2005, NR, 86 min. Directed by Penn Jillette, Paul Provenza.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 26, 2005
"The aristocrats!" It’s the non sequitur punchline to a filthy joke well-known among comedians. It’s mostly a joke they tell one another, not something usually performed onstage. That’s not because of the appalling litany of disgusting physical acts the joke describes – not necessarily. Rather, the joke is one for the connoisseurs, other comedians who, already knowing the punchline, can concentrate on the delivery. You can picture performers backstage after-hours or in their downtime trying to top one another in the telling, because everyone tells it differently. That is this joke’s delight: the individual paths taken to arrive at the payoff. The journeys are as various as the individuals who tell the joke. Directors Jillette (of the magic duo Penn & Teller) and Provenza (primarily a comic actor) recognize that the joke is merely a vessel for the personal exercise of style. No two versions are the same. It’s like a still life painted by dozens of artists: No two look alike because each depicts a unique vision or interpretation. True, the joke – which at its mildest includes multigenerational incest, bestiality, necrophilia, coprophagia, and much, much more – tends to get raunchier as the joke tellers attempt to outdo all the perversions that came before. At its most pure, this documentary becomes an essay about individuality and style. Usually, formal attempts at analyzing what makes a joke funny annihilate the humor, along with the messenger. The Aristocrats is the rare analysis of the workings of comedy that doesn’t destroy the humor in the process of taking it apart. Comedians as diverse as George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Paul Reiser, Jackie Martling, Robin Williams, the Smothers Brothers, Eddie Izzard, and dozens more all put their signature on the joke or tell stories about legendary versions they have heard. There are the rumored parties at Chevy Chase’s house where one version is said to have lasted an hour and a half; there’s the fateful Friars Club Roast held shortly after 9/11 where Gilbert Gottfried resorted to the joke as a last-ditch attempt to get a response from the not-ready-to-laugh crowd; there’s Sarah Silverman’s deadpan confessional that cuts close to the bone and to the goodwill of interviewer Joe Franklin; and there’s Bob Saget’s rendition in which the scatological extremes he reaches seem to be some kind of Full House career renovation. At the very least, The Aristocrats provides a survey of some of the best comic minds in the business. Although the material they dissect is considered offensive by virtually all human standards (the film would have received an NC-17 if it had been submitted for rating), it’s important to remember that the movie contains nothing but words. And through their language, these comics delight us with the myriad routes they take to reach the same punchline. In comedy, as in life, it’s the journey, not the outcome, that proves most fascinating. (See p.58 of this week’s Screens section for an interview with Penn Jillette.)