Film not for the thin-skinned

George Carlin offers his interpretation of The Aristocrats.
George Carlin offers his interpretation of The Aristocrats.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of nynewsday.com
Penn and Teller work their magic for audiences in The Aristocrats, now out on DVD.
Penn and Teller work their magic for audiences in The Aristocrats, now out on DVD.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of nynewsday.com

DVD Review: The Aristocrats

For decades, stand-up comedians have shared a secret joke. Long after their shows were over and the audiences had left the club, comics used to break out this single joke to entertain each other. It is something that could never be said on stage, because it is without a doubt the most offensive joke ever told. Want to hear it? Picture the scene: 1930s, New York, the old vaudeville days. A guy walks into a talent agent’s office, looks the agent right in the eye and says, “Have I got an act for you.”

Then his family joins him in the office and what they do I absolutely cannot repeat for publication in this paper. Rest assured it is the most vile and depraved act in history, involving the incestuous penetration of countless orifices, the violation of family pets, the exchange of bodily fluids of all kinds and of course, shit-eating. Dumbfounded, the agent looks at the man and asks, “What the hell do you call that?” The man wipes some excess fluid from his lips and answers, “The Aristocrats.” Admittedly, the joke has a bad punch line. I mean, it’s satirical, but I’m not even sure who it is that I’m mocking when I refer to an “aristocrat” these days. But the punch line is not the point of this joke: it’s the set-up that’s important. The family’s act is reinvented by whoever tells the joke, making it a competition between comedians over who is willing to go the farthest with the material.

Treated almost like a “secret handshake” between stand-up comics for years, this joke has finally been made available to the public through the documentary The Aristocrats. A hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s just been released on DVD and is without a doubt one of the funniest/most offensive movies you are ever likely to see. Made with no budget and on consumer cameras by comedians Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame), The Aristocrats is simply a collection of various comedians telling this legendary joke. Over the course of a few years the first-time filmmakers visited some of the biggest names in comedy to record their various renditions. The impressive list of participants includes such comedy legends as George Carlin, Robin Williams and Eric Idle as well as lesser-known cult-comics such as Richard Jeni and Steven Wright; even the animated cast of South Park make an appearance.

Everyone from older, classic comedians like Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers to up-and-coming new talents, such as Sarah Silverman, appear on camera telling their own versions and also reflecting on the history of the joke and the nature of comedy itself.

While the concept may seem as if it could be tedious, the resulting film is surprisingly effective. The “Aristocrats” is almost like an old jazz tune, and while every comedian uses the same basic form and structure, they all provide their own unique riff on the material. Some of the comics may tread similar ground, but each version stands out from the rest.

From Bob Saget’s almost unbelievably disgusting entry (confirming the Full House star’s status as the filthiest stand-up alive), to a card trick rendition, or Billy the Mime’s peculiarly graphic version, it is surprising how well the joke holds up after so many tellings. By visiting all the comics in this way, the filmmakers also capture a unique portrait of the state of comedy at this point in time.

Through the examination of each unique variation on the same material one can see the comedian’s personal style of humour.

Successful comedy is, and has always been, as much about the presenter as it is it is the material, and The Aristocrats is a 90-minute testament to that fact. Anyone with even a passing interest in comedy should view this film. It is a fascinating social document, but also just a shockingly hilarious piece of cinema.

However, viewers with more delicate sensibilities should not attempt to view The Aristocrats. I have not repeated any of the material from the film in this review because frankly, I can't. Taken out of context, the material is just too disgusting to repeat, but told by some of the most talented comedians around it becomes pure gold. So unless you're a complete fucking pussy, you should love it. (Here's a sort of litmus test for you. Did that last sentence offend you? If not, then watch the film, you'll be fine. If it did, I instruct you to A) Locate your nearest dictionary and look up the word "irony," and B) Look into renting the delightful Disney animated classic The Aristocats, I think that would be more up your alley. You may also need to look up "sarcasm" to fully understand these parentheses.)

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