It's not just the dirty joke

Movie Reviews

August 12, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Heard the one about the documentary that features the same joke told about 100 times? About the joke that's so filthy, you'll never read it in this newspaper (except via some very delicate paraphrasing, which we'll get to later)? About the filmmakers who don't want you to see this if you offend easily?

Such is The Aristocrats, in which an all-star lineup of American comics (and a few Brits as well) tells variations of the same off-color joke, one that for decades has been delivered backstage at nightclubs, comedy clubs, friar's clubs and probably some other clubs we dare not mention. It's served as sort of a secret handshake among the comedy crowd, and hearing it, you'll understand why.

The joke, toned down considerably for mass consumption, involves a guy walking into an agent's office and describing his act. What follows is a litany of the vilest, most perverted practices possible, including pedophilia, incest, beastiality, masochism, sadistic violence, fratricide, matricide, etc. When he finishes, the dumbfounded agent asks the name of the act, at which point is uttered the punch line (which doubles as the name of the movie).

Yeah, it's not much of a joke. "It's the opposite of a joke, really," one comedian admits, meaning it's not intrinsically funny, hardly clever and not the sort of thing you tell in polite company to help break the ice.

No, the essence of the joke lies not in its construction, but in its delivery. No two comics tell it alike, and the lengths to which some stretch it out have become legendary; 90-minute versions of the joke are said to have been concocted. Many of the comics speak in hushed, reverent tones about a version told by Gilbert Gottfried not long after 9/11 that served as a comedic icebreaker of mythic proportions (regrettably, we never get to see Gottfried's entire performance, just snippets).

Likewise, the essence of The Aristocrats lies not in the joke, or even in its shock value (though that's considerable). This is a movie about why we laugh, about what drives comedians to do what they do, about creativity and ribaldry and the human love of being shocked. Be honest: Who hasn't laughed at a dirty joke at some point in their lives?

Directed by comedian Paul Provenza and executive produced by Penn Jillette (the vocal half of Penn & Teller), The Aristocrats is simplicity itself - just a bunch of people telling a joke, really - but it's both outrageously funny and undeniably revealing.

George Carlin is among the first to tell the joke, and offers some welcome insights into its origins (vaudeville), development and staying power. Phyllis Diller says she fainted the first time she heard it. Throughout, we keep hearing about how one of the best deliverers of the joke is Bob Saget of TV's Full House (who knew the Olsen twins were in such peril!), and when we finally hear him, he doesn't disappoint.

There's also Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Paul Reiser, Kevin Pollak (who channels a legendarily intense actor to tell his version), Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Drew Carey, Sarah Silverman (whose version is alone worth the price of admission), the Smothers Brothers, even the boys from South Park.

Please, please be warned: The Aristocrats is not for those who offend easily. Don't take your mom to see this movie; she will not be amused, and you will be mortified.

Yes, the joke does get old after a while. But just when you think it's been done to death, up steps Billy the Mime to deliver his wordless version, and the laughter comes as loudly as ever.

Much like comedy itself, The Aristocrats is about taking the same ideas people have been laughing at for centuries, putting your own stamp on them and getting folks to laugh like they're hearing it for the first time. Sure, this movie is proudly profane, but it's also funny as h-e-double-hockey-sticks, and there's nothing embarrassing about that.

Aristocrats

Directed by Paul Provenza

Released by ThinkFilm

Unrated Its tagline promises: "No Nudity. No Violence. Unspeakable Profanity"

Time 89 minutes

SUN SCORE * * * 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)

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