Aristocrats, The

dir: Paul Provenza
[img_assist|nid=911|title=Very hoity toity|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=429]
Many (bad) comedies and films in general are often accused of being one joke movies stretched out painfully for an hour and a half more than they should be. Many of Jim Carrey’s movies fall into this category (the one joke being on the audience for paying to watch him twitch, flail and fulminate). The Passion of the Christ fits the bill. The Ahnuld – De Vito flick Twins falls into this category (They’re so different!) Anything arising from a television sketch show is emblematic of this plague upon all our houses when it defecates itself onto our silver screens.

Well, in The Aristocrats, we have instead a movie about one joke, and the myriad permutations and combinations thereof. And even though the flick is about this one joke, it is nothing like the aforementioned craptacular extravaganzas referred to earlier.

I guess you could call it a documentary, but that makes it sound like a studied, plotted course taken to reveal the origins and mysteries surrounding a legendary joke dating back to the vaudeville era. Which it approximates, but mostly it’s a bunch of talking heads either talking about the joke or telling their version of the joke.

The joke about the joke is that it’s not a joke comedians supposedly tell the public. It’s meant to be, if we believe all of these notorious shit-talkers, a joke comedians tell each other as a rite of passage, a peer test or qualification, an imprimatur. It’s like a Masonic handshake, or an in-joke for the jokers. It’s not for us great unwashed in the potential audience.

It’s a joke the professional gagsters tell each other when they’re hanging out or drunk at 4 am or both. It can be brief or someone can make it run for hours, seeing where it takes them.

The key element of the joke is that it’s not that funny, and also that the joke itself especially lends itself to adaptation to an individual comic’s intentions.

The essential premise is that someone walks into a booking agent’s office, and starts telling them about a stage act he and his family perform. The person goes on to describe a sequence of the most obscene acts they can think of perpetrated by and on the family of performers. The joke goes on and on down whatever path the comic wants it to go, describing acts increasingly more disgusting and disturbing than the last.

Eventually, when the person selling the act describes the finale, they are asked by the agent some variation on, “So, what’s the act called?”

To which the punch-line is, “The Aristocrats”.

On its own, or on paper, the joke isn’t that rib-tickling or ball-bursting. But the way the different comics here approach it makes for some pretty funny moments in what is overall a pretty entertaining movie.

For my money, listening to someone listing the worst, most scatological and pornographic acts they can think of isn’t necessarily as interesting as when some of the people here talk about the joke itself. Yet the accumulated build up of filth reaches an apotheosis after a while.

Initially, at least with me watching it, there’s the initial disgust with some of the crap (literally) referred to. Then there’s increasing unease. Then a certain numbness.

But the film is so well structured (in terms of the sequencing of the segments) that once that numb point is reached, they find ways to up the stakes even higher. Some of the material transcends the heights or depths of what I thought even the bluest of comedians would ever say. As such, my horizons have been somewhat broadened, like some of the orifices mentioned in the multiple tellings of the joke.

It can’t by definition be the dirtiest joke of all time, because it’s so freeform and when it’s left to being a catalogue of depravity, like De Sade’s 100 Days of Sodom, another joke which mentions + 1 more vile act is therefore dirtier. But in the hands of some of these guys, it rises above or beyond any boundary you thought people would impose upon themselves or those around them.

Even if I don’t necessarily believe this joke is the comedy world’s Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is believable that comedians would live and breath a world of humour, especially amongst themselves, where there would always be the impulse to go further than someone else. This is neither the time nor place to debate whether humour needs to be vulgar to be funny (fucking oath it does), but you can see how such a question would intrigue groups of people who make a living from making others laugh. And there’s no tougher audience than your peers.

The list of talent here is amazing. There’s also a lot of unfunny shitbirds in the mix, but there are enough people with enough to say either through the joke or about the joke that even when someone’s a bit flat, there’s someone else a few seconds later.

Billy Connolly, Drew Carey, George Carlin, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, Martin Mull, Larry Miller, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Izzard (who I couldn’t understand), Gilbert Gottfried (who always sounds like his testicles are rupturing) Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Taylor Negron, Kevin Pollock (imitating Christopher Walken telling the joke), Robin Williams and plenty more.

Sarah Silverman tells the joke in a lacklustre way, seeming to be bored by it, and then twists it in such an awful way that I can’t help but admire her for it. The mouth on that girl.

Of most interest were a few of the people who told the joke in completely different ways. One guy tells the joke using playing cards as a sequence of card tricks, which works remarkably well, and sounds so stupid on paper. One performer tells the whole joke, complete with bestiality and incest, in mime. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have Cartman tell the other South Parks kids the joke in a brief (and horrifyingly wrong but funny) animated sequence. One guy with a ventriloquist dummy tells the joke and variations on it in ways and with language that shocked even me. Even me.

Some of the performers veer so far away from the joke that you realise with people who crack wise for a living, anything and everything is usually a tangent to somewhere else One of the funniest renditions avoids the whole stage act aspect and meshes in with one of those ‘A rabbi, a catholic priest and a reverend get caught by cannibals’ jokes, still ending with the same punch-line, and is funnier than the base joke.

I enjoyed it, I’m a sucker for these kinds of programs, even realising as I do that to analyse something as subjective and fragile as humour is to destroy it. But this easy going and, most importantly, funny meditation on a joke entertained me more than the vast majority of comedy films ever do.

By the same token, it’s more wryly amusing than it is a pants-wetting side-splitter.

I’m not going to tell the joke, or even a version of it to finish the review, but I will relate my favourite joke from the DVDs special features, which is told by an ancient comedian called Pat Cooper, who, to put things in context, was born in 1929.

A man living in Jerusalem has been going to pray every day at the Wailing Wall for most of his long life. A journalist hears of this, and tries to interview him.
He asks him: “What do you pray for, old man?”
The man says: “I pray for the good health of my family, I pray for peace around the world, I pray for the Israelis and the Palestinians to stop killing each other, I pray for peace in Iraq, I pray for the poor and the needy.”
The journalist asks “Does it work?”
The man says: “What do you think, I’m praying to a fucking wall.”

7 times I completely fuck up the punchlines of every joke I try to tell out of 10

“A man walks into a talent agent's office and says that he has an act...” The Aristocrats.