By SHARON WAXMAN
LOS ANGELES, June 22 - How do you sell a movie about the dirtiest joke ever told?
Note to reader: None of the good parts of the joke will be told during the course of this article. Or in any of the ads. Or in the trailer. In fact, much of the content of the movie, a documentary called "The Aristocrats," is basically unrepeatable in just about any mainstream public forum.
Which is the essence of the problem.
"There is no violence or hostility of any kind" in "The Aristocrats," explained Penn Jillette, an executive producer of the film, who is better known as half of the magic act Penn and Teller. "We want to say: 'We have 150 really funny human beings in the back of a room making each other laugh, but they're going to be swearing, and if you don't want to hear swearing, you better not come in.' "
Mr. Jillette; the comedian Paul Provenza, who directed; and the distributor, Think Film, have decided to release "The Aristocrats" at the end of July without any rating, a decision that will probably make the film even more difficult to sell, since some moviegoers may be wary of an unrated film.
But they preferred that option to releasing "The Aristocrats" with an NC-17 rating, which is what the producers figure it would get if submitted to the ratings board - a voluntary step for distributors like Think that are not attached to one of the seven major studios. NC-17 ratings are almost always reserved for films with explicit sexual images. Yet "The Aristocrats" features nothing more than talking heads.
Still, the "funny human beings" in the film - famous comedians from Robin Williams to Chris Rock to Phyllis Diller to Jon Stewart - are not merely swearing, as Mr. Jillette said. They're telling their versions of a joke that involves every imaginable form of sexual perversion in graphic detail, including but not limited to incest, scatology, bestiality and sadism. Rabelais would blush.
So what's the joke? Basically, it's this: a guy walks into a talent agent's office and says he has a terrific family act. The act, the guy explains, involves a husband who comes out onstage with his wife and two kids.
What follows is the part that can't be told in this publication, or most others, but it's the point at which each comedian in the film cuts loose in a can-you-top-this exercise in pornographic oratory. Cut to the kicker where the talent agent asks, What's the name of the act? The answer comes: the Aristocrats.
The point of the joke, and the film, may be freedom of expression, or self-censorship, or what happens among professional comedians behind closed doors. But for practical purposes, the joke is so absurdly obscene that the viewer is shocked into hilarity, or deep offense. Or possibly both. The conundrum for those marketing the film is encapsulated in its tagline: "No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity."
"We're not selling sex, we're selling comedy," Mark Urman, head of theatrical distribution for Think Film, said of the decision to release the film unrated. "To give it the same rating as films that have completely disrobed bodies writhing and throbbing is misleading and could turn off a lot of people who have no problem with language, who hear it and use it all the time."
But one conservative commentator said that the lack of a rating was just an attempt to create controversy for a movie that would otherwise die in indie obscurity.
"I don't see it as an assault on anything, because it's not a film anybody's going to see, it's not a film that anybody cares about," said Michael Medved, a syndicated talk show host and conservative writer. "What we're seeing here is a desperate attempt to get attention for a project by outraging people, and I stubbornly refuse to be outraged."
The documentary, which was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January, came about as a result of Mr. Jillette's and Mr. Provenza's carrying low-caliber video cameras around to their friends in the comedy business and asking them about the infamous "Aristocrats" joke. They didn't necessarily set out to make a film, but ended up with some of America's best-known comics breaking taboos on camera (including, most shockingly, Bob Saget of the hit family sitcom "Full House").
Largely because of the movie's star roster, Think Film executives say, "The Aristocrats" could become a mainstream hit. Despite the lack of a rating, they have booked it in about 40 cities, in multiplexes rather than small art-house theaters. Free publicity will come in the form of interest from glossy magazines and syndicated television shows, not to mention articles like this one, and the distributors say they will spend upward of $1 million on movie prints and radio and television advertising.
John McCauley, senior vice president of marketing for Loews Cineplex, said "The Aristocrats" would be treated as an adults-only film, even though it is unrated. (It will open at the Loews in Times Square.)
"We are providing signage at the theater that specifically outlines the graphic nature of the film, so no one will be walking into the film not knowing what the content is," he said. "We support all forms of film, and we want to give the film an outlet to be seen."
Mr. Provenza denied that he was trying to create controversy. Indeed, he said he was trying to avoid it.
"We're not trying to sucker punch anybody, not trying to trick anybody into seeing the movie," he said. "The movie is about creative expression, creative freedom. If people want to fight us on it, go right ahead."