If I had to pick one word to describe Paul Provenza’s documentary The Aristrocrats that word would be, well…educational*. Fast paced, tightly edited, beautifully put together – this is one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen.
It’s also one of the filthiest, most depraved, most polymorphously perverse and most delightfully hilarious movies I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
For those who came in late – The Aristocrats is a documentary about a joke. Not just any joke but a joke that is a legend in its own right, a joke that is an institution among comedians, who delight in telling and re-telling it in a million different ways. The basic joke is this:
A man walks into a talent agent’s office, trying to sell him a new ‘family’ act. The agent asks what the act is about and the man describes something incredibly perverse. The agent, in shock, asks “What do you call that?”, to which the man replies, “The Aristocrats”.
Okay, so it’s not very funny. Or rather it’s not very funny without the real meat – the act itself. Because it’s in describing the act and making up the most disgustingly scatological, pornographic and downright bestial routines for the family to go through, that the teller of the joke gets his kicks. The Aristocrats is the ultimate dirty joke – a sewer of filth so infinite in its variety, so inexhaustible in the possibilities of what depravity can be practised in its bounds, that in the hands of a great comedian it can be like an endless riff on a truly disgusting theme. As the documentary points out, sodomy, defecation, bestiality, incest, etc. are all just par for the course for the Aristocrats – to really get a laugh you have to go one further.
Why (you’re probably thinking) would anyone in their right mind make a movie about this? Precisely because the joke becomes a way of uniting the comic fraternity and of delving deeper into the lives of those incredible yet insane people whose vocation in life is to make us laugh. The chief joy of The Aristocrats is the way it takes you deep into the heart of what has to be the most surreal, disturbing and most insanely challenging sub-culture in all society – the world of the comics. Forget surf-boarding, forget para-jumping – this is where the real danger is, this is where some of the most amazing people in the world are really pushing the bounds. The joke is a passport to this world, a means of exploring it in all its laugh-out-loud glory. What the documentary showcases brilliantly is the infinite variety of comic art – there are as many ways to tell the joke as they are comics to tell it. You’d think you’d get tired of hearing the same joke again and again – if you don’t it’s because there are so many diverse ways in which it is told to you: from Bob Saget’s incredibly outrageous rendition (at one point in the act the father knocks out his son’s eyeball by accident, then realises the orifice thus presented represents an opportunity, only to realise subsequently how sticky the retina can be) to Martin Mull’s subtle little riff, from Gilbert Gottfried’s loud, in-your-face version to Paul Reiser’s soft, almost innocent telling, from Billy the Mime’s silent take on the joke to Sarah Silverman’s deeply personal discovery of it, from Hank Azaria’s family reminiscences to the politically loaded take of the editorial staff at the Onion (let’s see – we’ve got bestiality, Satan worship, incest, what can we add? How about being Republican?)
That’s the other thing that’s so amazing about this movie – it’s such an incredible concept. How do you make a really, really funny movie. Simple: you just take something that comics all care about and can bond over, sell the concept to a hundred of the funniest people on the planet and get them on tape doing what they do best – being funny. If there’s real joy here, it comes from the fact that you can see some genuinely funny people just letting their hair down and going for it. There’s an improvisational quality to the movie that you just couldn’t get anywhere else.
It’s also, of course, a deeply graphic, cheerfully obscene romp. It’s a tribute to how truly the documentary captures the spirit of the joke that all this incredibly depraved talk seems harmless, almost casual. You’re shocked of course, but as someone says in the movie, shock is just a fancy word for surprise – and that’s what you’re really feeling – surprise – and not an unpleasant surprise at that. And the movie shows you how the obscenity itself is not the point – it’s the creativity, the challenge, the need to innovate. At its best, the Aristocrats joke is poetry, the ultimate form of word play. If you sit there getting upset about the obscenity and miss out on the humour, then the joke really is on you.
Bottomline: This is a hilariously funny and totally brilliant movie that had me laughing out loud pretty much from start to finish. Go watch it if you can – and be sure you get yourself a seat close to the aisle so you have plenty of space to roll about in.
DO NOT go to see this movie if you are:
a) My parents
b) A devout Catholic
c) A prude
d) The kind of person who says he / she’s not a prude, but there have to be some standards, after all
e) A believer in Family Values
f) A militant feminist
g) A troll
h) A long-time fan of Full House
i) An impressionable child
j) An impressionable parent
k) Someone who likes Mills and Boon.
l) Ignorant of the facts of life (see point k above)
m) The kind of person who takes pride in being politically correct
n) A person who think elders deserve respect (and does not equate respect with using them as convenient orifices)
o) A person with any inhibitions whatsoever
*After all, what other movie will describe, with such clarity, what a brass trumpet is? You can’t get that on the UGC programs.