If there was evidence that all comedians deep down are sick, depraved people, The Aristocrats would be it. And maybe conversely, all sick and depraved people are just a few steps away from being really funny. Thankfully we have microphones so they can express their darkest ids, otherwise society might be in trouble.
The Aristocrats, not to be confused with Disney’s The Aristocats, is a documentary from director Paul Provenza and executive producer Penn Jillette, the talking half of the two man magic team. Quite simply this film is about a joke, a legendary and disgustingly obscene joke dating back from Vaudeville. This is not a joke told to audiences, because as one comedian notes, members of their profession don’t usually tell jokes but rather deliver routines or string together observations. This is a joke comedians tell one another, like a secret handshake among members of a fraternal order. The goal is one-upmanship and going more outrageous and disgusting. Although the joke’s often retelling becomes repetitive, the film’s comedy is mostly hilarious.
The joke allows for the comedian’s creativity to shine because of its basic structure. A man walks into a talent agent’s office saying he’s got a great family act for him. The talent agent says he doesn’t do family acts, but the man pleads, saying this act is special. The man goes on to describe, and in some versions perform, the act which involves everything and anything polite society would deem unfit for normal conversation. Most variations of the joke include all forms of bodily secretions, wastes, and fluids as a norm, and the family’s act also involves all acts of sexual depravity including incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, and bestiality. After hearing the description, the talent agent asks the for act’s name, which is, of course, The Aristocrats.
As noted by all the comedians, the punch line is anticlimactic and the least funny part of the joke. Richard Lewis even declares hatred of the joke but still admits some affection. It becomes like improvisational jazz, allowing endless variety and interpretation but still remaining in a set framework. Some performers have earned legendary status for their skills. Chevy Chase supposedly held parties with goal of having people sustain the joke for hours. Trey Parker and Matt Stone animate a segment with a South Park’s Cartman delivering the joke. Gilbert Gottfried earned respect for telling the joke at a Friar’s Roast in New York only weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist bombings. For some comedians, the low-brow joke was just the thing to escape from that day’s horrors.
The film’s greatest strength comes in its examination of comedy’s strange world and those who tell it. George Carlin emerges as the elder statesman of comedy while Gallagher and Carrot Top of course bottom out the cellar of the hierarchy. Even Carrot Top realizes it is in vogue to make fun of Carrot Top. And as the film notes, comedy is very much a boy’s club, but some female comedians standout including Sarah Silverman, who offers a very unique take on the joke. Surprisingly the one person to cringe most from telling it is Bob Saget, famous both for his family friendly TV show Full House and dirty mouth.
Spouting disgusting words and actions seems completely juvenile, and that’s exactly what the film celebrates. The joke allows access to the most vile words and topics possible which in a way becomes liberating. It’s like being transported back to the simpler times of grade school lunchrooms when using an expletive made you seem much cooler.
Even if the joke represents the most puerile of humor, it’s okay because even that has its place.
Archived article by Oliver Bundy