Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Aristocrats (Provenza, 2005)

Strangely enough, the ultra-profane documentary, The Aristocrats, in which numerous comedians are asked to discuss, dissect and then tell the world’s dirtiest joke, has something in common with the G-rated nature documentary, March of the Penguins. Apart from the fact that both have long, detailed descriptions of the process of procreation, both take subject matter that might possibly be fascinating in an hour-long cable special and then stretch it out about thirty minutes too long so that the film might be released as a feature. I like filmmaker’s premise here – to analyze the nature of comedy by taking one joke and breaking it down – but in the last half of the film, we’ve pretty much covered all that there needs to be said about The Aristocrats. Is the joke really that hard to get? There’s the set-up, then loads of filth and then a disconnect when the name of the group is revealed. If anything, the film proves that there at least one element that will certainly kill comedy. Repetition.

Sadly, despite the fact that the filmmakers have supposed brought together the world’s foremost comedic minds, very few of the performers actually distinguish themselves from one another. If this joke is what the filmmakers say it is, a sort of opportunity for comedians to showcase their skills, then a large percentage of these performers fail to rise to the challenge. What is more, many of these interviews seem to have been conducted as if the subjects received a knock on the door five minutes previous and have had little time to organize their thoughts on the subject, let alone a rendition of the joke worth hearing. Eddie Izzard, one of the funniest men in the world, confesses that he has never heard the joke before and then proceeds to attempt to tell it anyway. Jon Stewart looks like he has been ambushed by the crew from 60 Minutes. Drew Carey forgets to wear his trademark glasses and forces us to stare at his ultra-creepy eyeballs.

Some people tell a similar, but different joke entirely, and manage to get laughs. However, as far as simply having the courage to tell the joke straight, George Carlin pretty much nails it early on in the film and most of the performers look like hacks by comparison. I also enjoyed the rendition by the Smothers Brothers, which worked surprisingly well with their goofball-straight man shtick. The joke works there, most likely, because the brothers are a product of a gentler time. We don’t expect them to work with obscene material and, for a moment, we glimpse how shocking the joke must have been in a time when profanities weren’t a routine part of movies, cable and sometimes even network television. Lewis Black offers perhaps the most insightful commentary, noting that the joke doesn’t translate well to our times because the litany of profanities gets lost in the profane atmosphere in which we live our lives. Leave it to the South Park gang to touch on subject matter that is more taboo to this generation than sodomy, bestiality, incest and defecation (not that they are above these topics).

In the end, The Aristocrats, is only partly successful in accomplishing its stated mission. It is certainly funny in places, but too often it falters when the comedians interviewed either seem to express a distaste for the subject matter, an unwillingness to go along with the conceit of the film, or a lack of preparation to pull off the joke in a satisfactory manner. I am not convinced that the editing together of this film really improves on simply letting a series of comedians tell the joke in their own way, without outside commentary, back to back and letting the viewer make their own assessment of what makes great comedy. After all, nothing ruins a good joke (or even a joke of questionable worth) like someone who needs to have the joke explained.


Note: The film’s tagline -- No Nudity No Violence Unspeakable Obscenity – is a lie. In the closing credits, we are forced to endure the sight of Carrot Top’s ass.

Note #2: The one performer that I can’t believe they didn’t get for this film is David Cross who, for my money, is today’s king of politically incorrect humor.


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