It’s been said that trying to explain why a joke is funny is a bit like dissecting a live frog; what’s left in either case is devoid of life. So from its beginning, the documentary The Aristocrats is on dangerous ground. And the film only gets more dangerous from there.
“The Aristocrats” is an old joke, passed among comedians, dating back to Vaudeville. What is unique about the joke is that while the set-up and punchline remain the same, the middle section, in which an outrageous stage act is described, is flexible, allowing comics try to out-do one another describing the most vulgar stage act possible. The punchline, in which the name of the act is revealed to be “The Aristocrats,” is almost anti-climactic to the joke, making it perhaps the only joke that exists more for its set-up than for its payoff. As comic/magician Penn Jillette notes, “It’s the singer, not the song.”
Stand-up comic turned director Paul Provenza and co-director Jillette have assembled 100 comics to talk about and tell their favorite version of the joke. Some comics tell it in a straightforward, albeit dirty, way. Some throw themselves into the telling of the joke, acting out scenarios handmotions and jumping around. Philadelphia born and bred comic David Brenner puts a Philly spin on his telling while Marion Cantone tells the joke with an hysterical over-the-top impersonation of Liza Manelli. Those only familiar with Bob Saget’s squeaky-clean television image are in for a rather rude awakening as his version of “The Aristocrats” is easily one of the three or four foulest versions in the movie, made only funnier by his incessant apologizing throughout its telling.
The joke seems to transcend traditional standup. Billy the Mime tells the joke wordlessly while hilariously equipped with a small, clip-on radio microphone. Magician Eric Mead turns it into an ingenious card trick. Even South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone contribute an animated version told by their foul-mouthed creations.
A word about the language in the film – it is as raw as it gets. “The Aristocrats” is a joke shared amongst comics, often told in what could be described as a comedy jam session. Words and disgusting images are bandied about that will definitely cause the easily offended to head up the aisles and out the theater. However, the rough language, which would easily have earned the film an NC-17 rating if it had been submitted to the MPAA, is important, because one of the film’s underlying themes is about the use of shock in comedy. While some may decry the use of dirty words in comedy simply for their shock value, the movie argues that working blue can be important to the craft of comedy. A joke’s punchline relies on the element of surprise and, as comic George Carlin points out in the film, “Shock and surprise are the same thing.”
Ultimately, by retelling the same joke and dissecting it down, The Artistocrats reveals much about comedy. However, the film never gets dry or academic, even when certain elements are repeated in various versions of the joke. The result is a bawdy seminar on the art of making people laugh.