The Aristocrats

Ealasaid/ August 15, 2005/ Movie Reviews and Features

Directed by: Paul Provenza
Starring: over 100 comedians, including George Carlin, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Billy Connoly, Whoopi Goldberg, Eric Idle, Carrot Top, and the editorial staff of The Onion.
Rated: No rating, but clearly intended for adults.
Parental Notes: Parents, take the rating note to heart. This is not a film for kids. Indeed, it’s not a film for teenagers either, unless they are incredibly mature. Setting aside the likelihood of any child who sees this movie to tell their own filthy version of the joke at the most inopportune time, most kids won’t really understand the point of the film, and so it will bore them. This is a grownups movie.

“The Aristocrats” is a first for this reviewer: it is a film which contains no visual nudity or violence and yet is incredibly obscene. It consists almost entirely of interview footage — people sitting in chairs or on sofas and chatting about an interesting topic, and yet it also contains descriptions of unspeakably disgusting acts. “The Aristocrats” is about a famous joke, told by comedians for other comedians for decades, and it is not for the faint of heart.
The joke is very simple: someone (usually the whole family but sometimes just a representative of them) walks into a talent agent or booking manager’s office and describes a vaudeville act which is absolutely shocking — the versions told in the film include various forms of excrement, incest, bestiality, and so on. The agent or manager asks the name of the act, and is told it’s the Aristocrats. The punch line may seem anticlimactic, but it’s generally not the point; the point is to shock the audience as much as possible. That’s why the middle part of the joke is left up to the teller. It is, as many people have observed, more about the singer than the song.
Penn Jillette, of the famous magic/comedy/shock team Penn and Teller, and Paul Provenza spent a great deal of time interviewing comedians about the joke. They got them to tell their versions and to discuss it in general — its humor, history, and variation. For some of those interviewed, the words are unimportant, it’s the style: Whoopi Goldberg’s variation includes priceless sound effects, Kevin Pollack tells it in a flawless Christopher Walken impression, and the Smothers Brothers get the humor entirely out of their delivery. Indeed, in some cases, the words are barely present: Eric Idle tells a version in gibberish and a Billy the Mime does a silent version. When Bob Saget tells his version (arguably the filthiest in the film), he is interrupted and doesn’t even get to the end.
But again, that isn’t the point. What makes the joke work is how the audience reacts. “The Aristocrats” is all about the power of words and the part the audience’s imagination and emotions play in making a joke effective or ineffective. The original versions of the joke seem almost tame now, and indeed, some of the comedians interviewed suggest that to make it really work these days you have to figure out what people hold sacred and desecrate that — merely being filthy is fairly common now and is no longer truly offensive.
What is truly offensive these days? It depends greatly on who you ask. There are those who will find even the tame versions of the joke offensive, and those who will find none of the versions in the film shocking. Even the discussion of the joke’s effect includes foul language, detailed descriptions of sexual acts, and so on; there are those who will find that horrifying and those who will find it tame.
When this reviewer saw it, much of the audience was howling with laughter, but several people also walked out in disgust. The joke tends to provoke “I can’t believe he/she just said that!” laughter rather than “how hilarious!” laughter; it’s in the same vein as “South Park,” which derives most of its humor from putting surprisingly foul-mouthed kids in unbelievable situations (and indeed, the creators of “South Park” contributed their own animated version of the joke). The joke is not all that funny in and of itself, after all.
As a documentary, “The Aristocrats” has flaws. It cuts too frequently from camera to camera and from person to person; one almost gets the impression that it was edited by a blender. The audio and video quality are towards the home-movie end of the scale. The interview subjects laugh at their own tellings of the joke. And yet, somehow, it works — provided the subject matter doesn’t send you screaming from the theater.
It’s a fascinating film for those interested in the power of words and unperturbed by detailed, frank discussions of incredibly filthy things. Those with fine sensibilities or tender ears would do best to stay away. The film is unrated, presumably because it would have been given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, and the AMC Theaters chain has announced it will not be showing it. That should be a fair indication of how foul the language is here. Unsurprisingly, whether a given person will enjoy this film depends almost entirely on their sense of humor.

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