Joking Along Color Lines

So, 75 white comedians walk into a movie…

This is not the central joke of The Aristocrats, a documentary that opened nationwide this weekend, but it could be. Cutting between interviews and performances of more than 70 comic masters, including Sarah Silverman, Drew Carey, Michael McKean, Eddie Izzard, Paul Reiser and the "South Park" guys, the film traces the history of stand-up's most obscene inside joke -- with almost no commentary from the nation's many black comedians.

By now you may know the joke, but comedians have been telling the gag to each other off-stage since at least as far back as the turn of the century. The set up: A guy is pitching his act, to an agent. The punch line: The act is called "The Aristocrats." Its meat, however, is all the vile stuff that happens in between. The description of the act gives each comedian in the film a chance to show off his or her chops and wax scatological, profane, bestial, necrophiliac and spectacularly offensive. The beauty and appeal of The Aristocrats lies in the virtuosic skills of its tellers: Forget shocking the crowd; watch what it takes to shock the shockers.

But the glaring absence of so much black talent -- and Latino and Asian talent, for that matter -- is a shocker, too. It's especially ironic given the movie's references to the joke as a jazz riff, and comparisons to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. We hear only from Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock. No Dave Chappelle, Bernie Mac, Eddie Murphy, Cedric the Entertainer, Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, Steve Harvey, DL Hughley, Bill Cosby, Chris Tucker, George Wallace, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor… the list goes on and on.

Paul Provenza, the film's co-director and himself a respected comedian, doesn't hesitate when I ask how a movie that posits race as the final taboo manages to leave out so many talented non-white comedians. "It is what it is," he says. "But Chris Rock explains why so succinctly in the film, there was nothing we could possibly add."

Rock's explanation is this: Historically, blacks could be as raunchy as they wanted on the infamous chitlin' circuit, and they had no chance of getting on TV or radio anyway. The opportunity to be obscene is less exciting when you can be obscene whenever you want, unheard and unpaid, and you are already on the outskirts of respectability. Unlike almost all the other big-name comics who appear in The Aristocrats, Rock himself does not try to tell the joke.

But that's only part of the story. Provenza and Teller did cast a wide net, beginning with their friends and then reaching out to their favorite comics in the business. But the Hollywood publicity machine knows no color lines, and the most recognizable names on that list of noticeably absent comedians are so well-protected by the phalanx of publicists, managers and agents that even Provenza and co-director Penn Gilette, of Penn and Teller fame, couldn't get through.

Wanda Sikes? Couldn't get to her. Jamie Foxx? Chris Tucker? They never heard from their "people."

Chappelle, who loved the joke, could never make time to film. The directors were lucky enough to catch Chris Rock backstage, with camera in hand. As for the venerable Richard Pryor, "Every comedian in America wishes they were Richard Pryor," says Provenza, who wanted him so badly that he called his idol's wife at home, even though he knew the legendary comedian was ill. "We could hear him laughing and coughing in the background."

Then there were black comedians like Bernie Mac and DL Hughley who didn't know the joke, but agreed to try and do it for the movie "to be nice."

"That didn't seem right either," Provenza says. "We could have let them help us out just so we could get more black faces in, but that would have been totally disingenuous."

The reality is that the gag has historically been a white person's joke, the crystal meth of American humor. "This racial divide is there, and the last thing we'd want to do is try to cover that up to be PC," Provenza says. In fact, Provenza considers political correctness one of stand-up's richest sources of material, and several comics in his film concur, pointing out that talking about race has replaced talking about sex as comedy's best transgression.

But Provenza thinks that could be on its way out, too. "Just like Whoopi said, I'm not even sure if race is the shocker anymore. Now when I tell the joke, I set it in Abu Ghraib."

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