The Aristocrats

I know a little something about humor. I’ve written two cover stories on L.A.’s comedy scene, listened to Harvey Lembeck telling his class how to play Sancho Panza on Broadway, and, the one time I was ever on stage at the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, Mitzi Shore sent a waitress to collect me. (But that’s a story for another day).

But someone who knew a little more about humor was Mark Twain, who wrote this (from “How To Tell A Story”):

I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only claim to know how a story ought to be told, for I have been almost daily in the company of the most expert story-tellers for many years.

[…] The humorous story is strictly a work of art–high and delicate art– and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story–understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print–was created in America, and has remained at home.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the “nub” of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.

Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub.

Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at. Dan Setchell used it before him, Edgar Wilson “Bill”] Nye* and [James Whitcomb] Riley and others use it to-day….

You may be familiar with a documentary called “The Aristocrats,” in which prominent comedians discuss an old “insider” comic’s joke that goes something like this:

A fellow gets into the office of a theatrical agent. He says it’s a family act. Then he either describes or demonstrates the act, which is as disgusting as the teller would like to make it. The agent either reacts or not, asking the all-important (in the eponymous epistemology of the joke) question. “Very interesting. What do you call this act?”

And the fellow says, “THE ARISTOCRATS!”

In Twain’s analysis of the American humorous story, this exactly fits the bill. The humor in the joke is in the telling, not in the punchline, which is not the fundamental joke.

[* Bill Nye wrote in The Century magazine (1892):

There is a grim and ghastly humor — the humor that is born of a pathetic philosophy — which now and then strikes me in reading the bright and keen-witted work of our American paragraphers. It is a humor that may be crystallized by hunger and sorrow and tears. It is not found elsewhere as it is in America. It is out of the question in England, because an Englishman cannot poke fun at himself. He cannot joke about an empty flour-barrel. We can: especially if by doing it we may swap the joke for another barrel of flour. We can never be a nation of snobs so long as we are willing to poke fun at ourselves.]

I thought it odd that none of the comedians noticed that ‘The Aristocrats’ is a classic version of Twain’s definition of the American Humorous Story, but let’s face it, the history of American humor isn’t generally included in the syllabus of famous contemporary American stand-up comics — and, frankly it’s always been more of an oral tradition. (“I remember Shecky, kid …”)

Which brings me to the faux horror of the media over a comedienne using a standard heckler put-down line that is evidently so hideous that it must be bleeped, lest young children hear it, and their impressionable ears begin to bleed.

Um, she said, “Hey, I’m working here! Do I come to your workplace and knock the dicks out of your mouth?”

Or a suitable variant. It’s not worth looking up, because it was a standard heckler put-down at the Improv in West Hollywood at least as far back as 1984, and is more a cliché than anything particularly scandalous — at least post-Monica Lewinsky.

The comedienne in question was Kathy Griffin. The Memeorandum gang went bug-f**k nuts*:

Jeremy Olshan / New York Post:
HAPPY #*%! NEW YEAR TO YOU, TOO! — COMIC KATHY LASHES OUT AT HECKLER ON CNN — Comedienne Kathy Griffin may be doomed to life on CNN’s S-list after answering a heckler with a shrieking, vulgar tirade during the network’s live New Year’s Eve broadcast. — “Screw you,” she told the heckler.

Joe Gandelman / The Moderate Voice: Kathy Griffin’s X-Rated CNN New Year’s Eve Moment
Egalia / Tennessee Guerilla Women: Kathy Griffin Drops D-bomb on CNN (Video)
Noel Sheppard / Kathy Griffin Abuses Heckler With Oral Sex Reference On CNN
Pam Spaulding / Pam’s House Blend: Kathy Griffin drops the D-word on live TV

Michael Calderone / Michael Calderone’s Blogs:
D-lister Griffin drops D-bomb on CNN

Chris / TVNewser: CNN Edits Kathy Griffin’s Blue Moment
Scared Monkeys: CNN’s Classy New Year’s Eve … Kathy Griffin Says on Live TV …
Taylor Marsh: New Year Topic Free For All
Dan / Riehl World View: The Ever Inconsistent Left

[* Notice how the “X-rated” moment changes its emotional charge according to the author’s description of the (GASP!) event. (Almost unbelievably, the SAME event, even though an elephant is like a tree, stick, leaf, etc.)]

And, one would have thought that with this highly moral crew giving Griffin a firm keyboard-lashing, that would be that. Fangs nice and sharpened for the new year. (There’s no morality as easy and satisfying as knowing what somebody else ought to do, all conveniently while sitting at your keyboard in your skivvies. What could be more self-gratifying?)

But, Monday night, Keith Olbermann resurrected it, after MSNBC and Faux Nooz™ and CNN all were atwitter, along with the New York Post and various of the other leeches who feed on the bottom ooze of celebrity. It is our new pantheon, as we watch the gods and goddesses, the demi-gods, the satyrs, sprites and fauns gambol on the front pages.

