Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 17, 2005
The Aristocrats
Starring 100 comedians. Directed by Paul Provenza. Not rated.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
The Joke That Kills

Expecting sophisticated humor from The Aristocrats? You’re in the wrong place.

By KRISTIAN LIN

Without question, The Aristocrats has more comic talent onscreen than any film in recent memory, yet it isn’t even the funniest movie out this week (see above review). This entire nonfiction piece revolves around a single, ancient insider joke among comedians, about a family pitching their show-business act to a talent agent. The punchline is always the same: The act is called “The Aristocrats.” The act itself is different in each telling, as each comedian makes it as horrendously vile as possible. Nothing is off limits — incest, bestiality, coprophilia, necrophilia, eating babies — anything you can imagine and a lot of stuff you can’t. As stated early on, comics almost never tell the joke to a live audience. Instead, they tell it to each other for mental exercise, for professional bonding, or for killing time after gigs.

Here, they tell it to the camera. “The Aristocrats” is mercilessly worked over by a parade of comedians, ranging from The Smothers Brothers to the South Park kids (Cartman tells the joke, naturally). The female comics try to be as nasty as the guys, and the gay comics are every bit as nasty as the straight ones. Andy Dick is nastiest of all, Whoopi Goldberg is surprisingly tame, and Steven Wright, who focuses purely on violence, is the most horrifying. Andy Richter recites it to his infant son. A very pregnant Judy Gold involves her unborn baby in the joke. Mario Cantone, Hank Azaria, and Kevin Pollak impersonate other people. Sarah Silverman, true to form, relates it in character as an Aristocrat. Rita Rudner takes the joke apart. Wendy Liebman flips it on its side. Eric Mead does some nifty card tricks coordinated with his narration. Steven Banks, a.k.a. Billy the Mime, performs it without words. The juggling act The Passing Zone tosses around flaming torches while delivering it. The staff of The Onion sits down and charts it out on a whiteboard. (“We wouldn’t be The Onion if we didn’t have someone fucking Jesus.”) Bob Saget goes on and on and on. Richard Jeni screws it up. And Richard Lewis doesn’t do the joke at all, slamming it as feeble. His colleagues pretty much agree with that assessment.

The obvious question is: How does a film like this avoid becoming repetitious? Well, director Paul Provenza (a veteran standup himself) can’t pull off that trick. Analyzing each comedian’s individual technique and the way their version of the joke reflects their personality is fascinating, and if the material’s depravity turns you off, you should remember that comedy wouldn’t exist if its practitioners didn’t think this way. Still, that doesn’t make the retellings any less tiring. Maybe it would have helped a bit had the film included more comics of color — I’d like to have heard Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Griffin, or Margaret Cho. Regardless, after about 20 minutes spent with The Aristocrats, there’s no further insight to be gleaned, unless you didn’t already know that comics tend to be majorly messed up in the head. We love them for it, though, don’t we?


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