Movie Review
The Aristocrats


Director: Paul Provenza
Cast: Practically Every Comedian on the Face of the Earth

o this man walks into a talent agent’s office in Manhattan. The man seems polite, sweet, and enthusiastic about his exposure to show business, and smiles as the agent ushers him in. ‘Listen, I’ve got a great act for you!’ he exclaims. ‘It’s a stage production with my family—me, my wife, my two adorable kids, and of course our dog. You have to sign us!’ ‘Well’, says the talent agent, ‘that sounds promising, but I don’t really book family acts anymore.’ Protests the man, ‘but you’ve never seen anything like our act before—it’s incredible!’ ‘Okay,’ replies the agent, ‘tell me what you do.’

“The man says: ‘well, first of all, my wife comes onto the stage and takes a **** in a bucket. Then I eat the contents of the bucket, **** her in the ***, and then *** on her face. At that point my daughter starts ***** **** on my son, then lets him ****** her in the *****, until finally he shoves his whole **** up there until she starts to *****. Then Adolf Hitler walks on the stage, dressed as a nun, and proceeds to **** my wife while I shove a garden hose up his ***. In the meantime, my daughter starts ******* the dog while my son ***** my *******. We finish the act by getting into a big circle and ******* each other ***, and then we all vomit on stage, and nuns rush on to lick it all up.’

“Horrified, the talent agent is overcome with curiosity. ‘What, in the name of God, do you call this act?’

“With a flourish, the man proudly responds, ‘The Aristocrats!’”

Now, for those few of you still reading, rest assured that I’m horrified that I even thought, let alone wrote down, the previous joke, even in the heavily censored form in which it appears. I blame the film The Aristocrats, the entirety of which is taken up by various comedians telling increasingly profane versions of that same joke. Indeed, let your imagination run wild and insert the filthiest words possible where the “bleeps” are, and you still won’t come close to the most vile versions of the joke told in the film, which in some forms involve rape, amputation, extreme scatology, and in one memorably disquieting moment, the victims of September 11. With all that being said, please do not think less of me if I tell you to see the film immediately.

The Aristocrats the movie is a documentary about “The Aristocrats” the joke, a legendary shaggy dog story that began in relatively clean form during the days of vaudeville and has been circulating in various permutations among stand-up comedians ever since. As presented in the film, it’s like a secret handshake among comedians, a joke they never tell on stage but frequently bat back and forth amongst themselves, as if engaged in a constant battle of one-upmanship to see how degrading, base, and evil their warped minds can be. The structure of the joke is always the same: man walks into a talent agent’s office, says he has a family act that the agent needs to sign, proceeds to describe it, and concludes by offhandedly mentioning that the name of the act is “The Aristocrats.” It’s the middle section, the description of the act, that varies from comic to comic, although it’s almost always absurdly profane and offensive to one degree or another. Back in the 70s, the film informs us, Chevy Chase used to host parties at his house, the sole purpose of which was to see how dark each of his comedian friends could make the joke, and for how long they could extend it (the unofficial record, apparently, is thirty minutes).

Describing this movie does not do it justice—what sounds appealing, after all, about watching an entire movie about fifty comedians telling one dirty joke, a joke that in most incarnations offends every level of human decency one can think of? The answer is, I don’t know, but The Aristocrats works. The howls coming from the theater where I screened it could probably be heard from several blocks away. At one point I laughed so hard my leg literally began to cramp up, and I spent the conclusion of the movie in equal parts stunned appreciation and grimacing pain. Those gales of laughter were matched only by the almost-as-frequent horrified, fascinated silences occasionally punctuated by shocked gasps, as some new comic gleefully crossed previously uncrossable boundaries with a flying leap.

As I said, I cannot explain the greatness of The Aristocrats, because in a narrowly intellectual sense I cannot explain the appeal of transgressive comedy in general. But I suspect it has something to do with the willful destruction of limits—at the risk of sounding overly analytical, The Aristocrats at times feels like the human id being unleashed in its purest form. For an hour and a half, all assumptions are subverted or abandoned completely, the confines of taste are set aside or directly assaulted, and our notions of creativity are challenged or utterly overturned. The best, most profane performers in the film (Gilbert Gottfried, Paul Reiser, and, believe it or not, Bob Saget in a transcendently offensive five minute orgy of verbal filth) elevate their jaw-dropping material to sheer performance art, and you cannot help but be carried along for the ride.

One of the last scenes in the film, and for my money the purest representation of what The Aristocrats is really all about, is a clip of Gilbert Gottfried at the Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner. This was two weeks after September 11, when no one, the film points out, even knew if it was acceptable to laugh again. Gottfried takes it upon himself to perform one of the very few (and perhaps only) public tellings of The Aristocrats, unleashing a stream of vulgarity so pure it practically takes on symphonic overtones. Initially horrified, the audience slowly begins to catch on, and as Gottfried winds down it seems a bizarre emotional exorcism has taken place in the performance hall. By the end, the audience is laughing hysterically. By the end, we are all, strangely enough, cleansed.

By: Jay Millikan
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