (for three months of the year), the documentary is relentlessly straight. Perhaps that’s why it has become the next big date movie among fundamentalists: The Passion of the Penguins.

Then I saw The Aristocrats! And that seemed like a good antidote to the serious world intruding on the crazy, hazy, lazy days of summer. But again, I could not identify.

First, The Aristocrats! is not a movie about the Bushes. It is a documentary about the world’s filthiest joke and the comics who love it. A show biz family goes to a vaudeville talent agency. The agent asks the father to describe their act. The father proceeds: The family dog is trained to poop in their son’s mouth while the boy is copulating with their nine-year-old daughter, and all the while the father is urinating on the mother, and on and on. The agent asks the father what they call themselves. The father says, “The Aristocrats.”

The filmmakers, skeptic Penn Gillette and comic Paul Provenza became re-intrigued with the joke at a Friar’s Club Roast of Hugh Hefner three weeks after 9/11. At the roast, Gilbert Gottfried, a squinting tummler with a shrieking ferret schtick, was scorching old Hugh. But the crowd was quiet. He made a joke about bombing, then something about 9/11. There were hisses from the crowd. Someone shouted, “Too soon.”Desperate, Gottfried lapsed into the old tried and true and began a rendition of the Aristocrats joke. Oh, he saved the day. That Gilbert. In a new world of uncertainty, fear, terror, and attack, the reassuring familiarity of the old joke was a balm to the male spirit.

The joke is as predictable as a comedy threesome, as formulaic as a knock-knock. It has three parts: the set-up, the hilarious description of the troupe’s act, and the two-word punchline. If the teller observes the rules of set-up and punch line, he is allowed between those two levees of levity total comic license to spew a toxic bilge of excrement, sexism, misogyny, bestiality, violence, and pedophilia.

By process of natural selection, the fittest survivors of the film’s comic Darwinism, the Aristocrati, of comedy are mostly male. The women, with the exception of the scene-stealing Whoopi Goldberg and Sarah Silverman, are uncomfortable consorts, afterthoughts.

The joke is a secret handshake, an insider joke, #23 in your comedy himnals, the joke comics tell to amuse each other after hours. The film is an unwitty, unwitting passport through comic portals into a puerile world. Good little boys like Full House’s Bob Sagat and Mad About You’s Paul Rieser, who found fame in bland sitcoms, get to show that when freed from the terrible style-cramping burden of political correctness, they can be as vile as any of their good old boys club friends.

Critics both of and in the movie claim that the constant repetition of the joke has the effect of taking away the hurtful meaning of the words. That is, saying “banging your nine-year-old daughter” many times eventually erases meaning, so the focus can be on the amazing variety of comic styles. The ultimately practical joke of rape is not the point. Oh, OK.

Because it is a primer of mainstream comics and comedy writers, I went to The Aristocrats! as part of my ongoing professional research and development. The walls of the New Art Cinema are quite porous, and often when I was supposed to be laughing, all I could hear were booming, rumbling blasts from the theater next door, signaling the end of the world.