Aristocrats, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/10/05 00:18:06

"Stop me if you've heard this one before."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 DEEP FOCUS FILM FESTIVAL: So here I am at the Arena Grand in Columbus, Ohio, watching “The Aristrocrats,” laughing my ass off, sometimes to the point of convulsion. The film ends, the lights come up - and the person who’d been sitting on the floor to my left was not, it turns out, an usher or film festival employee, but Paul Provenza. Now, if I do not need to explain to you how outrageously cool this was (that is, if I do not need to clue you in as to who Paul Provenza is, or why seeing him in person and being able to share my convulsive laughter is, for a lack of a better term, freakin’ sweet), then you are the perfect person to see “The Aristocrats.”

In case you do need a refresher: Provenza is one of those countless comics to rise to the top of the heap during the stand-up boom of the 1980s. And for a comedy fanatic like myself to see him here, well, that’s pretty nice.

Lest you think I’m singular in my gushing, allow me to add that my reaction would have been the same had I turned to see not Provenza, but just about any of the hundred-plus comics that appear in the documentary that he and Penn Jillette have directed. To list them all would take up too much space, but trust me when I say that this is a serious Who’s Who of comedy. List your favorite stand-up act, from the household names to those known more to rabid followers like myself, and chances are pretty damn good that they’re here. And to see them all together, in one film, well, that’s comedy heaven.

So what brings so much talent together - and for free, no less? A joke.

You see, Provenza and Jillette have made a film that celebrates one joke. It’s a joke told mainly within stand-up circles, from comic to comic, rarely told in public, partly because of a “secret handshake” thing that knowing the joke allows, but mainly because it’s so dirty, so raunchy, so indescribably filthy, that to tell it in public would simply often not be allowed - especially in the vaudeville days, where the joke originated.

I will not tell you the joke. Yeah, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but also, it’s a joke that depends entirely on the performance aspect of it. What I can do is describe it to you: it’s a joke that has a very basic set-up, a very clear and short punchline, and a middle that has evolved to allow any and every variation possible. The magic of this joke, you see, is that it allows the teller to come up with the most vile, obscene, offensive things imaginable. The teller is given the opportunity to improvise, to put his or her own personal stamp on the thing. Long or short, vulgarity ranging from mild to you’ll-burn-in-hell, funny voices or no, whatever.

And so what “The Aristocrats” becomes is 86 minutes of comedians telling the same joke, over and over and over again, which sounds dull, except that it most definitely is not. Everyone’s take on it is unique enough that part of the joy of the film is that you can’t wait to see who’s next, just to see what anyone could possibly do to top the version you just heard. We get the spectrum of tastelessness, but we also get the joke as told by a ventriloquist, a magician, even a mime.

Wisely, Provenza and Jillette - who spent four years making this movie, recording comics whenever they could spare the time - do not limit themselves to just the tellings of the joke. They also provide the joke’s history; tales of tellings gone right and tellings gone horribly wrong (one involves a two hour-plus performance that ends with the comic botching the punchline); discussions on gender roles (Why is it more acceptable for men to be so crass, but not women? What angle does the female eye bring to this type of humor?); on the magic and artistry of profanity (is there anything better than hearing George Carlin, who has studied the art form and mastered it, explain the workings of language?); on what makes it work (or not, as it’s almost unanimously agreed that the punchline itself is flat - but would other words work better?). And, because the joke is, after all, about variety, we get to hear variations on the variations, other jokes that work on the same wavelength.

Major kudos must go to Provenza and Emery Emery, whose editing duties are ultimately what makes it work. Anyone could have videotaped a hundred comedians telling a joke, then glued them together in some linear format. What Provenza and Emery do here is play with the footage so that the various tellings and discussions flow perfectly from one to the other, criss crossing, overlapping, contradicting, bouncing in a rhythm that’s as carefully crafted as a finely tuned comedy routine. If you want to see an example of why editing can make or break a film, then check out “The Aristocrats.”

What this film ultimately does, other than provide an hour and a half of endless fall-on-the-floor laughter, is pay tribute to the underappreciated art of comedy. Not everybody can make this joke work (as is proven here, the first time we hear it), and so by providing comparisons, we get to peek behind the stand-up curtain, learning what it takes to make it on stage. The film is a study in joke telling; just as jazz improvisation can reveal so much about a musician, so too does “The Aristocrats” reveal so much about stand-ups. The word choice, the vocal styles, the embellishments or lack thereof, they all reveal how hard it is to be funny. This is perhaps the finest tribute to the art form I have ever seen, a loving valentine. It’s as if someone asked Jillette and Provenza, “so, why do you love comedy?” and this film is their answer.

And as an added bonus, the film’s very nature - an unrated marathon of naughty, naughty, naughty language - is a big Screw You to anybody, especially those in power, who feel we’d all be better off if we never offended anybody, people who think that “dirty words” will destroy us all. Knowing how Jillette feels about this sort of thing (he co-hosts a show titled “Bullshit!,” after all), I’m sure this political angle was intended. And yet it’s not really the point of the thing. It’s just something floating under the surface, understood but not imperative.

A final thought. Provenza does not appear in the film. As he explained after the screening, he didn’t think he could top the zillions of versions he’d caught on tape, and so he decided that this movie would be “his version” of the joke. It’s a nice thought. Yeah, I’d have liked to see him on screen, if only to discuss the history of the joke, as Jillette did (with Teller at his side, natch). But to think of this movie as sort of the “ultimate” version of an ever-changing gag, well, there’s something beautiful in that. With “The Aristocrats,” Provenza and Jillette have crafted a dirty joke for the ages. And who doesn’t love a good dirty joke?

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