1. The study of fecal excrement.
2. a. An obsession with excrement or excretory functions.
b. The psychiatric study of such an obsession.
3. Obscene language or literature, especially that dealing pruriently or humorously with excrement and excretory functions.
That’s the only definition I’m giving you. Granted, I learned several more words and phrases from watching The Aristocrats, including “felching,” the “rusty trombone,” and everyone’s favorite, the “dirty Sanchez,” but I feel that relaying these definitions to you here will rob you of the shock and surprise of hearing them on your own, and that shock, that deviance from the expected, is the essence of comedy. The definition above should be enough to clue you in to what you can expect from The Aristocrats, an absolutely offensive and quite hilarious new documentary. You’ve been warned.
Close to 100 comedians, writers, actors, and producers appear in the documentary to tell their version of the greatest dirty joke ever told, one that traces its roots back to vaudeville. The opening (“A man walks into a talent agency and says, ‘I’ve got the greatest act in the world…’ “) and the punch line (“The aristocrats!”) are always the same, but it’s what each individual comic puts in the middle that gives the joke its particular style. I won’t give you even a simplified version of what that middle section can include; I had no idea what the joke would be before I saw the film, and I don’t think you should, either. Like I said, it’s the surprise that gets you. But I will offer fair warning that if you get offended easily, this film isn’t for you, and even if it takes a lot to offend you, know that the things said in this film will do the job. There’s no violence, obviously, and no visual depictions (thank God) of any of the things you hear in the film, but it’s still easily the most offensive movie in recent memory, not to mention the funniest.
I laughed often throughout The Aristocrats, and not the kind of small chuckles that might be elicited by bad sitcoms or the embarrassed giggles you might get for laughing at a gag in something like Must Love Dogs; no, I’m talking about the kind of big, body-racking guffaws you normally don’t experience sober. I missed the first few lines of most scenes because I was still busy trying to compose myself and recover from the version of the joke I’d just heard, and although almost everyone in the movie delivers a satisfying rendition of the joke, the best renditions come from Bob Saget, Gilbert Gottfried, an animated version done by the creators of South Park, and Kevin Pollak, who delivers his take in a dead-on Christopher Walken impression. (Saget, by the way, should get major respect for asking that a copy of his version be sent to the girls from “Full House.” If I’d known he was this funny, well, I still would have hated “Full House” for the blight on civilization that it was, but maybe I would have been a little more reluctant to send so much hate mail.) Even veteran actor Larry Storch gives an entertaining rendering of the joke, which is amazing since Storch actually died in 1987.
The documentary, produced by Penn Jillette (the talking half of Penn & Teller) and Paul Provenza and directed by Provenza, uses the ubiquitous nature of the dirtiest joke ever told to examine, however briefly, a number of ideas and issues about comedy, most notably the similarity between improvising the main section of the Aristocrats and the spontaneity of jazz greats like John Coltrane. “It’s the singer, not the song,” Jillette says in an attempt to explain how one joke can be so funny in so many different ways, and he’s right. The joke isn’t just a joke, but a mirror for the comedian: style, speed, profanity, inanity, sarcasm, bestiality, and any other elements the comedian uses in the joke ultimately tell the audience how far and how dark the performer is willing to go to get a laugh. Watching the myriad of comedians tackle the same material lets you study each one’s delivery, sensibility, and rhythm better than any formal study of comedy ever could. Dissecting a joke makes it lose its humor, but performing it 100 different ways brings out the complexities of comedy and forces you to question the nature of humor itself. Plus they talk about urine. See, there’s something for everyone.
It’s also amazing that the documentary isn’t about a comedian or a group of them or even about a comedy movement; it’s just about a joke. Comedians don’t even tell jokes anymore, they just string together smaller observations or personal stories. The nature of the Aristocrats is antithetical to modern-day stand-up comedy; try to imagine Jerry Seinfeld asking an audience, “So what’s the deal with dogs having sex with people?” and you’ll understand how the setup and subject matter of the Aristocrats are from another time.
Because of that subject matter, THINKFilm has sent The Aristocrats out unrated, since the MPAA would surely slap it the kiss-of-death NC-17 rating. And thanks to the reliable idiocy of American conservatives, the AMC theater chain has refused to book the film due to “limited audience appeal” (yeah, because The Devil’s Rejects looks like a real crowd-pleaser), a move that has given the dirty little doc the buzz and build of a major feature. I mean, which would you rather see: a genuinely funny comedy that keeps you laughing for 90 minutes, or an unintentionally funny one like The Island?
The entire concept of the Aristocrats is that no subject or word is taboo; the template for the bluest of blue humor is a blank slate for comics to swing for the fences and impress their fellow entertainers. It’s an old joke handed down from comedian to comedian, told away from audiences and spotlights. However, the arrival of The Aristocrats means the secret’s out, and pretty soon everyone will be telling their own version of the joke around the water cooler. It may offend everyone in your office, but man, what a way to get fired.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Growing Bald.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()