|The Aristocrats (2005)
Starring: Drew Carey, George Carlin, Bob Saget, Paul Reiser, Billy Connolly, Jon Stewart and more
Director: Paul Provenza
ALSO! Check out where it ranked in our 2005 Year in Review.
The term disappointment only just begins to describe the experience of watching “The Aristocrats,” one of the most talked about documentaries of the year. Directed by comedian Paul Provenza and co-produced by magician comic Penn Jillette, “The Aristocrats” is an interesting essay on a 100-year-old joke with a punch line so bad that they’re not afraid to give it away in the title. The joke is well-known in the comic world as a sort of secret handshake among comedians; no one ever uses it in their act, but they’ll gladly practice on other comics backstage. The problem is, the joke is always different, and lasts for as long as the comic can string along the audience. If you feel a bit lost in all of this back story, it’s because that’s how confused you’ll really be in the first five minutes of the film. And after you’ve been brought up to speed on this comic secret, you’ll wish they had kept it one.
The premise of the joke goes like this: A family walks into a talent agent’s office to pitch a new act unlike anyone has ever seen. After the agent asks what the act entails, the comic conveys a very personal, and very lewd, description of whatever his imagination holds, though it indubitably includes some combination of incest, violence and scatological humor. Nearly all of the variations, as told by the film’s large cast of comics, contain the basics - father, mother, son, daughter – along with unruly additions of grandma, grandpa, the family dog, and just about anything else that their dirty minds can think up. When the agent asks what the act is called, the comic says "The Aristocrats!" Feel free not to laugh, but considering that most of these versions are impromptu, it’s interesting to watch as the comics struggle to outdo one another.
Among some of the best renderings of the joke come from people you’d least expect, including Bob Saget and Gilbert Gottfried, who give the raunchiest versions by far. Saget can’t contain his laughter as he compiles the sickest imagery he can dream up, while Gottfried pushes the envelope by telling the joke in front of a live audience at the Hugh Hefner Friar’s Club Roast, only weeks after the tragic events of 9/11. The only other entertaining versions are those that are the most creative, like Kevin Pollack’s impression of Christopher Walken telling the joke, Eric Mead’s presentation with a pack of playing cards, and Billy the Mime’s mute performance. It was also a nice touch to include a specially-crafted scene with the South Park kids, and Cartman’s telling only further proves that most people don't really understand the point of the joke.
Incidentally, the film works brilliantly as a documentary – though it would have worked much better as a 30-minute short - and Jillete and Provenza should be applauded for their courageous journey into the dark mind of the comic. But audiences aren’t paying admission just to see a well-made documentary. They want to laugh, especially when the film is being lauded as one of the funniest movies in years, and yet you get more grins and chuckles than laughs. Is this because it’s simply not funny material, or are people afraid to laugh at such vulgar language in front of their friends? There’s certainly an underlining commentary on censorship here, but we’re still not laughing, and right now, that’s the only thing that’s important.
Oddly enough, "The Aristocrats" special features are far more of a reason to buy it on DVD than the movie itself. If the joke itself gets old long before the film ends…and it does…listening to Gillette and Provenza’s commentary discussing the road to making the film is consistently hilarious, particularly when Gillette reveals that a grandmother asked an usher before an advance screening of the film that it was actually Disney’s "The Aristocats"... and, not knowing any better, he said, “Sure, why not?” (Bizarrely, it took the woman 20 minutes to remove her grandchildren from the theater!) The extended scenes invariably go on too long – much like the joke itself – but there’s at least one deleted scene worth the price of admission. It’s no surprise that, of the two versions of the joke Kevin Pollack tells, they opted to use the one where he’s doing a Christopher Walken impression, but when he tells it while imitating Albert Brooks…? Well, okay, it’s an imitation that’s a little highbrow for most of the audience, who are watching the movie strictly because they’ve heard how dirty it is…but, man, it is absolutely note perfect. In another deleted scene, Terry Gilliam appears…but, sadly, although you can see him discussing and telling the joke, Provenza reveals in a voiceover that, since he (Provenza) wasn’t wearing his headset at the time, he didn’t realize Gilliam’s mike wasn’t working. D’oh! Lastly, don’t miss “Behind the Green Room Door: Comedians Tell Some of Their Other Favorite Jokes.” If Gillette and Provenza are looking for a follow-up project, this could be stretched out to a full-length feature a hell of a lot more successfully that this one-joke pony was.