“You had to be there.”
We’ve all said it. We’ve all heard it – when something is so funny, but cannot be adequately expressed to someone else. The real phrase shouldn’t be “You had to be there,” it should be “I can’t tell it.”
That, at the core, is what The Aristocrats is all about. On the surface it’s a movie about the dirtiest joke in the world (and it is abhorrent and repellant and hilarious) being told by about a hundred different comedians, but what makes the joke really special isn’t the punchline – which is weak – but the teller. "The Aristocrats" is a joke that’s unique because it changes completely with each person telling it.
The set up of the joke is simple: A guy walks into a talent agent’s office and says that he has a fantastic act with his family. The agent asks what they do. The man proceeds to reel off a list of the most disgusting perversions possible. The agent asks what they call themselves. “The Aristocrats!” is the answer.
It’s the middle part where the magic lies, and each of the hundred or so comedians in the film brings their own twisted take to that part. It’s a freeform joke, and the movie goes out of its way to explain to us that it’s like jazz, and that the beauty of the joke is that it’s all about the singer, not the song.
That’s obviously also the key to all comedy. It isn’t until you sit and watch this sheer number of comics delivering the joke that you begin to really understand how it isn’t what’s being said but how it’s being said that makes the thing so damn funny.
And it’s funny. This is a funny movie. I’m going to go so far as to say this is one of the funniest movies. Ever. I walked out of The Aristocrats hurting – my lungs wheezed from all the laughing I had done. My throat burned. My brain ached from the sheer tirade of filth that had been unleashed upon me.
It’s important to note that while everyone in the film remains clothed (especially Phyllis Diller, thank God, who claims to have fainted the first time she heard the joke), and while there is no violence, the film itself is stuffed to the gills with bestiality, incest, scat, murder, necrophilia, child abuse, 9/11 jokes, racial humor and more things that are sure to upset both right wing and left wing zealots. It’s not a film for people who don’t see the inherent humor of fucking an infant.
One of the joys of the film is seeing comedians who fell off the map at some point after the comedy boom. Jake Johanssen shows up, as does Emo Phillips. You may be astonished to see The Amazing Johnathan. Merrill Markoe may bring back memories, and Paul Krassner’s grizzled features may bring back dinner. Howie Mandell will reinforce why he’s not famous anymore.
There are some astonishing highlights as well – Gilbert Gottfried, who told the joke at the Friar’s Club Roast for Hugh Hefner weeks after 9/11 after a plane crashing into the Empire State Building joke fell flat, has been getting the most press. His bit is great, although I do think the most notable part of it is the puzzled look on Hef’s face.
But while Gottfried is good, Bob Saget is magic. Yes, that Bob Saget. Before getting into family TV shows, Saget was renowned as one of the filthiest comics on Earth, and here he gets a chance to really let loose with stuff that horrifies even himself. It’s a tour de force bit, watching a man who seems to have controlled Tourrette’s launch into a tirade of depravity as he can’t stop from cracking himself up. Actually, the finest moment in the film may well be Billy the Mime doing the joke. Surreal and amazing.
I knew the film would be funny. I had gotten past the fact that the premise looks bad on paper, I had come to the conclusion that it would work on film. I just didn’t expect a film as deep as this one, a film that carefully considers the meaning of comedy and its inner workings, all without taking a break from constant laughter. Director Paul Provenza (he worked with burly comedian Penn Jillette, whose voice can often be heard off camera) has assembled hundreds of hours of video into a movie that flows like a great performance should, peaking and ebbing at just the right moments to keep you hooked but not exhaust you.
It’s not often that I get a chance to say this and mean it, but The Aristocrats is a brilliant film.
9.4 out of 10