The actual YouTube moment

It isn’t real, as anybody who’s lived in Hollywood or New York ought to know by now. But, filling time in those bloviating moments when the talking heads have nothing to do except report on the progress of a clock, and notice all the German Nivea hats (not), and the giant Japanese Toshiba signs underneath the ridiculous glass ball.

Now, either the media is hopelessly ignorant, or willfully ginning up false outrage on this (in an endless, predictable diet of faux-homespun Gidget ‘roid rage). Nobody in the media has ever heard that standard heckler line in a Comedy club? Attend any number of tryouts or open mikes and sooner rather than later, you’ll hear a comic say, “Hey, I’m working here! Do I come to your job and knock the dicks out of YOUR mouth?”

And, how many of them haven’t heard or told saltier jokes than that? Moreover, that kind of stuff is ubiquitous in the comedy clubs, and news people go to comedy clubs, as a matter of actual recorded fact.

No: Kathy Gleeson accidentally didn’t make the bizarro media flip: you have one language that you use on the airwaves, and another one that you use around other adults. (The inevitable glare of the mother-creature if an age-inappropriate turn of phrase is used is too hideous a fate not to watch one’s language, as they say.)

Yes, we have many languages: pillow talk, church talk, buddies talk, just us girls talk, public talk, work talk, and for those who have passed through the Looking Glass to the other side of the Tube or the Radio, there is Media Talk.

Ooooh. Kathy Griffin made (questionable) bad media talk. Pariah! Pariah!

The talking heads of the media have, for centuries, thundered righteousness from a moral pulpit that they feel no obligation to practice themselves. They ‘decide’ to push whatever ‘scandal’ and see if it sells newspapers. They have a finely-honed sense of what to be outraged about. Never on their own behalf, of course, but on behalf of their “audience.”*

[* Sort of like how censorship is never practiced on one’s OWN behalf, but on behalf of some OTHER potentially offended audience. You’ll never find a censor offended on their own behalf.]

So, who is offended? I mean, that we need talking heads to get us worked up first. You’d think, to hear them, that their virgin ears were still smarting from seeing Clark Gable say “damn” in a major motion picture. That they’d just returned from a helicopter/kayak trek to save Bambi, and, in one fell swoop, some “salty” language had shattered their illusion of one, beautiful world, filled with world peace, and cute animals with really large, translucent eyes.

‘Me golden ideal is tarnished. Woe!’

Please. I can never think of it without remembering the almost climactic look that old Christine Lund used to get on KABC Eyewitness News just before she read a story on a sex scandal off the teleprompter. Righteous anger, indignation and a mild orgasm lurking

I mean, who the hell was watching it, anyway? Generally when they’re killing time waiting for a clock to count down (and, conversely, killing time in recapping all the amazing things that happened as the clock counted down) nobody’s much paying any attention out there, either.

But, someone was scandalized, and entered it into the viral (and hopelessly small) island of media-ocrity and voila! Kathy Griffin is the big anger story of January One. Seriously, folks.

And, on another level, it’s part and parcel of the coming spookocracy, where everything is known about the object of one’s wrath.

Michelle Malkin’s laptop

Somebody caught the segment, and YouTubed it, and, voila, instant “scandal.”

But those acting “scandalized” are either dumber than a box of rocks, or else monstrous hypocrites — hypocrites whose “professional” standards are notoriously lax, and monstrous because of the intentional manipulation of false rage for ratings points. The flood of crocodile tears over phony affronts is only matched by the howling silence over very real affronts to public decency and, er, lawfulness.

Which segues back to the January 1 story, “Meet the New Year, Same as the Old Boss” of which,this is the official NEW NFL rule:

Coin Toss

1. The toss of coin will take place within three minutes of kickoff in center of field. The toss will be called by the visiting captain before the coin is flipped. The winner may choose one of two privileges and the loser gets the other:

(a) Receive or kick

(b) Goal his team will defend

2. Immediately prior to the start of the second half, the captains of both teams must inform the officials of their respective choices. The loser of the original coin toss gets first choice. [emphasis added].

Eagle-eyed reader Mark E. writes:

Were you aware that the NFL changed the rules on the coin toss because a few years back two captains on the visiting team called the coin in the air — and covered their bets by calling both heads and tails? Of course, any sane man would have looked at the team and said “you violated the rules, you lose the toss. Sort out who’s making the call before you come to mid-field next time.” But maybe they were looking for an opportunity to insert some more cheating.

Again, they were either dumber than a box full of rocks or else they were looking to slip a little “back door” cheat in there. Did not one of the NFL owners (who approve such rules changes) see the fundamental dumbness of not simply calling a coin in the air? (As it’s been done for centuries?)

Trivial-seeming, perhaps. But there is a metaphor and something more here.

You see, each presidency brings a subtle zeitgeist, a tint to the clear, if roiling movable brawl, barfight and melée that a free society must, by definition, be. And the hangover of lying as a matter of course, deviousness and wild preemptive moves infects us all. The NFL can’t handle a simple coin flip. The Senate Majority Leader can’t withhold judgment on a pending legal case (there has, as yet, been no indictment), and that’s a procedural blunder just as basic as the coin flip.

