The Aristocrats is literally a one-joke movie, but unlike a lot of lame comedies out there, this time it’s intentional. What we have here is a 90-minute dissection of what is allegedly the world’s filthiest joke. What’s most interesting about The Joke is that it’s not really funny. At least, the punchline is a total anti-climax compared to what has gone before.
The Joke has supposedly been making the rounds backstage among comedians since Vaudeville. They almost never perform it on stage, but tell it to each other after the audience has gone home. The set-up is simple. A guy (or an entire family) walk into a theatrical agent’s office and says, “I have an act.” The agent says, “What do you do?” The guy proceeds to describe (or the family proceeds to demonstrate) a collection of acts from the categories of incest, bestiality, scatology, racism, violence and other realms of taboo behavior.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the agent says. “What do you call yourselves?”
See? Not really that funny. The humor doesn’t come from the punchline but from the comedian’s stamina and imagination, his or her ability to fill the middle section with as much foul behavior as they can, to smash the boundaries of good taste and plunder every dark corner of their minds for details that would make Jeffrey Dahmer blush.
This documentary produced by comedian Paul Provenza and magician Penn Jillette includes footage of roughly 100 famous and obscure comedians discussing The Joke, dissecting The Joke and, of course, telling The Joke. Needless to say, this is not for the faint of ears. Some of the tellings are fairly pedestrian while others will curl your chest hair (and make you grow that chest hair if you don’t have any). There are several unique variations, including a retelling by a street mime and Sarah Silverman telling it in the first person from the prospective of the performer. Carrie Fisher relates it as a story about her parents and the editorial staff at The Onion attempt to assemble the most disgusting, taboo-shattering version they can. Some tellers invert The Joke by making the act clean as a Disney movie and the punchline obscene.
Part of me was suspicious that the whole thing was a put-on, an elaborate practical joke by Provenza, Jillette and 100 of their closest friends. However, the recklessly epic retelling by Gilbert Gottfried shortly after 9/11 at the 2001 Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner seems to validate the existence of The Joke.
But is it a good movie? Not really. The Joke is of interest mostly to other comedians. For the rest of us, it’s a whole lot of “inside baseball.” The production values are almost zero, just producers Provenza and Jillette with camcorders, which isn’t really a problem, but the editing is jumpy and distracting, which is a problem. Also, it’s too long. Not everybody here has much to say about The Joke that hasn’t already been said by someone else. They probably could have covered the subject adequately in half the time.
I suspect that neither Provenza nor Jillette were as interested in The Joke as they are in demonstrating the limits (or lack thereof) to the First Amendment. This movie is orders of magnitude filthier than anything that ever got Lenny Bruce thrown in jail, and yet no one has so much as attempted to ban The Aristocrats anywhere. I wonder if the two producers were disappointed by its inability to generate more controversy.
Worth a rental? Depends on how interested you are in the private world of comedians and how strong your stomach is.