Though his days as a member of "The Debonairs" still haunt his every hour, Judge Bill Gibron has nothing but praise for this fantastic documentary about a classic dirty joke.
One hundred comedians. One very dirty joke.
Language is all connotation. No word is inherently bad or, for that matter, naturally good. Somewhere along the line, when meaning was being passed out to those concrete collections of vowels and consonants (more accurately—randomized grunts and groans), a kind of linguistic pecking order was devised. On one end, the proper usages of various vocal patterns was practiced and condoned, becoming the basis for the varied vocabulary we use today. On the other side, however, were all the expressions that indicated evil, wickedness, vileness, and repulsion. How one set came to be accepted while the other was rejected is not some kind of karmic creation—it was all about choice. If someone had decided that "flower" was an appropriate means of describing defecation, while "feces" was a pleasant-sounding sentiment for the "things" that grew along the ground, we'd be none the wiser. It's the connotation that's considered crude or rude, not the actual letters themselves.
So bad taste and vulgarity is all a matter of implication and suggestion. Basically, crudity is in the ear of the beholder. While some may argue that the masterful documentary The Aristocrats is only about scatological humor and the stand-up comedic process, what it really stands for is the power, the importance, and the misunderstanding of language. Certainly the gag at the center of this discussion—an exercise in sexual excess and gross-out toilet humor—is a template upon which all comics can cement their style and persona, but what we learn beyond the bedlam is that words are as important as wantonness. Their choice, their combination, and their connotation mean more to the people putting them out there than the actual meaning they have. Once we learn to see that, something amazing happens. We begin to do something we rarely do—listen.
Facts of the Case
It's a joke that virtually every comic knows. As a matter of fact, it is often referred to as the joke that comedians tell other comedians, a secret handshake if you will between members of the mirth profession. The basic premise of the jibe goes something like this (cleaned up for general consumption, of course): A man walks into a talent agent's office and asks for an audition. The agent asks the man to describe his act. The potential client begins to tell an elaborate tale about his family, their pets, and the various sexual and biological acts that they do to each other. No hold is barred, no taboo left untapped. There is bestiality, incest, vigorous carnal copulations with all manner of bodily emissions, and, on occasion, necrophilia and murder may even be employed as part of the parameters. When the man is finished with his description, a shocked agent asks a simple question.
"What do you call that act?" he stammers.
"The Aristocrats," says the man, with great flourish.
Performers-turned-filmmakers Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza decided to quiz their comedian and writer friends about the joke, asking for their variation on said classic quip and insights into the humor methodology. What they got was one of the most intelligent and insightful looks into what makes something funny ever captured on film. They also got lots of philosophical perspective and inside knowledge about what it take to make a living by your wits, and the almost always wounded desire to make people laugh.
Very few films have attempted to showcase the art of listening. As important to communication as speaking, listening completes the process, ties all the loose ends together, and makes the points that other forms of expression occasionally miss. As important as "seeing" is to the painter, listening is the stand-up comic's stock and trade. Without it, the witty rejoinders and observational riffs become exercises in meaningless mental masturbation, the random thoughts that all of us have during the day. What the comedian does is take the first step toward making us laugh—he or she invents ideas and then speaks to us. They tell a joke or make a clever study of a certain subject, but humor is not whole until the other half of the enjoyment equation is met; we need to hear—and not just hear, but to listen to what is being said. Most of the time it's simple. When a jester asks, "Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?," we instantly clue into the question and await the answer. If the comic replies "because it was dead," the decision on the value of such a gag is totally ours. We can find it tasteless and tacky, or as ribtickling as hell. So comedy is totally reciprocal. What we bring to the table is as important as the level of levity being provided to us.
Such a philosophical exchange is at the very foundation of the masterful documentary The Aristocrats. Certainly, the hype surrounding this unrated rudeness roundelay would have you believe that it is nothing more than 100 comedians telling the same dirty joke over and over again. Certainly there is some of that here—strike that, a lot of that here. But what filmmakers Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza have managed to accomplish is something far deeper, with a far greater impact on how we perceive humor. The Aristocrats hopes to show how the same specific foundation of funny—in this case, the old Burly-Q/vaudeville staple about the agent, the fornicating family, and the stupid sophisticated name—is used by comics and writers from all generations, walks of life, and levels of success as the springboard to their creative process. It is a guidepost to what they think is acceptable and, conversely, what they find offensive, within their own art form. By giving conservative forebearers like Phyllis Diller and Shelly Berman a chance to comment simultaneously with Chris Rock and George Carlin, the entire history of humor is laid bare. Even better, we get to see how each individual works, molding their material to fit their own style as well as the persona they present to the audience.
