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Michelle Thomas

Published September 9th, 2005 | by Michelle Thomas

The Aristocrats Review

Classification: 18 Director: Paul Provenza Rating: 3.5/5

I started to write a summary and realised that there’s no need. ‘The Aristocrats’ is a legendary, filthy old joke. Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) decided to ask lots of their friends to tell this old joke and film them in order to show something about the nature of joke telling and the comedic process. And they do.

I’m not going to tell the joke, suffice it to say its pretty gross and not all that funny. But the joke is less the point than what it reveals about making art and storytelling. Provenza and Jillette have assembled a fantastic and varied group of comedians including George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah Silverman (The Incredibles), Paul Reiser, Hank Azaria, Carrie Fisher, Eric Idle, Eddie Izzard (who interestingly hadn’t heard the joke and didn’t much like it when he did), Billy Connelly, Robin Williams, Jason Alexander and many many others.

They filmed over 100 hours of footage of comedians telling this joke and have edited it together into something that resembles a live jazz performance. The comedians talk about the joke, perform the joke, riff on the joke; everyone’s timing, rhythm and pacing is different; everyone tells the joke differently, revealing something about themselves and the joke in the process; but what it illustrates, more than just a hundred ways to tell a fairly lame old joke, is something deeper about the nature of art and comedy that cannot be communicated directly in worlds.

Which makes it bloody difficult to write a review!

So I’ll content myself with describing some of the performances instead. The variety is quite astonishing: Billy the Mime brilliantly tells the joke in dumbshow while unsuspecting pedestrians stroll past; Eric Mead enacts the joke using a deck of Bicycle playing cards; Gilbert Gottfried causes Rob Schneider to fall off his chair during a fundraiser for 9:11 victims and their families; Trey Parker and Matt Stone create a special mini episode of South Park.

As so often discussed, people don’t really like to analyse comedy. There’s that feeling that if you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny. The actual joke, The Aristocrats, partly exists to push people’s buttons by talking about things that they find offensive and obscene, with comedians bringing in a variety of acts including every form of incest, bestiality and scatology. The way that each comedian chooses to tell the story is more important than the punchline itself.

The film is deliberately low-budget, guerrilla-style. Access to all these household names was facilitated by Provenza and Jillette’s deliberately low-key style film-making, and the atmosphere is always that of friends chatting and laughing. Ambient sound has not been cleaned up and interiors aren’t lit, so it’s all very informal, with a lot of the comedians in their dressing rooms, getting ready to go on stage.

The issue of obscenity is becoming a political one with the rise of the religious right in the USA, where libraries are being forced to take possibly racy books off their shelves, kids can be suspended for bringing Judy Blume novels to school, and writers, publishers and booksellers can be imprisoned for writing/selling anything perceived as too raunchy. Freedom of speech, which is being attacked in this country too, exists to protect the serious discussion of big ideas, but it extends to everyone and everything – not just the ideas that some people consider important, but also the right to tell filthy and offensive jokes. Even if you don’t find ‘em that funny.

I liked this one though: I saw two priests having supper and I didn’t know whether to send over a bottle of wine or a boy scout…


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