Monday, August 08, 2005

"The Aristocrats": And You Thought *Your* Family was Dysfunctional...


directed by Paul Provenza
starring comedy's finest...and foulest

“The Aristocrats” is literally a one-joke show. That said, the first thing you have to understand going into it is that it is a BAD joke. And I don’t mean “bad” as in dirty (though it’s that, too); I mean just plain bad. Any humor that can be wrested from it lies solely in the delivery and ingenuity of the person telling it. Which can be quite a lot, if the person is any good, as the movie shows in spades.

For those of you silently imploring me not to spoil the joke, relax. The joke is basically a blank canvas: the teller fills it in with creations of his or her own imagination. So while it always begins the same way and ends the same way, unlike most jokes (good ones), the punchline is not the point. The punchline is lame. Don’t worry if you don’t “get” it—there’s nothing to get. I think we’re supposed to be amused by the huge gap between the foulness of the act described and the excessive refinement implied by its title. (One variation of the joke is called “The Sophisticates.” Another inverts the joke so that the middle part is ridiculously dull and genteel, while the punchline is obscene.)

But that feeble irony is not why the joke’s survived, or why Paul Provenza and Penn Gillette decided to make a documentary about it. No, the reason “The Aristocrats” matters is that it is *the* joke virtually every stand-up comedian has heard or had to tell, usually in back rooms after the audience has gone home for the night. It’s the ultimate rite of passage for comics, the secret handshake that’s been passed down for more years than anyone can remember. It’s best compared, in some ways, to a jazz riff: the soloist makes it his or her own by adding personal embellishments—the sicker the better. Nothing is off limits, whether it be rape, incest, child molestation, bestiality, bodily functions, or (as is usually the case) some byzantine combination of all of the above. If joking about such things makes you ill, then let’s just say you are not the target audience for this movie. “The Aristocrats” is all about speaking the unspeakable, with a wink and a flourish. Put another way, it’s basically a license for comedians to let their ids run wild.

And do they ever. The film shows clips of seemingly hundreds of A-list comedians offering their individual takes on the joke. Not all of them actually tell it for the camera, but among the ones who do are George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah Silverman, Kevin Pollak (doing a wicked Christopher Walken impression), Paul Reiser (disappointingly tame), Eric Idle, Hank Azaria, Gilbert Gottfried, and Bob Saget. Yes, *that* Bob Saget. He tells one of the filthiest (and funniest) versions and then muses over the possibility of sending the tape to his former “Full House” costars. Some of the best renditions cross over into the territory of pure physical comedy—the most memorable being a mime who attracts the bemused attention of various passers-by with his highly, uh, evocative simulations. (In a similar spirit, Provenza and Gillette themselves, performing the joke with props, aren’t half bad.) But the most hilarious version, hands down, isn’t even by a “real” person. It’s “The Aristocrats” as brought to you by Cartman from “South Park.” In fact, Cartman’s may be the only version that comes close to producing the kind of shocked-into-laughter reaction that the joke, at its best, is supposed to elicit.

Those who don’t tell "The Aristocrats" talk about it or around it with ruminative smiles, including Drew Carey, Jon Stewart, Robin Williams (sort of), Bill Maher, and Phyllis Diller (who’s a hoot). But it’s these attempts at discourse that underscore the movie’s limitations. For “The Aristocrats” is, at bottom, the quintessential insider joke, and in the end, Provenza and Gillette can’t fully convey its mystique or explain why it occupies the place it does in the collective consciousness of comedians. They offer us a glimpse—but only that, a glimpse—into that consciousness before the window slides shut again.

The difficulty is exemplified in what should have been one of the movie’s defining moments: Gilbert Gottfried’s delivery of the joke at the Hugh Hefner Friars’ Roast in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. By all accounts, it was a hit, despite (or rather, because of) its extreme inappropriateness at a time of intense grief and fear. Yet in replaying Gottfried’s ballsy performance, the movie highlights not its cathartic effect on a broad audience, but rather the reaction from his fellow comedians, who immediately grasp a significance and talismanic charm that we outsiders can still only vaguely comprehend. We sense that it means so much more to Gottfried’s peers than it can ever mean to us. That is, perhaps, simply the way it is. But for a documentary that’s meant to deconstruct one of the most semiotically laden jokes still in circulation, “The Aristocrats” remains oddly opaque and fundamentally inscrutable.

RATING: ** 1/2


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