Film review by: Witney Seibold
So, a guy walks into a talent agent’s office, and says, like one would, “Have I got an act you.” “Tell me about it” says the agent. “It’s a family act” says the man… He then describes an act full of sex, usually incorporating incest, pederasty, and scatology, sometimes bestiality, sometimes necrophilia, sometimes coprophagy (look it up), and sometimes death and mutilation. “That’s quite an act,” says the agent, “whattaya call it?” Drumroll. “’The Aristocrats.’” Rimshot.
Yeah, I didn’t think the joke was funny either. But, like most jokes, it’s all in the telling. And in Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza’s documentary on the Vaudeville-era backstage joke that is never told to audiences, but is legend among comedians, we hear the joke told myriad ways from scads of comedians with varying levels of success. Some comedians point out that the joke is, indeed, not funny. Some try to clean it up a bit. Others go for broke. Among the funnier: Emo Philips’ delivery of the joke fits his peculiar brand of humor. The kids of South Park fall right into the flow of the filth. Sarah Silverman’s odd deadpan works well. Surprisingly, the dirtiest of the joke-tellers is none other than Bob Saget. There is a mime version of the joke (!). And Gilbert Gottfried, back in September of 2001, right after the World Trade Center incident, is shown telling the joke to a room of depressed celebrities. The result is not only funny, it’s cathartic. Also interviewed are greats like George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Robin Williams, and The Smothers Brothers, to list a few in an enormous rogue’s gallery of comics. We get a woman’s perspective; it’s definitely a man’s joke, especially the fellatio-heavy tellings. The British comedians interviewed (among them Eric Idle and Eddie Izzard) don’t understand why we Yanks find the word “aristocrat” so funny, since we don’t really have any, and they do.
The joke is not really a “joke” per se. It’s more an excuse to break taboos; to see just exactly how much blue material (what a quaint term in light of the film’s copious filth) you can describe in front of other people. It defines the term “shock value.” There’s still something in all of us, I think, that delights in being dirtier than we know we should, and the joke The Aristocrats lets us roll around in that feeling for as long as we want to tell the joke, and has been available to comics since the early days of joke-telling. And so we laugh in spite of ourselves.