The Aristocrats


There are people, I’m told, who won’t eat chocolate ice cream. I’ve got a co-worker who doesn’t like Prince. I’d imagine there are men and women who don’t enjoy receiving oral sex. And I’m sure there are folks who don’t think The Aristocrats is funny.

But those people — all of them — are either repressed or insane.

The Aristocrats is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. In terms of sheer, helpless, laughs-per-minute ratio, it’s right up there with Monty Python and Spinal Tap and Woody Allen’s earlier, funny films. Even though it’s a cruddy little shot-on-video documentary, it’s well worth seeing in a theater, assuming you’ll be joined by an appreciative, constantly chortling audience and not the kind of squares who’ll walk out partway through (although that could be entertaining in its own way).

The Aristocrats is really just the story of a joke. It’s not a particularly good joke, in pure “joke” terms. But it is a famous joke, at least among comedians, largely because it’s an excellent excuse for verbal riffing. “The Aristocrats” is less an actual joke than a flimsy framework on which to hang a freewheeling narrative of scatology, incest, rape and murder. The beginning of the joke is usually the same: A guy walks into a talent agent’s office and says, “I’ve got the greatest act in the world.” The description of that act is the heart of the joke. It generally involves a family with two children and explosive permutations of intercourse and watersports. The joke returns to script when the talent agent wipes his brow and says something like “Jesus, whaddaya call that?” And the guy goes, ta-da!, “‘The Aristocrats!’”

Punch line.

Now, I think the joke is funny, although there’s disagreement on that front. It’s a simple joke, but it’s about more than just the absurdity of a pornographic family act of Dante-esque proportions. One reading could have the punchline turning it into a working-man’s decimation of the aristocracy: Yeah, they may be rich, but they smear shit all over themselves and fuck their grandmas. Alternately, it’s a slam against a troupe of pathetic vulgarians who aspire to rise above their class and declare themselves members of an aristocracy that a) doesn’t exist and b) wouldn’t set foot in that talent agent’s office anyway. Sure, it’s kind of simple-minded either way, but “The Aristocrats” at least nods toward satire. And the fundamental feebleness of that gesture is also part of what makes it funny; it’s like the one-legged Black Knight hopping toward King Arthur crying, “Have at you!”

So Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, talented, funny guys with video cameras, headed out and started interviewing their friends and acquaintances on the subject of one notoriously filthy joke. And “The Aristocrats” really is pretty much the sole subject of the movie – there are no tangents about comics overcoming adversity in their daily lives, no heartwarming stories about how these filthy-mouthed clowns are loving, doting fathers, no character arcs etc. Simultaneously, by concentrating on one intensely transgressive example of humor, the movie manages to address comedy as a general topic. George Carlin kicks things off with a brief, cogent treatise on how he uses profanity and vulgarity — like it’s the most natural thing in the world, that’s how — before launching into a detailed riff on shitting liquid into someone’s mouth. Later on, he talks about crossing boundaries, observing that he finds it gratifying to take people in his audience to a space they don’t necessarily want to be in, but eventually making them glad they came along for the ride. This is significant to me because, as part of the post-Lenny Bruce generation, Carlin is probably the single biggest influence on my own life in terms of the premeditated deployment of inappropriate language. (Yes, I know that Bruce and Richard Pryor were the ones taking the real heat for their use of language, but Carlin is the one who was on my HBO when I was 13 years old, so he’s the one I’ll always associate with transgressive verbiage — thanks mainly to the sheer bulk of unvarnished obscenities he unfurled in Carlin at Carnegie.) It also occurs to me that the appeal of a truly riotous comedy act isn’t completely dissimilar to that of a really good horror movie — both of them put you in the hands of someone who’s not afraid to veer off suddenly into truly disturbing territory.

But I digress. You can take away many things from The Aristocrats. The film is structured as a loose, free-flowing selection of interview segments and snippets of performances of “The Aristocrats” itself. It feels like a late-night bull session among road-hardened comics. And it becomes clear that, for such a notorious piece of raunch, “The Aristocrats” is still pretty much unknown as anything that comedians actually deliver in front of an audience. Instead, it tends to be the ultimate in-joke, something you whip out in the men’s rooms of the comedy world, gauging your delivery against your colleagues’ — and daring them, egging them on, to push the envelope a little farther. So the comics who’ve developed their own twists on it make a strong impression. Carlin’s version is typically dry and schematic. Sarah Silverman scores points by describing rimming in the first person. Jason Alexander coughs up, from some dark place in his soul, a clinical variation on the details. Drew Carey adds a dopey flourish. Andy Dick brings Hitler into it. Eric Mead does it as a remarkably felicitous card trick, and Bob Saget, well, Bob Saget takes it to a new level. Someone trots out the old chestnut about the singer not the song, and The Aristocrats proves the point. The joke is transformed to greater or lesser degrees by the personality — by the conscious or unconscious choices — of each comic who delivers it.

This business is all so funny in large part because of the gregariousness of the participants. Some of the interviewees seem to relish the opportunity to talk dirty for the camera. Others seem slightly embarrassed at the prospect. Many of them crack themselves up, or howl appreciatively at the ad libs of others. The giddy mood is infectious.

The highlight of the whole thing is probably the snippets of footage of Gilbert Gottfried, who chose to perform “The Aristocrats” at the Friar’s Roast of Hugh Hefner in New York City, just a couple of weeks after September 11, 2001. Remarkably, Gottfried tried out some jokes about terrorism — and ended up being shouted down by the audience. In an act of sly hostility, Gottfried glared out at the crowd and declared, “OK, a talent agent is sitting at his office.” Gottfried’s delivery of the joke? Not so great. The mood in the room? Overwhelming — like omigod, jaws hanging open, someone please stop him, I-can’t-believe-he’s-doing-“The Aristocrats” over-the-top. It’s a real you-had-to-be-there moment, but the Comedy Central footage excerpted in the movie is just powerful enough — Rob Schneider is literally on the floor — to get the point across, and to underscore the movie’s barely declared subtext: comedy is a coping mechanism, and outrageous comedy, though it strives to surprise and perhaps even offend, is simultaneously pure catharsis. On the evidence presented here, it’s essential.

Toward the end of the movie, there are a few scattered observations about how the day of a joke like “The Aristocrats” is really over, because people have become so inured to graphic language and casual allusions to sadism or brutality that those words have no real shock value anymore. But if that’s the case, what to make of the film’s NC-17 rating? (The rating was surrendered; the film went out unrated.) Or the fact that it’s unlikely to make many inroads in the red states? Or the unilaterally retarded decision made by AMC not to show The Aristocrats in any of its theaters, anywhere? It’s true that the film feels a little like an autopsy (a really, really funny autopsy), but there’s still something about this stuff that rankles, that unsettles and disturbs.

So don’t get the idea that The Aristocrats is some kind of message movie, or a celebration of those fearless clowns who make us laugh at life, love, and most of all ourselves. It’s not. It’s a funny fucking movie about the dirtiest fucking story in the contemporary comedian’s jokebook. It’s the ultimate insiders’ flick, made by sick fucks for sick fucks, and if you’ve read this far you’re probably the type of sick fuck who wants to see it. Indulge.

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