As the hippy dippy juncture between the old-world comic and the new-breed comedian, Carlin begins this amazing movie with a few simple thoughts. He likens the title joke to an exercise, a kind of free-form jazz piece that is open to any and all interpretations. What a humorist brings to the template is their own tenacity, their own inner levels of lewdness, and an inspirational element born out of experience, creativity, and effort. Some of the famous faces that are spoken to (this is mostly a talking-head happening, with a few key exceptions) use the jibe as the beginning of a learned, almost scholarly dissertation on the transcendence of wit. Still others refuse flat out to even address it. Some twist up the topic into a combination of telling the joke while simultaneously deconstructing it. Then there are those who just step back, wind up, and let fly with a series of epithets, curses, crudities, and perversions that no pedophile could ever imagine. But it's never just filth for filth's sake. Instead, it's a chance for these people who work in words everyday to argue for the potency of certain statements and for the breaking down of barriers whenever humanly possible.
One of the most amazing things that happens during the course of this film is how race becomes the new unspeakable vulgarity. It used to be that when a comedian took the stage, they could slam an ethnicity for all its stereotypical worth (i.e., the infamous Polish jokes, amongst others), but if they dared say "sh*t" or "f**k," they would be ridden out on a rail—and right into a court of law on several obscenity charges. The Aristocrats argues that in this pummeled and passive post-9/11 world, where Jackass actually personifies many of the title joke's most miscreant ideals (anyone remember Johnny Knoxville being inverted in a sewage-laden port-a-potty?), we are no longer shocked by incest, abhorrent sexuality, or the excessive excretion of bodily fluids. No, it's the "N" word that gets the gag's goat in our current culture. Even Whoopi Goldberg argues that prejudice is the only way to make this tired old turd as outrageous and distasteful as it was back in the day. Indeed, the most uncomfortable moment in the entire documentary comes when writer T. Sean Shannon spins the joke around so that an incredibly crude racial/sexual slur is used as the punchline. His immediate apology is proof enough on how much of what The Aristocrats stands for is all based in what is comedy and who assigns the connotation to such sentiments.
It's not all insight and epistles. There are several standout comedic moments here. The boys from South Park make an animated appearance and give the joke a decidedly juvenile spin (along with a healthy dose of the show's acidic social satire). Bob Saget proves that his clean-cut persona on Full House was just a ruse as he delivers one of the filthiest, most obscene versions of the story ever. The hypertalented Taylor Negron deconstructs the joke, rebuilding it into his own version of a La-La Land fractured fairytale, while Sarah Silverman explores the gag from the inside out, acting out the part of one of the Aristocrats in retirement. From the Slavic strangeness of Hank Azaria's ethnic examination to the racially inflammatory funniness in Lisa Lampanelli's take (one of the few times we actually see the jibe performed in front of an audience—they love it), the gag is given a personal push, each individual adding or modifying the framework of foulness to get their own desired effect. Eric Mead, one of the best sleight-of-hand, up-close magicians in the world, uses cards to completely befuddle us as he tells a perfect prestidigitation version of the story. Billy the Mime manages to get the potty-mouthed point across without saying a single word. From Kevin Pollack's impersonation of Christopher Walken telling the joke to Chuck McCann's completely clean concoction, The Aristocrats is like an encyclopedia of styles and approaches.
The high point of the film, without a doubt, is Gilbert Gottfried. Though we see him briefly at the beginning, he walks away with the movie when he performs the joke at a Friar's Club Roast for Hugh Hefner. With 9/11 happening only three weeks prior to his performance at this comic cavalcade, Gottfried decided to try out some new War on Terror material for the crowd. They were not amused, and preceded to practically boo him off the stage. Undeterred, Gottfried got in front of the mike and began to speak: "This guy walks into a talent agent's office…" He literally brought the house down. Clearly included for its comment on the nature of comedy, The Aristocrats wants to remind us of what Gottfried's actions actually meant. As a comedian, he wanted to remind the crowd that comics are supposed to go too far. They're supposed to push buttons and take on the taboo. That's their job. That's who they are. By challenging the audience—both at the tables and sitting up on the dais—to dig his symphony of scatology, he was telling them to back off and be realistic. He may not be as tasteful as everyone wants, but as far as he's concerned, comedy doesn't have a timetable. Mocking the World Trade Center disaster may be bad, but not as bad as a joke about a father raping his daughter while the son and mother service the family's dead dog.
