The punchline of the joke known as "the Aristocrats" is barely worth a chuckle. But as in all journeys, the end isn't the point. It's how you get there, and in this case, there's no means of arrival that's disgusting enough. Shit-eating, necrophilia, interfamily screwing and enough bestiality to get Rick Santorum into a lather (again) are all traditional ingredients of this venerable gag, of which every working comic seems to have his own version. It's like Naked Lunch as a borscht-belt zinger.
Paul Provenza's documentary finds 102 comedians retelling and decoding this perennial rim-shot precursor. Although several of them compare the endlessly manipulable joke to jazz, that's way too classy for this joint; a more apt analogy is that of a smokin' guitarist working over an extraordinarily dirty blues. The Aristocrats is pants-pissingly hilarious; having an usher hand out complimentary Depends before each show would be an apt promo device.
Structurally, "the Aristocrats" is a three-part invention consisting of a setup (a guy tells a talent booker about a great new act); a middle (the obscene and surreal details of said act); and the punch line (largely irrelevant). As the movie's cast of known and not-so-known jokers retell, riff and theorize, the joke is revealed as a secret historical link to vaudeville a Mason-like password between comedians, and a mutable currency that bends to its teller's needs and persona. Hank Azaria uses the joke to display the new gold standard in Christopher Walken impressions, while goofy Scot Billy Connolly can barely think of it without cracking up. The eternally lost-in-personal-space Steven Wright recites what happens after the events of the joke, deconstructing both the gag and the concept of the punchline itself.
One wishes Provenza could have located more than two nonwhite comedians we get about 40 seconds of Chris Rock and lots of Whoopi Goldberg. The movie drags after a spell, but it's unforgettably reanimated when Gilbert Gottfried's rendition of the joke teaches us why all this potty-mouthed discourse is important.
Performing just weeks after Sept. 11, Gottfried embarks on an ascent-to-sicko-genius version of "the Aristocrats" that makes clear what all comedians know by instinct and heart: that the need to shit and fuck and the inevitability of death are the respectively gross, scary and scarier verities of the human condition. The Aristocrats can't help but reaffirm your humanity while it's making you laugh your ass off.