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The Aristrocrats (A Movie Review)

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

The Aristrocrats

The Aristrocrats


Starring Chris Albrecht, Jason Alexander, The Amazing Johnathan, Hank Azaria, Shelley Berman, Billy the Mime, Lewis Black, David Brenner, Mario Cantone, Drew Carey, George Carlin, Carrot Top, Mark Cohen, Billy Connolly, Tim Conway, Pat Cooper, Wayne Cotter, Andy Dick, Frank DiGiacomo, Phyllis Diller, Susie Essman, Carrie Fisher, Joe Franklin, Mike George, Todd Glass, Julie Gold, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Gorodetsky, Gilbert Gottfried, Dana Gould, Allan Havey, Eric Idle, Dom Irrera, Eddie Izzard, Richard Jeni, Jake Johannsen, Alan Kirschenbaum, Jay Kogen, Sue Kolinsky, Paul Krassner, Cathy Ladman, Lisa Lampanelli, Richard Lewis, Wendy Liebman, Bill Maher, Howie Mandel, Merrill Markoe, Jay Marshall, Jackie Martling, Chuck McCann, Michael McKean, Eric Mead, Larry Miller, Owen Morse, Martin Mull, Kevin Nealon, Taylor Negron, Rick Overton, Gary Owens, Trey Parker, Penn & Teller, Otto Peterson, Emo Philips, Peter Pitofsky, Kevin Pollak, Paul Provenza, Paul Reiser, Andy Richter, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, Greg Rogell, Jeffrey Ross, Jon Ross, Rita Rudner, Bob Saget, T. Sean Shannon, Harry Shearer, Sarah Silverman, Bobby Slayton, The Smothers Brothers, Carrie Snow, Doug Stanhope, David Steinberg, Jon Stewart, Matt Stone, Larry Storch, Rip Taylor, Dave Thomas, Johnny Thompson, Peter Tilden, Bruce Vilanch, Jonathan Wee, Fred Willard, Robin Williams and Steven Wright.

Directed by Paul Provenza.

Distributed by ThinkFilm Company.  87 minutes.  Not Rated.

A guy goes into a talent agent’s office and says I’ve got this family act you won’t believe…

And so starts one of the oldest, definitely the grossest, jokes in the stand-up comedy world.  It is a legendary gag in the industry and yet it is almost never performed onstage.  It dates back to vaudeville and yet most comics will openly acknowledge that it is not that funny.  Yet anytime comics get together, they will do top-this versions of the old chestnut.  Everyone in the industry has heard it.  Everyone in the industry has told it.  One comic here refers to it as “the secret handshake” of the comedy world.

“The Aristocrats” is a piece of guerilla comedy.  The set-up of the joke is rather quaint.  The punch-line is an anticlimax.   It’s what a comic does with the middle part that makes it fascinating and shines a light into the mind and the perversions of the person telling it.  Because the real art of “the Aristrocrats” is explaining what this family act is. 

Different people will bring different kinks to the table.  A comic can plug in everything from ignorance to perversion, scatology, disease, racism, abuse, incest, bestiality, juggling bodily functions, necrophilia, pedophilia, midgets… You name it, nothing is too taboo for “The Aristocrats.”

Stand-up comedian Paul Provenza and magician Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) became fascinated by this weird little joke which seemed to pervade the scene.  Together they set about doing a documentary about it, consulting some of the greatest comic minds in the world to dissect this old piece of vaudeville ribaldry and trying to see why it still resonates as a backstage tradition.  They also wondered what it said about their community.  As the tagline for the film says, “No nudity.  No violence.  Unspeakable obscenity.”

Nice family viewing, no?

Okay, this movie isn’t for everyone.  If you have a weak stomach or are easily offended, you probably want to stay away and catch something on PAX or ABC Family channel.

However, one thing that the film also shows is that words are just words.  The gonzo abandon that most comedians use on the joke is the whole point of the thing.  The joke is a blank slate to offend, a chance to wallow in the most anti-social and demented behavior you can imagine.  But it is only imagination.  The most horrifying versions of the joke can still be funny because you know it never happened and never would.  It is just a comedian pushing as many buttons as possible to get a rise out of his audience.  It’s like a cosmic game of one-up-manship; you think that’s sick, well listen to this…

As is no surprise, the women comics tend to avoid the gross-out sections and subvert the joke — one stand-up makes it about race, Whoopi Goldberg stretches it out so long and tells it so matter-of-factly that it becomes an inherent criticism, Phyllis Diller admits the first time she heard the joke she fainted.  However, the one comedienne who really nails it completely is Sarah Silverman who turns the joke inside out and makes it seem she was a part of the act and then makes a hysterical false-accusation on one of the other participants of the film.

The guys on the other hand, tend to mine the joke for every ounce of its grotesquerie.  It really shows that good comedy is like good jazz — a great comedian can riff on a basic structure and take it into different and fascinating directions.  The joke is so malleable that it can withstand being done straight (Dom Irrera), as a gimmick (Kevin Pollak’s imitation of Christopher Walken telling it is a pisser), as a team deal (Dick Smothers’ deadpan delivery and brother Tommy’s apparent straight-man revulsion is hysterical), as ventriloquism (Otto & George), juggling (The Passing Zone), even as animated (there is a funny South Park version made for the film.)  Hell, even a mime named Billy pulls it off and shows the joke can be funny without a single word.

Bob Saget finally puts to bed his nice guy Full House persona here with his incredibly ribald telling of the joke.  But you almost wonder if it is funny so much in his telling as in the fact that this is Bob Saget committing image hari-kari.  Chuck McCann gives an old-school telling that is funny and yet remarkably chaste for this film.  Drew Carey gives it a little flamenco flourish.  Martin Mull totally subverts the joke and makes it funnier for his radical rethink.  George Carlin is hysterical precisely because you know that he thinks it is a stupid joke so he throws in the kitchen sink.  Paul Reiser is embarrassed because he didn’t go blue enough.

However the greatest performance comes from a surprising source, which is also one of the few times the joke has actually been performed in public.  Gilbert Gottfried, a comedian who can be more annoying than funny, was at the Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner in 2001.  It was a mere weeks after the September 11th disasters and as several comics acknowledge most of the community was soft-pedaling it.  Humor seemed so trivial after all that had happened.  Gottfried took a chance and told a 9-11 joke and it bombed.  He was booed and chided for it being too soon.  So, Gottfried regrouped and launched into the Aristocrats joke.  The room was shocked, but Gottfried nailed the joke and told it brilliantly.  The whole place was hysterical.  (Rob Schneider literally fell off his chair — twice!)

Many comics swear that Gottfried’s performance opened the floodgates and made it okay for a tormented country to laugh again.  While that may be overstating it a bit, it was a brilliant performance and it gets to the heart of the mystery of the joke.  It truly is a case of being not the material but the performer.  “The Aristrocrats” is a blank canvas for a comic to titillate and provoke.  Without the right storyteller it would be deadly.  Luckily, The Aristocrats has some great storytellers.  (7/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: August 14, 2005.

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