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Here's the kicker: Grandma is dead 

When I see a film in a theater, I spend almost as much time observing the other moviegoers as I do staring at the screen. I'm not some creepy, trenchcoated voyeur, but witnessing the unbridled reactions of strangers to something as intimate as art is a rare opportunity for insight into your fellow man.

As an example, what one person finds shocking another may think tame, and this was never more evident --- both in the audience and on the screen --- than with The Aristocrats, a boundary-pushing documentary by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette that features comedians analyzing and illustrating the great lengths --- as well as the disgusting depths --- to which some will go to get a laugh.

Besides being the title of the film, "The Aristocrats" is also the name of a dusty joke that functions as sort of a secret handshake among funnymen. The basic premise finds a man pitching a rather vulgar family act to a booking agent. The raconteur is then at liberty to riff as he or she pleases as to exactly what the act contains, and the challenge is to make it as funny and as filthy as possible. Then when the agent asks what all this vile depravity is called, the man answers, "The Aristocrats!" (Drew Carey informs us that he adds a Mexican Hat Dance-type flourish at the end, which he feels really drives it home.)

Not terribly funny, is it? That's because "The Aristocrats" is what Paul Reiser calls "the opposite of a joke, really" --- the punchline is actually a complete letdown and, if the joke is told correctly, quite irrelevant. The humor, therefore, lies in the improvisational part: Nothing is too gross (bodily fluids abound in most tellings of the joke), too taboo (bestiality! incest! necrophilia!), or too random (white slavery? blimps?), and the joke can be as abbreviated or as lengthy as desired. Dana Gould, now a Simpsons producer, says he once told a two-hour version of the joke... and then botched the punchline. Apparently, calling it "The Aristocats" is an all-too-common problem. Damn you, Disney!

The Aristocrats also provides a snapshot of the bigger picture. Chris Rock reports that black comedians could work as blue as they wanted because they weren't concerned about getting on TV. Society still frowns upon excessive obscenity by and even around women (Phyllis Diller claims to have fainted upon hearing "The Aristocrats"), and the shock in Sarah Silverman's creatively disturbing spin on the joke is achieved by putting herself in it. Whoopi Goldberg wouldn't get too crude either --- "I'm trying to be genteel and shit" --- but her telling in which foreskin is used as a part of the act had the male audience squirming.

Gilbert Gottfried's rendition of "The Aristocrats" at Hugh Hefner's Friars Club roast is touched upon by a number of interviewees, who recall that after the crowd turned on Gottfried thanks to some post-9/11 jokes, he trotted out a brilliant bit that had the previously hostile crowd eating out of his hand and Rob Schneider literally rolling around on the floor.

Other highlights include actor Kevin Pollak's version of the joke, which he delivers a la Christopher Walken, as well as George Carlin's almost scholarly observations about the art of comedy. And thanks for the education, Andy Dick: I had already heard tell of the Rusty Trombone, but Strawberry Shortcake is a new one on me. Well, not "on me," but...oh, never mind.

Red tape is red tape, whether you're navigating the highest corridors of power or just trying to collect your hard-earned military pension. In the sweet and sly Tasuma, former soldier Sogo buys a grain mill on credit for the hard-working women of his Burkina Faso village under the belief that his pension will arrive as promised. But bureaucratic snafus delay his payment, so Sogo must make daily bicycle trips to the government offices while trying to keep his new creditor at bay.

Sogo's devoted wife is not entirely on board with his purchase, and Sogo's nephew is smitten with the chief's daughter but thinks she's been pledged to the monogamous Sogo. Meanwhile, the possibly crazy former schoolteacher looks like Marvin Gaye and documents the goings-on with a blue camera whose shutter sounds suspiciously like the bell of a bicycle. The phrase "colorful village life" is a cliché for a reason.

Writer-director Daniel Kollo Sanou uses primeval narrative devices like the singing of songs to keep the viewer up-to-date with the happenings on the screen, but when the silver-haired Sogo is offered the chief's teenage daughter, Sanou proves he ain't above a well-placed spit-take.

The Aristocrats(NR), directed by Paul Provenza, is playing at the Little Theatres. | Tasuma (NR), directed by Daniel Kollo Sanou, is screening at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre on Friday, September 9.

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