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'Aristocrats': It's no Disney film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE ARISTOCRATS / / ThinkFilm / $29.99

"No sex. No violence. Unspeakable profanity."

That's the tagline for The Aristocrats, a documentary in which 100 comedians tell the same dirty - no, let's ratchet that adjective up and say "filthy" - joke. Please take the warning seriously.

This is not a film for everyone. The joke told in The Aristocrats (the film's title is the joke's punch line, and that's pretty much all we can reveal about it in a family newspaper) is irredeemably profane. It contains language taken directly from the gutter, dealing with acts of utter depravity. It will offend many ears, and if you even think yours might be among them, stay very far away from this DVD. Mom, if you're reading this, do not rent this film, no matter how hard your friends try to goad you into it.

And for heaven's sake, do not confuse this with The Aristocats, that cute little Disney cartoon from several years back. This is not a movie for the kids.

OK, if you've made it this far, have not been dissuaded and are safely over 18, The Aristocrats may be just the film for you, a chance to see and hear several generations of this country's most prominent comedians - from Phyllis Diller, Larry Storch and Tim Conway to Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and David Steinberg to Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart and Chris Rock - in totally unguarded, unfiltered moments. What you get is a fascinating look into what we find funny, whom we find funny and why we find things funny.

The joke (here's a little more detail: it concerns an agent pitching a new act) has been around for ages; vaudeville and Borscht Belt comics were telling it to one another when our grandparents were young. Until now, though, it had rarely been told in public, making it the equivalent of a secret handshake. The joke was the kind of thing comics would tell at parties, or among themselves when their shows were over. It was a way they could try to top one another.

For the weird thing about the joke is that, in and of itself, it's really not all that funny. The humor, the genius of the joke is apparent only in the telling, which varies from comic to comic and from situation to situation. The set-up and punch line are always the same, but the stuff in the middle can range all over the map. Sometimes the joke can take a few seconds to tell, sometimes it can last much longer. Michael O'Donoghue, a legendarily morbid writer from the early days of Saturday Night Live, was said to have told a version that lasted 90 minutes.

For this film, comedians Penn Jillette (half of Penn & Teller) and Paul Provenza have asked dozens of their best friends to not only tell the joke, but talk about the joke. Some don't offer much in the way of insight, while others seem daunted by the joke's demented silliness, unable to offer much beyond snickers.

Comics like George Carlin, however, not only tell the joke, but also offer their takes on why the freedom to tell it is important, why such unfiltered vulgarity has its place and why comics need the freedom to push conventional boundaries of taste and decorum.

Special features

Plenty, though most come across as a bit on the tedious side. Let's face it; after 86 minutes of listening to the same joke, no matter how varied the telling, the last thing you need is another two hours. Still, there's a fun footnote to be seen in a sampling of amateur comedians who sent in versions of the joke after seeing the film's theatrical release. And "Behind the Green Door: Comics Tell Some of Their Other Favorite Jokes" actually offers some different material, not all of it blue.

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THE TOMORROW SHOW - PUNK AND NEW WAVE / / Shout! Factory / $29.95

Tom Snyder's The Tomorrow Show, an NBC late-night staple in the late '70s and early '80s, was one of the few television venues that welcomed punk-rock and new-wave bands and performers. Visits from Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, The Jam, The Ramones, Elvis Costello and others made for riveting, cutting-edge television, not to mention some amazing music. All are collected in this eight-episode set, along with astounding appearances by The Plasmatics (during which lead singer Wendy O. Williams blows up a car) and John Lydon, perhaps better known by his erstwhile stage name, Johnny Rotten. This is the stuff of legend.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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