We live in a round-the-clock comedy culture, in which the trade secrets of professional joke tellers have long ago been dragged out of the closet. It's now an official cliché that humor is rooted in insecurity and pain, that comedy is aggression directed against the audience (the stand-up's infamous boast: ''I killed!''). But unless you dare to see the fascinating sick-joke documentary The Aristocrats, you may have no idea exactly how much the minds of comedians resemble those of serial killers, child molesters, and babies happily smearing their bassinet walls with poo. For this is a movie about the rudest, dirtiest secret in the world of comedy a joke so vulgar and despicable that it is told only by comedians to other comedians, told late at night after the audiences have gone, told less as a joke than as a ritual, a bebop monologue of hideous kink, binding everyone who tells it or listens to it into an underground fraternity of forbidden laughter.
In The Aristocrats, we watch more than 100 different comedians, old and young, male and female, mainstream and cult, as they tell this joke, dissect it, meditate on it, recall anecdotes about it, and generally revel in the lurid, disgusting glory of its existence. The joke, incidentally, goes something like this: A man walks into an agent's office and says, ''Have I got an act for you!'' He then describes the act, which consists of a family of performers coming up on stage and engaging in a litany of unspeakable behavior activities, left entirely up to the imagination of each joke teller, so gross and sadistic and perverted and horrific (not to mention criminal) that I would be hard-pressed to find euphemisms for most of them in this review. Incest, bodily excretions, rape, murder: They're all there, and all in good fun! The agent, nonplussed, then asks what the name of the act is. The answer: the Aristocrats.
It is, as more than one of the storytellers points out, a lousy joke all lurid setup leading to an innocuous vaudeville whiff of a punchline. Yet the badness, in its way, is the point. Devoid of true wit, the joke is unabashedly a showcase for depravity, providing each comedian with a chance to unlock the outhouse of his or her fantasies. It's an Olympic contest of can you top this? George Carlin gets the ball rolling with a tale of vile human waste that may have you reaching for a barf bag, and the scatological dementia just escalates from there. If you thought that people like Paul Reiser and Drew Carey and Jason Alexander were mainstream clean, think again. There's an ingenious Martin Mull version, a splattery South Park version, a pet-unfriendly mime version, and a rare public celebrity-roast version (featuring Gilbert Gottfried in full rasping cry). By the time the movie reaches the hidden sacrilege of Bob Saget, even he can't quite believe the things that are coming out of his mouth.
The Aristocrats has a lot of laughs, but as it giggles and blasphemes its way into areas not so far removed from the scandalous landscape of the Marquis de Sade, the movie, funny as it is, becomes exhausting and a bit depressing. It's at once a comedy, a horror film, and a hilariously unsettling testament to the deepest reality of what comedians are: rim-shot madmen, driven to seek out and destroy all that's taboo. The joke, of course, is ultimately about them, our aristocrats of unhinged anarchy.