The guy's name was Lionel. I never knew his last name.
He tended bar at the Parkway, which is what J.P. Bullfeathers used to be called before it was remodeled, when it was one of Elmwood Avenue's two major minimalist meccas for boho student types. (The other was Brink's four blocks away, which is now called Merlin's.)
The reason I'll remember Lionel until my dying day is that he's the fellow who told us the Aristocrats joke.
A friend and I were supposed to meet up with two girls at the Parkway. So we thought we'd get there 20 minutes early in case it was crowded enough to stake a claim on a table. We didn't have to bother. It wasn't. We had 20 minutes to kill. "Time enough," said Lionel with a wicked smile.
So he brought us our bottles of beer and told us the Aristocrats joke.
I can't say we fell off our barstools laughing because we were doubled over so much after a while we didn't even try to sit down. It's a good thing we were drinking out of bottles because if we'd poured the beer into glasses we'd have spilled every drop.
It was the funniest joke I'd ever heard in my life, and it remains that 40-some years later. Certainly it's the filthiest and most disgusting.
But then that is the whole point of the Aristocrats, which is sometimes described as the World's Dirtiest Joke and sometimes as a kind of "secret handshake" among comedians who tell it to each other. It is, apparently, for comedians, what Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" sonata or Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is for classical pianists -- a rite of occupational machismo, conclusive proof that one plies one's trade with daunting virtuosity.
And yet it involves a nothing premise (a Vaudeville theater in emergency need of a closing act) and a shaggy dog punch line (of which the very name of the joke is key).
But that too is the point: The joke is all middle. It can be whatever the teller wants it to be, as long as it involves every disgusting act that the human brain can devise. You can, in theory, tell it for hours on end, if your brain can concoct enough loathsome permutations.
Personally, I don't tell it at all well. In truth, I'm too proper and inhibited; I don't have the killer instinct it takes to be a master of the Aristocrats joke. To do it justice, you have to wait until your laughing audience is literally gasping for air and then break out mind-blowing stuff that will make them laugh so hard they can't breathe at all.
I'm telling you all this because my favorite idea for a movie in a decade is about to hit theaters Aug. 2. It's a Sundance Film Festival smash called "The Aristocrats," a 90-minute documentary wherein comedians Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette assembled stand-up comedy's aristocracy to tell the joke on camera.
Who? Well, try these: Robin Williams, George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Whoopi Goldberg, Carrie Fisher (the joke is nothing if not an equal-gender offender: all genders of tellers are welcome), Jon Stewart, Jason Alexander, Richard Lewis, Drew Carey, Rita Rudner, Eric Idle, Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick, Hank Azaria, Emo Phillips, Lewis Black, Bob Saget, Harry Shearer, Eddie Izzard, Michael McKeon, Kevin Pollack, Andy Richter and, yes, Carrot Top. The movie's big finish is a tape of Gilbert Gottfried's legendary telling of the joke at a Friar's Club roast for Hugh Hefner.
My daughter, who knows one of the filmmakers, saw it recently and reported that people in the room were literally laughing themselves sick. (The human diaphragm is only designed to take so many traumatic spasms in a 90-minute period.)
Sure, sure, sure. I'm as eager to see all the summer sci-fi movies as anyone. Throw in "Batman," "Bewitched," all the big money cinematic hoo-ha. But if you must know my cinematic heart this summer is with one movie above all -- a primitive, cheap little 90-minute thing wherein some of the funniest people alive call up every bit of talent they've got to tell the most open-ended and transgressive joke they know.
I expect nothing less than bliss.