I never thought that a 90 minute documentary surrounding one joke could be so entertaining. And for all the praise that critics have heaped onto The Aristocrats, I was curious to see what the hype was. The film’s creators, comedians Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) spend the time interviewing many different comedians, and all of them share their thoughts about the joke. But it does a little more than that. Along with various versions of the joke, there is a deconstruction…of it from a realist’s point of view, but it takes on a deeper meaning. The joke perhaps is a larger metaphor for those who decide to go into comedy, giving them an idea of just how difficult it can be.
The joke itself is pretty basic, and here it is; a guy walks into a talent agent’s office, says that he’s got a great act for him to start booking, so when the agent asks to see the act, the guy brings his family into the office and they proceed to go into acts (to quote Niedermayer from Animal House) “so profound and disgusting, that decorum prevents me from listing them here.” After the family finishes and the agent asks what the act is, they say “The Aristocrats!”
Now by all means, the joke is a lot better sounding than what I wrote it out to be, but what the joke does is help to show the average person just how difficult stand-up can be. The joke is a very effective window into each comic’s sensibilities. It’s funny how all the guys who tell the joke go very quickly into sex and scatological stuff, while the women get into the smaller scale, more subtle material. The joke helps polish a comic’s writing skills, giving them carte blanche to do whatever they want with the joke, so long as it’s funny, even with that simplistic ending.
Because Provenza and Jillette have been around the comic clubs for so long, they are able to secure a who’s who of comics and comedians for the feature. Those who appear in the film to share their thoughts on the joke and the art they perform it in are George Carlin, Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Drew Carey, Whoopi Goldberg and Bob Saget. Yes, Bob Saget. Before you roll your eyes, Bob Saget is, far and away, one of the dirtiest comics on the stand-up circuit. He says things that will make you cringe, and he loves doing it.
Despite some of the more melodramatic things that occurred when the film was released (some of the free speech stuff is a little bit overblown on their part) along with some shoddy editing work, The Aristocrats is as good a look you can get inside a comic mind as possible. It’s a movie that you will enjoy seeing again and again.
The Aristocrats comes with 4:3 full frame video that is shot mostly from handheld camcorders that you or I may have. Everything looks clear with very little edge enhancement, and is nice to watch.
While the film has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, why waste it on a dialogue driven film with very little music or surround effects? Whatever action that occurs in the film is all coming through the center and front speakers, so there’s nothing you won’t miss.
Wow, a 90 minute documentary gets all of this? Starting things off, there’s a commentary with Jillette and Provenza that covers who’s in the film, along with some small off-camera stuff worth a few chuckles. There’s extended footage with Saget, Goldberg, Stewart, Black, Jason Alexander, Phyllis Diller, Terry Gilliam, and Ron Jeremy (?) They share their own versions of the joke and some other smaller stories that are somewhat funny. Next is a 5 minute highlight reel, entitled The Aristocrats Do The Aristocrats. There’s a quick clip entitled “For Johnny Carson” that doesn’t appear to make much sense, and another 15 minutes of jokes from many of the comics of the film that are equally as funny, some even more so. An online contest where there were winners for the best online Aristocrats are featured, along with some trailers.
This film may go the furthest that I’ve seen into the warped insight of a comic mind. It’s got some chuckles in it from some of the brightest minds in comedy, and it proves that being a comic is tougher than it looks. Comedy fans are encouraged to add this to their Netflix queue.
Special Features List
- Director’s Commentary
- Additional Footage
- Comedians Tell Their Favorite Joke
- The Aristocrats do “The Aristocrats”
- “For Johnny Carson”
- Online contest winning clips