Try to remember the dirtiest joke you've ever heard. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Got one? Well, now imagine that instead of being a minute long, it lasts an hour and a half and is only funny to jaded comedians who want to gross each other out. Imagine that it is the most vulgar, profane, and disgusting thing you've ever heard. If you can even begin to imagine that situation, you've only scratched the surface of "The Aristocrats."
The box calls the movie a celebration of free speech. While it may be that, it is also one of the most obscene films I've ever seen. Essentially the filmmakers take ninety minutes to go through the genesis of a joke that has existed for dozens of years and discuss dozens of different variations. What might have been a moderately humorous half-hour special on HBO or Showtime becomes a test of the audience's patience and taste.
So what is the joke? The documentary starts with the essentialized version. "A man walks into a vaudeville talent agent's office and proposes an act. He then describes the act as something vulgar, which prompts the agent to ask what the act is called. The man answers simply, ‘The Aristocrats.'" The outcome of the joke is less important than the telling of it; the name of the act only serves as a contrast to the obscenity its contents; Nothing is off-limits. Sodomy, rape, fecal matter… if you can imagine it (and even if you can't or don't want to) one of the comedians will say it. And it is generally gross.
Filmmakers Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame) and Paul Provenza came up with the idea to take the time to record the joke-of-jokes after Gilbert Gottfried brought it to the public's attention during the Comedy Central roast of Hugh Heffner. After bombing a few ill-timed terrorist jokes post-9/11, Gilbert introduced "The Aristocrats." The rest, as they say, is history.
One of the few things I enjoyed about "The Aristocrats" is the chance to hear world-class comedians, from Bob Saget to The Smothers Brothers, Billy Connolly to George Carlin talk about the subjective nature of humor and constructing a joke. I love the semi-intellectual discussion surrounding what constitutes humor and how it applies to different groups. But unless you know who each of these comedians are in advance, you will be pretty lost since none are identified until the end of the film – a major annoyance.
The editing style of the movie is an epileptic's nightmare. At times it seems cuts to a different angle are made between every other word, like the filmmakers were trying to liven up the pace of the telling of the joke by getting rid of vocal fillers and pauses. What results is a headache-inducing mishmash of cuts that don't allow the natural humor of the comedians to shine through.
Unfortunately that isn't these aren't the only follies made in the creation of this documentary. It is too long, goes for minutes at a stretch without purpose, and runs on with excessive vulgarity as its purpose. If you find that sort of humor funny you'll likely enjoy "The Aristocrats." I found myself checking my watch every five minutes, wondering when the movie would end. Not only did I think it unfunny, I found it flagrantly offensive.
Because "The Aristocrats" was filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio on a variety of small, handheld cameras in poorly-lit locations you shouldn't come in expecting much in the way of video quality. The talking-heads look fine, there aren't any blemishes or scratches and colors look good.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix has some substantial issues, including a twenty minute section in the second half of the film when the audio goes out of sync with the video, as much as a couple of seconds during the Sarah Silverman section. Not only is it distracting, it is obnoxious. When the audio is lined up, it sounds decent. It was an effect I couldn't duplicate on my computer, so I'm not sure what exactly happened.
Filmmakers Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette give a brief introduction via text that compares "The Aristocrats" to "Lord of the Rings" and sets up exactly what you are about to witness; warns you off, really. Provenza and Jillette also give a running commentary during the film, imparting a ton of information about the history of comedy and the participants, something that would have been of wonderful benefit to the movie proper.
The section called "More from the Comedians" is a selection of deleted scenes where some of the best riffs from the participants on the joke and the nature of comedy. There is also, tucked back on the second page, the "Love Theme" from the Aristocrats in music video form. There is probably more material in these extra features than in the feature itself.
"The Aristocrats do The Aristocrats" is a highlight that has one line from each of the comedians who participate in the film to create a definitive telling of the joke.
The movie was dedicated to Johnny Carson, who was a fan of "The Aristocrats" and would have, according to Penn Jillette, would have supported this film's creation. A few comedians reflect back on Carson and the joke.
"Behind the Green Room Door" is a chance for the comedians, who usually tell stories, to tell more of their favorite traditional jokes.
The winner of the "Be an Aristocrat" contest gets ten minutes to tell the joke. In this case it is a guy speaking in a disturbingly high-pitched voice in the character of a twenties cartoon character. Oy.
A selection trailers are included for films like "When Standup Stood Out," which looks amazing, and a documentary on the life of Emmett Till, the boy killed for whistling at a white woman and his role in history. It's a powerful story I've heard time and again, and the movie reflection, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" looks like a wonderful reflection on a difficult time in history.
"The Aristocrats" is a rental, at best. Once you have experienced the gag, if you're like me, you likely won't have any interest in returning to its fecal-covered shores. The bonus material is a lot more interesting, to me, than the feature itself.