Academic journal article
By Tubrett, Dion
CineAction , No. 70
Start with a Joke
In the climax of, and seeming inspiration for, The Aristocrats (2005), Gilbert Gottfried offers an off-colour monologue at the New York Friar's Club Roast of Hugh Hefner that derails with a joke about September 11, 2001. The joke (1) is met with booing and groans from the audience and calls of "too soon." This event occurs in New York City on September 29, 2001 less than three weeks after the terrorist attack that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center. Gottfried, pausing for a moment, begins his rendition of "The Aristocrats," a joke consisting of a litany of vulgarity and obscenity (including but not limited to incest, pedophilia, bestiality, masturbation, all manners of intercourse--in various combinations with the family members--and scatology sliding into coprophilia). (2) The joke dispels the earlier tension and the room, full of fellow comedians, delight in this "secret handshake" never dared told in public. The film examines the joke, its effectiveness and meaning through various stand-up comics while never directly connecting its telling with the current climate out of which it erupted. While the joke comes from an earlier vaudeville tradition in comedy, an historical element returned to various times in the film, Gottfried's telling of the joke at this tumultuous moment in American history is not contextualized as a specific reaction: the joke, seen in the film to measure a society's taboos, is here used to cope with the obscene through a parade of vulgarities. It is interesting that the means to navigate through the unspeakable, the earlier joke was for some "too soon," is through the very acts deemed culturally unspeakable. The vehemence and joy, dare I say comfort, with which "The Aristocrats" joke was received points to a shared embrace in the ritual vocalizing of social taboos. This sort of ritual drama (the joke proposes to describe the narrative of one family's variety act) likewise evokes the cathartic release of Aristotle's conception of tragedy. Only here, the emotional release is through the absurdly comedic and grotesquely obscene. Yet Gottfried's telling of "The Aristocrats" acts as a moment uniting the varied effects of terrorism, patriotism, and taboo acts--specifically incest and pedophilia. Taken on its own, and therefore out of context, the political use of pedophilia, toward comedic purposes no less, reads as an incendiary form of absurdist comedy.
Within the contemporary cultural landscape, however, pedophilia and the endangered child are seen not only as effects of the psychological anarchy loosed by terrorism but as an attempt at rebuilding a nation under attack from external terrors by focusing on, in the meekest members of the community, a terror within. Even here there is a contradiction: the same culture that erects the young as a commodity to be treasured and protected (children as our greatest resource) fetishizes the young by selling and coveting the image of youth. Indeed, the contemporary cinematic depictions of youth, specifically the sexualized or endangered youth--quite often the same thing--has become the site for fear and anxiety diluted within cinematic depictions of 9/11. The reasons for this shift may partially be explained as a coping mechanism but its reality goes much deeper; in short, the sexualized child is a dangerous creature, one that has desire and autonomy. The sexualized child, the result of a confluence of factors including the internet, sexual diversity and the renewed commodification of sex as well as new demographics of commercial interests, is a creation that threatens the supremacy of the patriarchal system. In the establishment of a new world order Post-9/11, this threat must be addressed and squashed. The avenue for this in popular culture seems to be the resurgence of the pedophile but moreover the horrors of the sexualized child and their contemporary avenue for expression and autonomy: the internet. Hence, the widespread fears around online sexual predators. …