Incest. Bestiality. Misogyny. Murder. All is fair game in Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette’s The Aristocrats, a hilarious, though exhausting, look at a single joke that’s been told since the vaudeville era. Though the documentary has a lofty aim — to dissect the nature of humor — it also embraces the blasphemy of its subject matter, keeping its sensibilities firmly in the gutter.
The setup for this joke is always the same: a man walks into a talent agency, often with assorted family members, and announces he has the perfect act, which he describes in detail. The end of the joke is the same too. At the end of the description, the incredulous talent agent asks the act’s name, the answer being: “The Aristocrats!”
Because they’re known, neither the setup nor the punch line prompts laughter. Instead, the teller’s achievement comes in the unwritten middle. Every comedian devises this part to suit his or her sensibilities, and the ensuing bawdiness has rendered the joke unsuitable for mainstream consumption. Instead, the joke is a backstage affair, recited among comedians both as a calling card and a competition: who can be the most indecently creative? The Aristocrats analyzes the joke as construction (how does a comedian go about making a joke funny?) and demonstrates multiple versions, in part and in totality.
Filmed in a rough, “improvised” manner, the documentary features interviews with comedians in bars, dressing rooms, and comedy clubs. Running the gamut from legend to C-list, the subjects wax philosophical and filthy. No one is titled on screen; only when the credits roll does the viewer learn all their names. While this strategy assumes audience familiarity with many of the performers — Andy Dick, Paul Reiser, David Brenner, Whoopi Goldberg, and Kevin Pollack, to name a few — it also underlines the film’s illusion of exclusivity, leaving some viewers in the dark as to who’s who among these 90-plus performers.
Especially welcome among the stars, George Carlin appears reflective. His recent standup material has been more angry than insightful, and it’s refreshing to see him musing about the art of comedy. His version of the joke, a comprehensive riff on bodily functions, occurs in the film’s first 15 minutes: comedians who come after play a figurative game of limbo, daring each other to dip lower and lower under the bar of respectability.
The Aristocrats is no toilet-humor marathon, however. Most of the comedians tread a fine line between realism and free-associated vulgarity. Some strive for a sort of performance art — Sarah Silverman delivers faux-wounded diction, playing the role of a traumatized victim and ending with a criminal accusation against Joe Franklin. Trey Parker and Matt Stone offer a South Park version, in which Kyle repeatedly begs Cartman to stop. A card magician and a mime offer two of the most creative interpretations, giving visual texture to a mostly aural experience. Drew Carey emphasizes the importance of the punch line by snapping his fingers. And Bob Saget, a “blue” comedian obscured by the shadow of Danny Tanner for years, recites the most horribly vivid routine of all.
On one hand, The Aristocrats works as an oddly effervescent study of human passion; it’s invigorating to see so many different people united by this common experience. The sheer number of faces, however, wears thin by film’s end. And some routines, like Saget’s, are drastically cut to make room for others. Robin Williams isn’t on the screen long enough to show off his improvisational charm, and when he does launch into a joke, he is jarringly crosscut with Drew Carey.
Most notably hindered by editing is Gilbert Gottfried, who tells the joke at the New York Friar’s Club roast for Hugh Hefner, just weeks after September 11. According to many of the comedians in The Aristocrats, Gottfried delivers a definitive version of the joke, prompting a release of laughter at a time when it was hard to laugh. But we never see more than 10 seconds of Gottfried’s performance before someone else’s commentary interrupts it. Similar editing choices repeatedly detract from individual performances, and worse, create a sense of monotony by film’s end. It leaves the viewer wanting more.