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'How to improvise a joke'
on 22 August 2010
'The Aristocrats' is a joke so infamous amongst comedians that it got it's own documentary. It's also the punchline to the joke, a precis of which goes something like this:
A guy walks into an agent's office, and says 'I've got a great act for you!'. The agent tells him that he has two minutes to sell the act to him.
So he starts off describing his act(which usually involves his family members), which gradually gets more and more disgusting, stepping over the boundaries of most people's taste and moral thresholds. When the description of the act gets to the filthy, horrible climax , the agent says 'That's probably the most disgusting thing I've ever heard in my life. What do you call yourselves?'
And the guy says - 'The Aristocrats!'
It's not a very funny joke, really. Especially when I write it here. But the point of this documentary is that it's been the comedian fraternity's favourite joke to tell each other for years and years - 50 or 60 at least - partly because they can exercise their creativity with the foul nature of the act - and it really does get inventive at times - so there's the improvisational angle, and partly because no two people tell it the same way.
There's a lot of household names here, all trying to out-gross each other; George Carlin is quite objectively deconstructive, and starts the doc off with quite a basic, short indecency. Others take it a whole stage further.
The point of it is quite a zen one - the punchline, or the destination, doesn't matter. It's the telling of the joke (or the journey).
It's a whole load of fun if you like stand-up comedy, if you've ever been a stand-up especially. It's not going to be fun for most clean-living, family-oriented Radio 3 listeners, but if you don't mind people trying their best to offend, it has a certain charm. And hearing one joke told differently by so many people gives an insight into how we are all individuals, especially when we perform on stage.
It's not earth-shattering, heart-breakingly good, or life-changing. But it keeps a smile on your face. That's got to count for something, right?