There’s no way to be sure if The Aristocrats is supposed to be funny. After all, it’s a documentary, traditionally the realm of serious things like the hating of Republicans or the mating habits of cute, wobbly penguins.
What’s certain is that it’s great at being foul, disturbed, and utterly disgusting. It’s all of that and a donkey show, but despite the comedic talent packed into it, The Aristocrats isn’t funny.
“The Aristocrats”, we’re told, is an ancient joke told amongst comedians. It’s a little odd that no one’s heard of it before; most stand-up comics tend towards diarrhea of the mouth. Still, it’s been around and evidently, nearly every comic knows it. What keeps it going is how flexible it is.
Everyone who tells it puts their own unique spin on it, only the setup and the punch-line consistently remain the same.
The basic framework is this: A guy walks into a talent agency and pitches an act. The comedian telling the joke then describes in gruesome, nearly illegal detail, the most vicious, morally bankrupt, twisted things he can imagine. Most of the time the telling of this part of the joke involves creative uses of shit, cum, and other bodily fluids.
Some tellers like to mix in a little incest and bestiality, just to stir the pot. Others throw in everything imaginable, from pedophilia to racism, to cracks about the victims of 9/11. The punch-line of all this is that the act is called “The Aristocrats”. Generally, this is the part where no one laughs.
The big finish doesn’t matter, actually everyone admits that it sucks. The humor of the thing is supposed to come from the constantly changing setup. For his documentary, Director Paul Provenza has filmed dozens and dozens of comedians telling the joke in as many different styles possible. Mixed in with the joke-telling are their thoughts on the joke itself. What does it mean, why do they tell it, what makes it funny, and so on. But basically the film is one joke told over and over and over again.
Therein lies the movie’s problem. The joke stinks. It’s not funny and only becomes even less so after you’ve heard it the first dozen times or so. It’s juvenile at best and plain brain dead at worst. Truth be told, it’s not all that offensive either, except maybe in the way a thirteen-year-old kid thinks of shock and offense.
George Carlin, Pat Cooper, Andy Dick, Tim Conway, Billy Connelly, Richard Lewis, Robin Williams, Whoopie Goldberg, and dozens of other ex-pythons, writers, poorly drawn cartoon characters, and stand-up comics who you’ve never heard of all give their take and not one of them deserves more than a polite courtesy chuckle.
Most of the comics in the film seem to agree that the funniest telling of the joke was the version done by Gilbert Godfried, at a Friars Club Roast of Hugh Heffner three weeks after 9/11. He tells his version, and the audience full of comedians goes wild. Here’s the thing: they aren’t laughing because the joke is funny, they’re laughing because he actually had the balls to tell it. That’s really the truth of the whole imbroglio.
This is a terrible joke beloved only by a certain set of people because they like the shock of it. Comedians love the joke because it’s their own little secret, sort of like a secret handshake handed down from one Stonecutter to another. Held up to the harsh light of reality it’s a total and utter flop.
Yet that doesn’t mean The Aristocrats is an utter failure as a movie. Granted, it’s not very funny, but it is surprisingly interesting. Watching so many talented performers work their creative magic over and over on the same topic is rather compelling.
It’s more exploration into what makes these guys tick, a window into their creative process than a gut-busting documentary comedy. Maybe, just maybe The Aristocrats is looking for something deeper than a thousand ways to tell a shit joke. Maybe in amongst all the Dirty Sanchezes, Donkey Punches, and the tossing of salads Provenza is searching for the soul of comedy itself. Or maybe he just wanted to see if he could get Paul Reiser to say “fuck”. You be the judge.