Counting down to a new administration

Which brings us into today, a day filled with a sort of pregnant, ponderous dumbness. Bad craziness, as HST used to say.

I have not commented on the “Blago” Morass (as the American media has adopted the British tabloid affectation that turns Michael Jackson into “Jacko” etc.) to this moment because to have commented would have been to be premature. Which has led to a lot of egg on a lot of faces, as, throughout the political blogosphere and the talking head bloviasphere™ so many self-righteous screeds are being shoved into full reverse that the smell of burning oil is all but palpable.

You have heard, ad infinitum. But consider the fundamental dumbness of not “calling it in the air,” from the moment that outgoing (Republican) United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced that the Governor of Illinois was trying the “sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat” to the highest bidder.


“Innocent until proven guilty” is a maxim in our laws for a good reason: it’s unwise to bray moral indignation until all the facts are in.

Harry Reid and the Democratic Senators decided to judge, try and hang the Governor before the facts were in.

Look at us! Look at us!


Carl Hulse / New York Times:
Senate Democrats Open Way to Seat Burris

Thus, the cascading CF that we’re currently experiencing.

And, Ann Coulter has ginned up (via Drudge) a phony “censorship” story that NBC’s ‘Today Show’ canceled her booked appearance — I guess because Ann says horrible things about people, including NBC. After some faux outrage and lots of good publicity grabbing headlines, NBC reschedules Ann’s infomercial on ‘How To Make A Living Through Sheer Derision.”

Pamela Geller (l.) and Ann Coulter (r.)

Two of the most famous boobs in the Rightie hateosphere™

This came after she failed to gin up enough headlines with this on January 3rd:

Michael Saul / NY Daily News:

Right-wing flame thrower Ann Coulter blasts incoming First Lady Michelle Obama as a freakish Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis imitator in a book to be published next week. — In her latest screed, titled “Guilty: Liberal ‘Victims …

Look at me! Look at Me!

This is the Bushian Hangover. This obscene circus act of cheap moralizing, phony righteousness and public display. When one adline fails, try another one. Microsoft Vista becomes “Mojave.” (Except that it DOESN’T become ‘Mojave’ except in the commercials for “blind taste tests” where “ordinary” people say how wonderful Vista is, even though they’ve heard how awful it is. Confused? Good. Just buy.)


Eagle-eyed reader Mark E. also catches the metaphor of the age, as the Bushian Exploitation mentality of Pepsi tries to cash in on the idealism inspired during the last successful national election:

Note for the future: when the economy turns south, invest in advertising firms. Seems that the executive mind believes the cure for slagging sales is… re-branding! I have seen many, many companies coming up with new logos, new fonts and new signage in the last year. Now Pepsi. Maybe I’m seeing things, but I think Pepsi wants to be positioned to be “the choice of a new administration”.


Barack Obama logo and new Pepsi logo (enlarged)

pepsi_logo pepsi_logo2

l. original and r. flipped versions

Oh, and Pajamas Media is sending Joe the Plumber to Israel to be their war correspondent in the Gaza War.

I kid you not.


Yeah, J the P’ll show them uppity, fact-based journalists!

Roger L Simon / Pajamas Media:

Joe the Plumber: Mr. Smith Goes to Jerusalem for Pajamas TV — By now many of you have heard that Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher is leaving for Israel tomorrow to be a war correspondent for Pajamas TV. This has created quite a brouhaha in the media – cable television, newspapers, wire services, etc. …

Even though Pajamas Media advertises how much they hate the “MSM” and sniff at their gaffes, this sounds exactly like an MSM ratings stunt — the kind they generally delight in deriding — guaranteed to get headlines, just as Joe is guaranteed to be another embarrassment.

(Although, seriously, how difficult is it to be a war correspondent in Israel right now? Just remain outside of the action, and repeat the Israeli Army’s talking points, as given to BBC with a British Accent, and to US media with an American accent. Somebody’s been studying the Bushies’ media spin tactics, t’would seem.)

Look at us! Look at us!

And, Larry Flynt and that “Girls Gone Wild” guy are asking for a federal pornography bailout:

Porn industry seeks federal bailout — WASHINGTON (CNN) — Another major American industry is asking for assistance as the global financial crisis continues: Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and Girls Gone Wild CEO Joe Francis said Wednesday they will request that Congress allocate $5 billion …

Now, this is probably supposed to be tongue-in-cheek (or wherever) and all, but it’s not fundamentally different than Harry Reid, Joe the Plumber, Ann Coulter, or any of the rest of it. It is an act performed on the public stage, using whatever disgusting means necessary to achieve the desired ends:

Look at us! Look at us!

So, what do we call this train wreck of a thousand good intentions shattered into a karmic explosion of buffrontery and beausiflage, fumruttery and blurgitude? (Watch out for the shrapnel.)

The Aristocrats!



cross-posted from his vorpal sword

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.

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