THE ARISTOCRATS is a documentary about a joke. The joke is a shaggy dog story designed to shock people into laughter. As comedian Paul Reiser says, "It's all set-up". So we see 100 comedians (apparently, I didn't count) tell the joke. It goes like this: A wife, husband, kids, dog (variations thereupon) go into a talent agent's office. They say, "You gotta hire us. We have this great act!" So the talent agent says, "So what is the act?" They then recount the act. It is the nastiest, crudest, most vicious stuff you ever heard of. There needs to be sex (incest, besti*lity, whatever), excrement, the most gross things you can think of. Each comedian goes gross in their own particular way, spins the story wild and large - two minutes, twenty minutes - manic, deadpan - the most disgusting stuff you can think of. The family come to the end of describing the act. The talent agent sits back and says, "Wow. That's some act! So what do you call that?" The family responds in chorus, "The Aristocrats!"
At this point you might be thinking, "I don't get it." And that begs the question whether it is a valid criticism of this documentary that despite the fact that it features many comedians all telling a supposedly hysterical joke, the film is only sporadically funny. In fact, the only two times I really laughed, the humour did not derive from the Aristocrats joke itself, but from the fact that the comediens were doing impressions of famous people telling the joke. Kevin Pollack tells the joke as Christopher Walken and Mario Cantone tells the joke as Liza Minelli. Pure Comedy Genius.
I think it is fine if we don't find the re-telling of the joke that funny. We can still take three things from the movie. First, the movie is a masterclass for wannabe comedians, because from the way in which the different comedians approach the joke you can see something of their technique and talent. Not only that, but you discover some really great comedians that haven't done a lot of TV or film before. Second, you can enjoy this movie in the same way as you get a perverse kick out of a car crash: it's horrible, you feel gross for being interested, and yet there is something compelling about watching Carrie Fisher a.k.a. Princess Leia saying "my mother was a golden showers queen" when we know that in real life her mum is the peaches-and-cream cutie from Singin' In the Rain, Debbie Reynolds.
Third, there is a social point to be understood about how society has changed and what is funny has changed with it. Back in the day when female stand-up comedians couldn't wear sleeveless dresses on network television for fear of immodesty , telling a joke about rim-jobs would have been daring and provocative - almost political. In today's world, sexual acts really aren't taboo. I mean, we have golden showers, rim-j*bs and f*ltching on South Park and a young girl pleasuring herself with a champagne bottle live on British network TV. This is our new "reality". The new taboos are jokes about 9/11 and racism. So unless, you recast the joke, it is devalued.
The comedy masterclass, the bizarro-Carrie Fisher moment and the point about how taboos have changed are all valid subjects for a movie and interesting up to a point. My real criticism of this movie is therefore not that I didn't find it that funny, but that it is just too long. We get all the messages of the film after about 45 minutes and the remainder is just a bit repetitive.
THE ARISTOCRATS premiered at Sundance 2005 and went on limited release in the US and UK in autumn 2005. (The fact that the movie was Unrated by the MPAA meant that some exhibitors would not show it.) It goes on cinematic release in the Netherlands on the 9th February 2006 but was released on Region 2 DVD last week.