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Documenting the dirtiest joke in ‘The Aristocrats’

Erin McGinn | Wednesday, September 7, 2005

“The Aristocrats” is one of the funniest movies of the year, which is no small feat considering that it is little more than a documentary about a single joke. Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) and Paul Provenza’s film is the filmic equivalent of a one-trick pony, but the trick itself is entertaining enough to carry through its 89 minutes. “The Aristocrats” is obscene and offensive, but the joke itself (and those telling it) is funny enough to overcome its perverse single-mindedness. More than anything, “The Aristocrats” is hilarious.

“A man walks into a talent agent’s office with his family and says, ‘Have I got an act for you!’ The talent agent replies, ‘So what do you do?'” So begins “The Aristocrats,” a film that documents a joke that has been handed down from comedian to comedian since the days of the old burlesque shows, but is rarely told on stage and is traditionally told only amongst comedians. The next part of the joke varies, allowing for improvisation, and the only requirement in telling the joke is that it be as offensive as possible.

There is no nudity and there is no violence, but Jillette and Paul Provenza managed to create a documentary vulgar enough to not be rated. “The Aristocrats,” features numerous comedians performing and analyzing the same joke, but is not for the light-hearted or those with weak stomachs.

The joke, originally from old burlesque shows, is known as being the most coarsely perverse ever performed, and traditionally is told only amongst comedians. While giving away the joke would ruin some of the film’s impact, the variations that accompany it are diverse enough that it remains fresh, vile, and funny some hundred years after it was first told.

For those able to withstand the joke, which in its most tame version contains references to incest, bestiality, necrophilia and bodily fluids, the movie is uproarious. Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette spent two years documenting as many versions of this infamous joke as possible, cornering comedians like Drew Carey, Whoopi Goldberg, Susie Essman and Paul Reiser whenever and wherever possible.

Other note-worthy comedians include Drew Carey, Andy Dick, Carrie Fisher, Whoopi Goldberg, Gilbert Gottfried, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart and dozens of others. Seeing Bob Saget, who references his role on “Full House,” perform the joke is reason alone to see the movie. The results are surprising, and often take their humor to places that may make sensitive viewers uncomfortable.

Far more than just a re-telling of a joke, “The Aristocrats” traces its history and tries to answer the question of why such an obscene joke is undeniably funny. By exploring the origin and path of the joke, the filmmakers side-step the potential for cinematic staleness. This segment is fascinating, as it explores how a joke changes (or largely stays the same) over the years.

Since the film is such a focused documentary, the normal criteria of review are, for all intents and purposes, dispensable. The movie is essentially about comedians entertaining other comedians without regard to the more sensitive public, which is pointed out in the film itself. Some of the comedians, such as Chevy Chase, actually held parties of which the only purpose was to tell the joke, where one single telling lasted for nearly an hour and a half.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park,” even created an animated segment featuring the show’s characters specially for this movie.

“The Aristocrats” is simply one of the best and funniest movies of the year. For all its obscenity, it is a pointed and effective documentary about the nature of the “dirty joke” as told by comedians throughout the year. For those who can withstand its vulgarity, “The Aristocrats” is highly recommended.