Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette’s 2005 documentary, “The Aristocrats,” is remembered for pulling back the covers on what is widely acknowledged as being the dirtiest joke never to set foot beyond the hallowed walls of the dressing room. Here was a virtual Who’s Who of comedians from the A-List and beyond deconstructing what a traditional joke is supposed to sound like while simultaneously opening themselves up to decades of psychoanalysis depending on how far they were willing to stretch the irrationality of the premise.
The results ranged from crude and insensitive to even cruder and more insensitive, but that was the goal all along. Instead of relying on a standard punchline to get a laugh, this joke requires its teller to troll the depths of their subconscious en route to crafting the most gleefully abhorrent version they can dream up.
Think of it as a type of subcultural capital within the fraternal order of comedians. The more perverted and protracted you make it, the more respect you receive from a peer group known for being impossible to please.
Although Ralphie May wasn’t featured in the film, I’m willing to wager that he would have no trouble occupying a space on the scatological smorgasbord. His lengthy set inside The Bear’s Den at Seneca Niagara Casino last Thursday evening convinced me as such with its insistence on obliterating the line of demarcation between what one can and can’t say when in the presence of strangers.
Whether he was riffing on Donald Sterling’s racist ramblings or extolling the virtues of the female anatomy, the veteran stand-up/amateur sexologist toyed with the audience’s sensibility at every turn.
His dawdling, “Up in Smoke” cadences played right into that, as well, because everyone continued to laugh despite appearing as if they were ashamed to be caught doing so. May acutely tuned in to that fact and exploited it with one hilariously sharp-edged anecdote after another. No matter how shockingly blue the face of his material turned, everyone had to concede that he knew exactly what he was talking about when it came to everyday human sexuality.
Had William Masters and Virginia Johnson been in attendance, they would have applauded him for plunging into an area once deemed not suitable for public consumption. They would have taken comprehensive notes on what jokes elicited the loudest reactions and understood that the art of stand-up comedy often serves a higher purpose than merely providing an escape from the daily slog through suburban workaholism.
By constructing a brilliantly understated set around the notion that saying what everyone else is thinking is the key to success, May got everyone in the audience to reveal themselves without ever realizing they were participants in a study. He used his wily Southern drawl to lull people into a false sense of security right before pouncing on their desire to uncork all those racy thoughts they kept bottled up inside.
Demystifying sexuality shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of a comedian, but that’s how far behind the United States remains in terms of encouraging healthy discussion. I’m not saying that each one of May’s bits should wind up on the docket for tomorrow night’s dinner conversation, but we should stop pretending as if it’s beneath us as a civilized society to want to be open about things of that nature.
People do it, so let’s get over it.
Buffalo’s own 97 Rock may have been listed as the sponsor for May’s appearance, but, like “The Aristocrats,” such an irreverent evening of humor could’ve only been brought to us by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
A beautiful thing, indeed.