Directed by Paul Provenza
The Aristocrats is many things to many people: an exploration of the creative mind, a cavalcade of unbridled, unredeemable depravity, a glimpse into the world of comedians, and more. It’s fitting that the film can be viewed many ways because the joke is told many ways. The film is unbelievably offensive but then that’s the purpose of the joke. The more shocking and outlandish the set-up of the joke is the greater the juxtaposition and humor of the punchline.
The premise of the joke is a vaudeville agent is interviewing acts. An act comes in and the agent says, “What do you do?” The man says, “My wife and I come out and take our clothes off. Then, we shit on the stage and the kids come out and wallow in it.” The agent says, “What kind of an act do you call that?” The man says, “The Aristocrats.”
The premise of the documentary is that executive producers Penn Jillette and Provenza record comedians, performers and writers telling the joke. It’s as if a group of jazz musicians gathered together to perform variations on a theme. Comedians are a competitive bunch, so over the years the joke has gone through a perverse version of the telephone game, as incest, bestiality and other nefarious activities and bodily secretions are now injected into the joke in startling combinations. No one tells it the same way although some cover similar ground.
The joke is examined and deconstructed, providing context and back-story, illustrating that comedy, while silly on the surface, is an art form. George Carlin, who opens the film and is probably the comedian most associated with language, talks about the joy of the joke because it allows people to play. Paul Reiser finds the structure of the joke satisfying because “it is so absurdly front-loaded, making it almost the opposite of a joke, that the punchline means nothing.” Larry Miller discusses the pleasure of the journey that the joke takes you on, so that it doesn’t matter what the punchline is. There’s even mention of different endings for the joke, such as The Sophisticates, which a few subjects liked better, and The Debonairs.
Some comedians are given enough screen time to present the joke fully like Bob Saget, who revels in telling of all its gruesome details, while others would be missed if you blinked. Rip Taylor has one brief moment in the opening credits and he had one of the best lines about Lincoln telling him the joke while they were at the theatre.
The film illustrates the skill the comedians have as writers as they take the joke and incorporate into their personas. Sarah Silverman tells the joke from the point of view of someone who used to participate in the act as a young girl. She makes it more disturbing yet still finds a way to make it funny. Billy the Mime performs it on the street, and Eric Mead makes it an amazing card trick. The Smothers Brothers do their usual back and forth, and they are so in tune with each other that it’s amazing the bit works so well considering Dick had never heard the joke before. They are improvising so effortlessly you don’t even realize they are doing it.
With 100 comedians involved there’s no way to name them all, and many deserve great praise. Everyone will have their own favorites, but the standout performances for me were Kevin Pollack telling the joke as Christopher Walken, which was cray-zy, and Larry Storch telling the joke as an upper crust British man. He uses such imagination and flair with his word choices and the most interesting thing is that while he tells it completely clean, it is one of the funniest versions in the movie. Of course, there are a handful who try too hard and fail miserably.
I watched with my good friend Fumo Verde and we laughed for what seemed like an hour straight. There was a little lull after almost an hour, but I couldn’t tell if it was the pacing of the film or from my being exhausted humorously. This is definitely a film to watch with other people in the room.
As the film ended, I couldn’t help but wonder about where the biggest names in comedy were. Sure, there was plenty of star power like Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and Drew Carrey, but what about David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, and Ray Romano? For every Don Rickles in the film where was Bob Newhart? For every David Brenner where was Robert Klein?
Michael McKean and Harry Shearer talk about parties that Chevy Chase used to throw where the goal was to tell the joke for 30 minutes without repeating yourself. Surely, Chevy should have had a comment. It’s not like he has an image that needs protecting anymore.
Chris Rock has a very brief scene where he talks about how back in the day swearing for blacks was different than whites because the latter had to be clean to get on television. The clip seems to be used as a justification as to why no black comedians appear in the film telling the joke, but it is a little too convenient. Why would a black comedian not want to be included in such a project? I know Bill Cosby works clean, but Phyllis Diller and a few others work clean and it didn’t stop them. Where were Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle and Bernie Mac?
The DVD’s extras include a tribute to Johnny Carson, a sequence of other jokes being told, and an illuminating commentary track that makes some comics look better, while making the filmmakers’ choices look poor. There are 20 scenes of extended material and additional footage that didn’t make the cut with the best being Kevin Pollack doing Albert Brooks telling the joke.
There is so much material that it was hard to cut it all down coherently. It made a few comedians look bad and out of touch with the joke, yet when we see them in the extended segments, it turns out the disconnect from the joke is a bit. Jake Johanssen actually tells the joke indirectly as he is dealing with it much in the same way his comic vision works. Stephen Wright tells a brutally violent version, and the reason why is made clear on the commentary track. They got locked out of his hotel room and decided to shoot in the hallway, which someone had pointed out looked similar to The Shining.
The editing was absolutely horrendous and if the material wasn’t so funny, the film would be unwatchable. There’s a lot of jump cutting, arbitrary camera movement, and the flipping of images 180 degrees. It’s unbelievably amateurish. Unfortunately, I see this more and more and detest it. When a shirt reads backwards all of a sudden or when the part in someone’s hair moves to the other side of their head, it draws attention to itself. It’s as if the filmmaker is saying the viewer is so stupid, they’ll never notice. We do, and if I ever catch anyone who uses these techniques, I’ll make him act out Gilbert Gottfried’s version of the joke.