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STUDIO: Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment
RATED: Gloriously Unrated
RUNNING TIME: 107 Minutes
• Feature Commentary w/ Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza
• "Aristocrats do the Aristocrats" highlight reel
• "Behind the Green Room Door" additional jokes
• "For Johnny Carson" clip
• "Be an Aristocrat" contest winners
• Extended footage of comedians
Libertarians will love this movie! Nowhere else will you find a documentary so gleefully proud of its First Amendment protection. Filmmakers Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza treat the US Constitution like a gracious uncle, an entity they adore and who grants them the right to do as they please.
The topic of their pleasure is a single joke, called "The Aristocrats," because that’s its punchline. It is a joke so singularly dirty that it leaves all other sick jokes in its wake; it’s an improvisational joke, designed to give each comedian who tells it the leeway to sink to whatever depths of depravity he or she can plumb. It also makes for an hilarious topic among comedians, and lends itself perfectly to this sideways glance at some of the world’s funniest people.
Just to dispel any false assumptions, The Aristocrats isn’t a parade of comedians reeling off their versions of the famous joke. The movie is only ninety minutes long, and some tellings of the joke have — according to legend — gone on for upwards of thirty minutes. Besides, one hundred comedians doing the same joke with no interjections would have gotten dull, even despite the countless possibilities for variation.
Instead, what Jillette and Provenza have provided is a documentary not so much about a joke as it is about the comedians who tell it. In that way, it reminds me a bit of someone spoiling an illusionist’s show for you by telling you how the tricks work. The Aristocrats lets the comedians spoil their methods, their thought processes, on a level of discourse they wouldn’t touch if they were talking directly to an audience. It’s always a delicate balance, preserving the magic of something while working to learn more about it.
Imagine studio execs breathing a sigh of relief.
Fortunately, comedy is hardly ruined by poking at its origins, unlike magic, which requires the suspension of disbelief. Comedy thrives on the unexpected, and the best comedians — like the ones on this disc — create new outlets for humor faster than you can retch.
With a hundred comedians thrown at you in ninety slim minutes, you might think that the flow could get confusing. Not so! Paul Provenza and Emery Emery edited the crap out of their original hundred-seventy hours of footage, and the cut they give us moves along briskly. It must have been a monumental job. There is a lot of intercutting between comedians, creating faux-dialogues between them, and setting up a kind of camaraderie that reflects what the joke is designed to do.
The comedians aren’t labeled during the movie, which can be confusing for someone unfamiliar with certain faces. Everyone will recognize Robin Williams, but, sadly, the bullfrog face of Don Rickles isn’t quite so famous. There are only a few titles used throughout the movie, and those mostly for humorous effect. It keeps the audience from being distracted by the fame of the comedians, and instead focuses their attention on the subject. Unless, of course, the audience is the type to be distracted by niggling questions such as, "Where the hell have I seen her before?" Don’t worry: the whole merry cast is credited at the end.
I’m obviously keen on the successful construction of the movie, but I haven’t addressed whether it’s actually funny. It’s being advertised more as a comedy than a documentary, and I don’t have a problem with that: it’s downright hilarious. I once overheard two elderly women as they stood outside a cinema, regarding a poster for Sister Act. "I heard it’s hilarious," said one. "Absolutely. Hilarious," said the other. "My cousin told me it was hilarious; she liked it," said the first. The Aristocrats is not that sort of hilarious. The right audience — the one that admires how prototypical of a joke the topic is — will be having difficulty breathing once the different comedians start into their versions.
This ought to get you in the mood.
They’ve been highlighted in other reviews, but Billy the Mime, Bob Saget, and Sarah Silverman really pull gut-quaking humor out in their own distinct ways. Billy the Mime’s streetside antics will have you laughing not only at his exaggerated movements, but at the reactions of the bemused passersby. Bob Saget completely destroys his nice-guy image from the Full House television show. And I don’t think enough people can say enough good things about Sarah Silverman to equal her worth.
You’ll laugh. Like a timid version of the Men’s Warehouse guy, I can almost guarantee it. What’s more, you’ll laugh at a spectrum of varieties of humor, which is unexpected for what appears on the surface to be a one-note movie. This stuff isn’t counter-culture; the obscenity is a reflection of mainstream culture. It’s filthy and free to be so. I’ve rarely been so thrilled at having the First Amendment.
8.8 out of 10
It’s in 4:3 fullscreen and shot mostly on consumer cameras, according to the liner notes. It’s a bit difficult to score the look and transfer, since they are completely unimportant to the success of the film. I’m just going to tell you that it looks fine; there is nothing that will distract you from the content, unless you vomit uncontrollably at the sight of home movies.
7 out of 10
It’s all dialogue. It’s all dialogue in 5.1 Dolby surround. The comedians in front of the camera get ninety-nine percent of the focus, but there’s occasionally a muddy interjection from Provenza or Jillette from behind the camera. These interjections are difficult to understand, so occasionally you’re left figuring out what the question or prompt was by the context of the response.
7 out of 10
Not too shabby. With one-hundred-seventy hours of footage collected, you’d think there would be some leftovers, and you would be right. There are extended and deleted versions of the joke that didn’t fit into the movie; there are segments of the featured comedians telling some of their own jokes; there are contest winners who tell their own version of the joke; and there is a highlight reel of some of the filmmakers’ favorite tellings of the joke, mashed together to create one uber-joke.
In addition to that, Jillette and Provenza provide a wonderful commentary track. Jillette is the dominant personality (the fucker has a lot to say, and says it well), but Provenza holds his own, and the stream of information and anecdotes never slows down.
There’s also a brief tribute of sorts to Johnny Carson, who some of the comedians feel would very much appreciate "The Aristocrats."
There are also some trailers.
8 out of 10
Tommy always knows the joke.
There’s this dog, see, and this agent, and… Well, the artwork on the cover does a good job of referencing the joke. Unfortunately, it’s all smashed up together with so much garish text and large font review blurbs that it ends up looking like the front page of some glamour magazine. Subtlety sure wasn’t the aim. It looks like something you’d flip past in a magazine, not something you’ll keep on your shelf to treasure and to shock the in-laws.
6 out of 10
Overall: 8.9 out of 10