Every week, Ask The A.V. Club tackles readers' questions about pop culture. Sometimes with special guest stars:
F For Fake Joke
I have a conspiracy theory about the film The Aristocrats that I want to run by your experts. Basically, I think the conceit behind it—that the titular joke has been a part of comedian throwdowns for decades—is untrue. I think the guys behind the movie thought it would be fun to make up a mythology behind some obscure joke, then convince us we were being let in on some generations-old backstage secret. They found the joke in the book they attribute it to in the film, Gershon Legman's Rationale Of The Dirty Joke, Vol. 2, and probably chose it because of how generic and adaptable it is. My evidence, briefly:
1. Not that I've spent too much time looking, but it doesn't seem like there's an account of anyone performing the joke, publicly or privately, before the Gilbert Gottfried/Friars Club thing, and apparently Gottfried was already involved in the project by then. I know the whole point is that it's an inside joke, but it seems like someone would have done it on stage somewhere.
2. Legman claimed to have heard the joke from a non-performer. If the joke's so secret nobody's done it, where'd this schlub get it from?
3. The Legman version isn't funny. What's funny is how far the performers will go to shock their audience. Am I supposed to believe comedians throughout history have been riffing on a bad joke?
4. This seems like exactly the kind of gonzo stunt Penn Jillette would come up with.
So am I on to something, or am I my generation's Jim Garrison?
Thanks for indulging me,
Well, since some of The Onion's comedy writers appeared in the film, we asked them what they thought. Features editor Joe Garden says this:
When it was pitched to us, it was not as a fraud. We didn't get a "Let's shoot an unsold video in order to fleece several thousand people" pitch. They believed in it, and had a great affection for the joke. I don't believe there were any sinister motives. If anything, Penn Jillette spends most of his time debunking frauds and phoniness.
And head writer John Krewson adds:
Am I supposed to believe comedians throughout history have been riffing on a bad joke?
Would you like to sit in on one of our interminable brainstorming meetings?
Finally, A.V. Clubber Tasha Robinson adds a few words:
For what it's worth, Jim—er, Joe—I heard that joke years before I saw the movie, so I thought the whole "There's a secret joke that only comedians know!" angle was a wee bit oversold, especially in the trailer. But I don't think it's a devious lie so much as an interesting way to frame what's otherwise kind of a boring story: There's this joke. It isn't funny unless it's told at protracted and profane length, so comedians don't generally bother performing it onstage. But it's fun to tell to friends, at least if you like being outrageous and being the center of attention. In other words, if you're like most professional comedians. So the joke gets passed around in the biz. It doesn't take much stretching or any malice to turn that into a "comedians' secret." But I suspect the real secret is that there are a lot of similar bad jokes that everyone on the circuit knows, but no one normally trots out onstage. Maybe someday those gags will get their own films too.
One more thought: Someone described as "a writer's writer" or "a musician's musician" is generally someone engaged in such a fiddly, detail-oriented aspect of their craft that only someone else in the profession would be impressed. It's possible that "The Aristocrats" is a performer's piece because only people really interested in the creative act of the performance itself are likely to care. It's also possible that you're taking this whole joke thing too seriously.
Games People Play
Back in the early '90s, there was a game show centered on video games. I remember a lot about it except its name. The bulk of the show had three rounds of trivia questions and answers. The final round had the two finalists square off playing the same video game. The host looked very similar to Billie Joe Armstrong, and knew a lot about video games. As a matter of fact, there was a segment where members of the audience tried to stump him. He rarely was stumped. Does this ring any bells?
The A.V. Club's Donna Bowman isn't stumped, either:
Ah, television. Is there any cultural movement that you can't attempt to co-opt and turn into a painfully square half-hour? (Current example: Shows on 24-hour news networks about blogs.)
You've flashed back to Video Power, a syndicated game show that premièred in 1990 and ran for almost two years. According to The Encyclopedia Of TV Game Shows, the show pitted four pre-adolescents against each other in rounds of arcade competition and questions about video games. The bonus round for the winner was a kind of Supermarket Sweep affair, where the contestant had 30 seconds to pile as many games in his cart as possible; if he grabbed the secret game, he got a special prize.
And yes, there was a "stump the host" segment at the show's opening, where host Stivi Paskoski (using the nom-de-game "Johnny Arcade") demonstrated his mastery of video-game trivia. And yes, Eric, a bigger Stivi Paskoski fan than yourself has already snapped up stivipaskoski.com and used it to list the actor's many small roles on Law & Order.
More Games People Play
When my brother and I were little (early to mid-'80s), my mom bought us a board game for Christmas. I only remember seeing one other copy of this game in my life, also in the early '80s. No one in my family can remember what it is called, and no one I've asked can remember anything like it. The board was molded tan plastic, shaped like a hexagon. It was covered in a pattern of slots that were shaped like an asterisk so that the domino-like playing pieces could stand up in them facing forward or at an angle. One team was red and the other blue. The pieces were like dominos, only the tops came to a point. Each player started with two pieces in front of them, and took turns placing pieces on the board. The object was to build a domino-like line to your opponent's starting piece, then push your starting piece over to start a chain reaction knocking his "king" over. I could have sworn the game was named Topple, but Google searches bring up a game named Topple, and it's not the one. My mom was sure the name had something to do with knights or kings or castles, and it did have a certain medieval look/theme to the packaging. Please help, this is driving me nuts.
P.S. If anyone can help me with this, I will take them out for pizza if they are ever in Oshkosh, WI.
You owe A.V. Club intern Sarah Kantor some local pizza:
Paul, not only were you on the right track with your mystery game, it was really easy to find. You were completely right about the name, you just needed a more obsessively specific, completist source. A search at BoardGameGeek.com yielded two results called Topple. The first is the source of your Googling frustrations. The second, which came out in 1979, is clearly your game.
Ad It Up
What is the song used in the commercials for the Mercury Mariner? It's such a cute, catchy little song, but if you don't know someone who knows of the artist, you're kinda screwed. I tried asking the rest of the Internet, but I honestly don't even know what to ask.
Like Sarah, Noel Murray knows not just what to ask, but where:
There are several sites set up to answer just these sorts of questions, Nancy—adtunes.com, whatsthatcalled.com, and so on—though not all of them can easily come up with the response you're looking for. In this case, I typed "mercury mariner tv commercial song" into a search engine, and after paging through a bit, I found out that it's "Nth Degree" by Morningwood, a semi-raunchy guitar-pop band out of New York. Morningwood also made some headlines last year with an online game that promised sexy wet T-shirt pictures, then made people listen to one of the band's songs while the images loaded. Funny enough, the loading time lasted exactly the length of the song, and the images never came up. Clever—or at least cleverer than the band's name.
Next week: More about filler tracks, plus puppet parodies, time travelers, and another round of "Stumped!" Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.