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Still revolting, after all these years
The Aristocrats brings Berkeley grad Merrill Markoe a (very) brief fling with fame

| 14 September 2005


Merrill Markoe
Ask a Berkeley alum to tell the world's dirtiest joke and you're apt to get . well, filth, sure, but higher-quality filth, as reflects an education from the nation's top public university. We're talking arty, erudite, satirical filth.

"I went all brainy the way I told it," recounts Merrill Markoe of her contribution to The Aristocrats, a joyously profane documentary in which scores of stand-up comics strive to outdo their colleagues with ever-more-offensive versions of a joke reputed to be too vulgar - until now, that is - for public consumption. Markoe, who earned her B.A. in art at Berkeley in 1970 and her master's in 1972, says she knew she could never "out-obscene" such practiced raunchmeisters as Robin Williams, George Carlin, and Bob Saget. (Yes, that Bob Saget.) So she went highbrow.

"My persona is pitching a show called The Aristocrats to HBO - it's about a family of performance artists who do all these disgusting things," explains Markoe, who delights in mocking the political pretensions and self-mutilating tendencies of some of the genre's early practitioners. "Performance art and all that stuff always looked to me like personality disorders looking for a place to nest."

In contrast to the film's barrage of in-your-face baseness, she observes, her rendition was "revolting in a whole other way."

Still, don't go to The Aristocrats (screening near campus at the California Theatre on Kittredge Street) expecting to be uplifted by the sophisticated comedy stylings of the Emmy Award-winning co-creator of Late Night With David Letterman, who despite considerable success as a writer and performer is probably most famous as Letterman's ex-girlfriend and the inventor of Stupid Pet Tricks. As postmodern magician Penn Jillette, one of the film's producers, explained to a Canadian newspaper, Markoe told "[a smart] four-minute modern-art version that was so good it couldn't be carved up, so she ended up with 10 seconds."

To Markoe, being left on the digital cutting-room floor is just part of the humor game. But she has Jillette's assurance that her singularly sick take on the joke will appear in its entirety on the forthcoming DVD.

You mean it's not a secret handshake?

Markoe, interviewed by phone at her home in Malibu, says she "always hated old jokes" and had never heard the depraved shaggy-dog story at the center of The Aristocrats until Jillette and co-producer Paul Provenza started filming. Nor had most of her colleagues, she suspects, notwithstanding the movie's conceit that the joke is the "secret handshake" of professional comics, passed among themselves but rarely shared with civilians.

As for the gag itself, suffice it to say it concerns a show-biz family with an act that violates all codes of human decency, including several pertaining to other species. When the dumbfounded talent agent who witnesses the act wonders what they call themselves, the family patriarch replies, with a theatrical flourish: "The Aristocrats!" The madness that transpires between the boilerplate set-up and punchline, likened by Paul Krassner in the film to a jazz improvisation, varies with the skills, and the proclivities, of each performer.

The film, marketed with the tagline "No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity," won raves from The New Yorker and The New York Times, among other normally respectable outlets. A critic for the online "multi-faith e-community" website Belief.net found it "hilarious" but worried that "it adds to the deterioration of whatever moral standards remain in our culture."

Early departures

Markoe, who read "a lot of Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker" in her younger days, took a small step for standards when she named one of her comic novels It's My F___ing Birthday, excising the offending letters from the title, though not from the text.

At Berkeley, Markoe wasted little time getting into the anti-authoritarian spirit of the '60s, getting herself thrown out of her dorm for flouting the dress code. She was also present at many of the countercultural events of the era - though she insists she left most of them early. "I went to Altamont and left early, I went to Fillmore Auditorium concerts and left early," she says. "I just hated how patchouli smelled, and I never liked free-form dancing."

On the other hand, she stayed longer than she would have liked at People's Park. "I had gone skiing and broke my leg, and they were gassing from above, and I couldn't get to the car fast enough because I was on crutches," she says. "That was one of the scary moments of my life."

Armed with two Berkeley degrees, Markoe tried teaching art at the University of Southern California, where she discovered her talent for comedy writing. "All the kids in my class - who couldn't have been brattier or less interested in art - were taking filmmaking, and their parents were all producers, and they were all jaded and tanning themselves into oblivion," she remembers. She began auditing scriptwriting classes, and almost immediately found herself doing research for the head writer on the soap-opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. That was followed by an actual writing job for an ill-fated revival of Laugh-In, joining a team that included Robin Williams.

"It was pretty peculiar, really. It was like I'd walked into fate, or something," Markoe says. But because the level of humor on Laugh-In II was "appalling," she started doing stand-up on open-mike nights at L.A.'s Comedy Store, where she soon met Letterman. "And the rest is a part of my history," she insists, noting that her life didn't stop when their relationship did. ("I spend my life in dread of my obituary," she deadpans, "which is gonna say, 'Letterman's ex, creator of Stupid Pet Tricks, dies.' ")

And what role does she think her Berkeley education played in her comedy career? "None," she answers, laughing. "People used to ask, 'How did you get into writing comedy?' And I'd go, 'Well, what you want to do is get an art degree.' It had nothing to do with it, really."