Friday, September 09, 2005

Review - The Aristocrats

There is an infamous joke which comes in a short or long version. Here’s the short one:

A man walks into the office of a theatrical agent and tells him that he and his family perform an act which will amaze him.
“What do you do?” asks the agent.
“Well, my wife and kids and I come out onto the stage, pull down our trousers, shit on the stage, and take a bow to rapturous applause” says the man.
“Wow” says the startled agent, “what the hell do you call an act like that?”.
“The Aristocrats!” comes the reply.

That’s the short telling of the joke anyway. For the long version you’ll have to watch The Aristocrats, a new documentary which focuses on this single gag alone. The thing with this joke is that only two parts of it remain constant - the set-up and the punch line - and in between the teller of the joke has carte blanche to make his rendition the dirtiest, most obscene, most offensive version imaginable. Most of the versions told in The Aristocrats contain incest, bestiality, rape and bodily fluids - and that’s just for starters. Nothing is off limits for a person telling this joke and that’s what makes it so popular among comedians. It’s a joke they will rarely tell in public but instead they keep it among themselves, sort of a comic secret handshake, and it has attained legendary status within the comics’ circle.

The Aristocrats gives over 100 comedians the chance to give their version of the gag and to discuss the history and impact of “the world’s dirtiest joke”. Directed by Paul Provenza, the film is an insight into the mechanics of joke-telling and the evolution this particular gag has undergone as tastes change, taboos die, and people become increasingly hard to shock.

The thing with The Aristocrats is that the central joke is not in itself a very funny one. The weak punch line is liable to result in a blank look from anyone hearing it and so it becomes all about the middle section where the comedian is given free reign. As a result, most of the laughter the joke receives comes from the audience’s sense of surprise and incredulity at the unspeakable acts which are being described. Each contributor manages to run the full gamut of sexual acts, scatology and taboos, but when you start to adjust to the level of profanity the film contains, its deficiencies become all too clear.

The Aristocrats is a 90-minute film which has no right to be that length. Initially the structure adopted by Provenza and producer Penn Jillette works well, as it sets up the context of the joke and flits between various comics as they put their own spin on the matter. However, as the film progresses the novelty of the joke begins to pall and the endless barrage of vulgarity starts to wear thin. The Aristocrats becomes repetitive, messy and often quite dull the further it goes; and the hit-and-miss nature of the humour begins missing the target more often than not.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t some hilarious material here. The film works best when the performers take the premise into really interesting and unusual directions rather than just aiming to offend. A magician and a mime give two of the most original and engaging displays, Kevin Pollack does his in the style of Christopher Walken, while the most of the interviewees involved agree that the finest rendition was performed by Gilbert Gottfried at a Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner. It was an event which took place just weeks after 9/11 and after a joke about the attack didn’t go down well Gottfried launched headlong into this joke instead, one of the few public performances of the material which had the room convulsing with laughter as the comedian ad-libbed an extraordinary tale. It’s one of the best clips in the film and what gives it such potency is the setting, the context and the quality of the delivery. These are factors a good joke needs and ones which most of the efforts in The Aristocrats lack.

At times it seems that The Aristocrats falls halfway between two very good films while never deciding what it wants to be. The comics involved will often offer some interesting and insightful analysis on what makes the joke work but the filmmakers’ attention to this aspect of the film is superficial, and just when the film seems to be moving into potentially interesting territory late on - as it broaches the subject of race and religion becoming the new boundaries - it finishes, leaving this avenue frustratingly unexplored. Likewise, you sometimes just wish Provenza and Jillette would allow a couple of the comedians a bit of breathing space to do what they do best, but their constant leaping from one to another never allows any sort of rhythm to develop and The Aristocrats becomes an uneasy mixture of the two styles.

The Aristocrats never really gets its priorities straight and the end result seems a little redundant. The potential was there to make a documentary which explored the very basic concepts of comedy but Provenza’s film lacks weight and, although you will undoubtedly laugh on a number of occasions while watching it, few of the routines will linger in the memory afterwards. One of the film’s highlights is a version of the joke being told by South Park’s Cartman, one of the great comedy characters, and it only goes to prove that what matters in comedy is the teller not the joke. The only other thing The Aristocrats proves is that there’s nothing quite as dull as the feeling of being shocked all the time.