Aristocrats, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

According to several of the roughly 100 talking heads in The Aristocrats, The Joke has been around for a long time, dating back to the days of vaudeville. In addition to being called "The Aristocrats," it has other names, like "The Sophisticates." It goes something like this: A man walks into a talent agent's office and says, "Have I got an act for you! It's the most incredible, original act you'll ever see. My family goes on stage and does… [insert a variety of unspeakable acts, often involving incest, sexual deviancy, bestiality, necrophila, and scatology]" When he's done, the talent agent replies, "That's quite a show. What are you called?" The response (and punch-line): "The Aristocrats."

No, it's not funny, especially when presented in such a straightforward manner. The humor comes from the way it is told and the kinds of riffs and variations that arise from each indivual telling. The Aristocrats presents about three dozen variations of the joke, all performed by recognizable comedians. Some of the interpretations (usually the most literal ones) are dull and unfunny. But others are inspired. There's Kevin Pollak telling the joke while doing his best Christopher Walken impersonation. A mime acts it out to hilarious effect (watch the passers-by). Bob Saget gets down and dirty (and closes by asking that a tape of his version be sent to his former "Full House" co-stars). George Carlin spews the "seven words you can't say on TV" in a matter-of-fact voice. The South Park kids try to figure out what it means. And Gilbert Gottfried brings down the house in October 2001 at a Hugh Hefner roast. (Some claim this was the ultimate telling of The Joke. Just ask Rob Schneider, who is convulsed with laughter on the floor.)

The problem with the documentary is that director Paul Provenza asks his cast of dozens to pontificate about why the joke is legendary, whether it's really funny, why comedians love it, etc. A little of this goes a long way, and there's way too much of it. Plus, he has an annoying tendency to break into longer versions of The Joke, destroying continuity and comedic momentum. And many of his guest comedians aren't given an opportunity to tell their version. I was waiting to hear Phyllis Diller's rendition all evening.

The film is about as profane as a movie can be but, ironically, most of the really funny moments result from "cleaner" comments (relatively speaking, that is). Profanity is so commonplace these days that it no longer has any shock value. And the punch-line is lame. So it's up to the improvising comedian to infuse the joke with new energy - something some are able to do and others are not. The most interesting aspect of watching The Aristocrats results from dissecting the different performances and determining why some work and others don't. For example, Kevin Pollak is funny not because he's telling The Joke, but because he's imitating Christopher Walken. He would get as many laughs reciting pages from the phone book.

About 30 to 45 minutes of The Aristocrats is funny, and another 15 minutes is interesting from a philosophical/sociological perspective. Unfortunately, this is a 90 minute documentary, so one-third of the running time is uninspired filler. The ads for the film boast of a cast of 100 comedians, but that's misleading. Even if you count every talking head, Provenza falls short, and many of his interviewees aren't on screen for more than a few seconds. He frequently returns to a few familiar faces, including Carlin, Gottfried, Saget, Paul Reiser, Whoopi Goldberg, and Penn Jillette (who is one of the executive producers). One comedian who caught my attention is the caustic Pat Cooper, who has a couple of quick sound bytes (one of which is: "The Joke stinks").

The Aristocrats is good for a few belly laughs, but not much more. In a year filled with rich and imaginative documentaries, this is one of the ugly stepchildren. If you aren't offended by the extreme quantity of obscenity, you are pretty much guaranteed to laugh - and quite hard at times. But The Aristocrats doesn't offer an experience that will stay with viewers. Like The Joke after which it is named, it's easily dismissed.

Aristocrats, The (United States, 2005)

Director: Paul Provenza
Cast: George Carlin, Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Paul Reiser, Bob Saget, Whoopi Goldberg
Music: Gary Stockdale
U.S. Distributor: ThinkFilm
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2005-08-12
MPAA Rating: "NC-17" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1