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"It kind of makes its own gravy, this joke."
DVD ReviewThe thing is, the joke itself isn't even that funny. And the title, being the punchline, kind of gives away the store. This is a movie about a single joke, ostensibly; but it's in fact about the history of comedy and entertainment, about the power of language, about mutable social standards, and about just what sort of person has an incessant need to make us laugh, for a living. Goodness knows you don't want to wake Grandma and the kids for this one, and you have to be prepared for a lot of stuff that's just unbelievably, almost unimaginably offensive. (The movie is unrated, but the menus on this DVD alone would justify slapping the feature with an NC-17.) But if you are, the rewards of The Aristocrats are many, and it's deeply hilarious and thought-provoking in all kinds of ways.
So a guy walks into a talent agent's office, and says: "Have I got an act for you!" The agent asks him to tell him about it; the guy proceeds to describe a litany of onstage transgressive behaviors: incest, bestiality, coprophilia, and on and on, in astonishing permutations that I just can't describe if we're going to keep dOc a family-friendly website. When he's done, the agent says: "That's a hell of an act. What do you call it?" "The Aristocrats!"
The joke is the stuff of comedy clubs after hours, a bit handed down when the rest of us have gone home—and the fun of it isn't the destination, but the journey. That is, it's all about stretching the joke out as long as you can, and coming up with the most offensive stuff you can, making it sort of a simple tune on which musicians with potty mouths instead of saxophones can riff, without having to care about whether or not it's going to play in Peoria. Comics Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette made the picture, and as members of the fraternity, got the brightest lights in comedy to sit for interviews. And so we get many retellings of the joke, along with considerations of its pedigree, and asides on what makes it funny—the joke becomes sort of a funhouse mirror held up to nature, and how you tell the joke and what you choose to emphasize tells us a whole lot about who you are. The most vengeful, and bordering on satanic, is Bob Saget, who tells it with dangerously gleeful relish—in some respect, however, that may be the only appropriate response to all those years on Full House. George Carlin is the eminence grise; Phyllis Diller, the link to an earlier era. Whoopi Goldberg and Rita Rudner speculate on whether or not it's a guys' joke, and Chris Rock on whether or not it's a white guys' joke.
Many of the faces are familiar, but some of the best stuff comes from those who aren't necessarily identifiable on a first-name basis. These include Chris Albrecht, the president of HBO, and Dana Gould, a writer on The Simpsons, and maybe my favorite standup of all time. And even if you think you've seen it all and are world weary about comedy and show business, there's a risible kick from watching Jason Alexander work blue, or to hearing Howie Mandel discuss the particular intimacies of the female anatomy at length. You may no longer believe that imitation is the highest form of flattery once you hear Kevin Pollak do the joke as Christopher Walken telling it to James Lipton, or Mario Cantone do it as Liza Minnelli; you'll want both to laugh and to call Child Protective Services when you see Andy Richter tell it to his infant son.
It all amounts to a kind of shadow history of show business, reaching back to vaudeville, up through and beyond South Park—even Cartman tells a version here—and we're poignantly asked to consider whether or not ethnicity has replaced sexuality as the great taboo we're not allowed to discuss. And the power of comedy to deflate and to heal is nowhere more evident than in the tale of (can you believe it?) Gilbert Gottfried, while performing at a Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner, just three weeks after the 9/11 attacks. He rips into the joke, and letting the secret out of the back room and into the spotlight seemed to have had an almost cathartic power—the laughter spills from the audience not because it's the funniest joke ever, but at that time, you had to be able to laugh again at something. It's a pistol of a movie, and it's intentionally incredibly offensive. So its appeal may be limited, and its audience self-selecting—but if you've read this far, you really owe it to yourself to check it out, even if you've got to bust out the headphones to listen to it.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Much of this looks like shaky old home movies, which is sort of appropriate—anything too polished would be all wrong for the subject matter, and the transfer to DVD is sufficient.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 track seems a tad excessive, and there's occasionally too much static, but that's to be expected with a movie shot under these circumstances. Also, there are occasional sync problems, particularly with Paul Reiser.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring When Standup Stood Up, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till
21 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette
Extras Review: An informative and very funny package of extras. Twenty-one deleted scenes (01h:30m:12s) run longer than the feature—they include interviews with some who didn't make the final cut (including Terry Gilliam and Ron Jeremy), extended riffs from those in the film (including Jon Stewart, who refuses to tell the joke), and the cherry on the sundae is (no joke) Love Theme from The Aristocrats. Provenza and Jillette vie for time on the commentary track, and they're almost a little manic, but there's some terrific stuff here. They explain why Billy the Mime wore a microphone pack while doing his rendition of the joke (to capture the laughter of bystanders), go over the elaborate response to the movie from Christian websites, attest to Saget's sweetness in real life, and speculate as to whether or not Hank Azaria is our Peter Sellers.
Somebody went wild at the editing bay and came up with The Aristocrats do "The Aristocrats" (05m:19s), the joke all the way through in tag-team fashion. For Johnny Carson (02m:05s) is a sweet if foul-mouthed tribute, with Larry Miller telling Carson's favorite joke, and Dana Gould doing a great Carson, Johnny telling the aristocrats joke. Behind the Green Room Door (16m:08s) features other favorite jokes from Miller, Carlin, Reiser, and others, and you'll also find what are billed as contest winners (10m:04s)—I assume that the producers ran some sort of competition for best versions of the joke from fans, and one of them here is live action, the other animated. Provenza and Jillette also contribute liner notes.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsThe Aristocrats is at least as offensive as you might imagine, and almost certainly more so. No doubt there are plenty of people out there who will be put off right away by the notion of some of our most beloved comedians—Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg—working blue, and who won't be able to see past the cascades of profanity, and vulgarity that's frequently jaw-dropping. But if you're up for it, you get to be in on the secret, and the movie is an almost accidental meditation on social mores and shibboleths, on changing notions of gender and ethnicity, and a chance to speculate on just what sort of psychological damage Saget might have inflicted on Ashley and Mary-Kate between takes.
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