That is why The Aristocrats is more about listening than about limits. It centers on the shocking familiarity between funnymen and women (Robin Williams and Drew Carey practically mimic each other at one point) and how an open-ended idea can fuel some of the foulest—and freshest—comedic insight around. There will always be those who find blue humor lazy and unintelligent, but at least they respect the effort to make vulgarity witty. Similarly, those who work in the most wicked levels of language appreciate and support the person who won't tell the joke, or that decides to dissect it until it fits their own novel needs. What The Aristocrats proves to us is that there is no formula for being funny. Comedy is not just a series of quips, well-timed, and honed to perfection, flawlessly delivered in front of an audience. Humor is about being human. It's about personality and idiosyncrasy. It's about context and contempt, playfulness and peculiarity. You'll laugh a lot at this all-encompassing compendium of techniques and talents. You may even gain an appreciation for some performers who you never once thought of as gifted or astute. The Aristocrats is indeed about the dirtiest joke in the world, but it is far more reflective of the individuals who understand and utilize its outlines than just a collection of dirty words. Smutty or not, this is a fascinating, fabulous film.
Thinkfilm, bravely going where few other DVD distributor would, is offering The Aristocrats in an unrated (far too hot for the MPAA, which is odd when you consider it's just words) full-screen transfer that "cleans up" a lot of the films homemade flaws while giving us a pristine, practical image. The 1.33:1 picture is direct from digital and looks crisp and colorful. Details are plentiful and there are very few of the camcorder errors—ghosting, flaring, and bleeding—that we've come to expect from low-budget brainchildren. Granted, Provenza, Jillette, and their bevy of buddies won't be gaining admittance into the cinematographers' union any time soon, but it's the spoken part of the film that's really more important than any aesthetic looks. Luckily, the soundtrack is mastered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix that is almost perfect. Voices are captured with absolute clarity and everything is modulated so that each discussion is easily discernible. The film is accompanied by a psycho-jazzy score that recalls a heavy night of hallucinations with some lunatic lounge lizards. Overall, the important tech specs are flawlessly realized.
As for added features, this is one of the best, most expertly fleshed out documentary DVDs ever to make its way onto the home video medium. For starters, Provenza and Jillette serve up a fantastic and fascinating full-length audio commentary that is as much about the movie and its message as it is about the production struggles of these first-time filmmakers. In between the self-deprecating jabs at their bad camera work and their unadulterated worship for some of their subjects, these two deliver a thoughtful, carefully-constructed supplement to the conversations shown on screen. They provide backstory and context, discuss how hard it was to edit certain scenes, and the conscious choice to juxtapose certain individuals and ideas side by side. The result is a primer on how to make and manage a documentary. Besides, these guys are very funny in their own right and said humor comes through loud and clear.
We do get a chance to see much of the missing footage mentioned in the 45 minutes of outtakes included on the DVD. Among the golden material is Kevin Pollack imitating Albert Brooks as "he" tells the joke, Jon Stewart arguing—in a friendly, funny way—why he won't attempt it, and Bob Saget's complete monologue as meltdown (with occasional asides as footnotes). There is some amazing stuff here, hilarious bits that must have been murder to cut from the final print. In addition, the comedians get to tell some of their favorite "stories" in a "Behind the Green Room Door" featurette. Many stay salacious, but a few get very esoteric and weird without the Aristocrats to fall back on. There is a tribute reel to Johnny Carson (rumored to have considered "The Aristocrats" his favorite joke of all time) and a version of the joke where each comedian, one after the other, takes up a different part (The Aristocrats do "The Aristocrats"). Add in some trailers and the winners of a "Be An Aristocrat" contest (the live-action one is so surreal it's scary, while the animated one is just average), and you've got a wonderful digital presentation.
There will be those who hear the words, the condemned expressions that society has deemed scandalous, and tune out automatically. Others will hear the vulgarity and ride the vibe, only to be scuttled by slurs both ethnic and ethereal. Many will wonder why this one joke had to be the subject of a 90-minute movie, while others will want it to go on forever. If all you get out of The Aristocrats is an overlong look at an unfunny vaudeville routine, you just weren't paying attention. If you think that all this movie has to offer is a chance to see some of your favorite comedians cursing like Courtney Love, you've once again missed the point, and it's probably because you weren't listening. No, you heard everything correctly. You got the inside jabs and the occasional arcane references, but something inside you prevented you from actually receiving what these talented, probing professionals were putting out there. Comedy is all about language, and language is all about connotation. If all you see is filth, then that's all this movie will ever mean to you. But The Aristocrats is about more than friggin' in the riggin'. It argues for how we process vocabulary. It's okay to "not get" the joke. Not everyone will. But it's not okay to miss the point. It's there. You just have to listen.
Not guilty. The Aristocrats is one of the best documentary films ever made, and Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza are to be commended for their fine work here.
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• Full-Length Audio Commentary with Filmmakers Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza
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