Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Aristocrats

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: documentaries / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 8 of 100

‘The Aristocrats’ is a one hour twenty minute film that consists of a hundred or so comedians musing on the history of an old joke that dates back to vaudeville, the mechanics of spinning it out into an ever-longer routine and the ultimate arbitrariness of the punchline. It is variously described as an anti-joke, not particularly funny, and akin to free-form jazz in that the brief set-up and the two-word punchline are the only components that need to be memorized – the mid-section (the joke’s raison d’etre) is essentially a blank canvas, an empty page, upon which the comedian can improvise, extemporise and establish their own take on the joke.

‘The Aristocrats’ is a one hour twenty minute film which ranks amongst the most visually uninteresting examples of the form. It consists entirely of talking heads. Some of them do us a favour and talk outside, which at least allows for a little scenery in the background. Most of them talk indoors. Most of these interiors are bland. Nonetheless, the film exerts a car-crash fascination. It also happens to be funny as hell. Although there were times I caught myself laughing and stopped suddenly, flushed with embarrassment.

‘The Aristocrats’ carries an 18-rating and with good reason. The language is salty (there are so many uses of the F- and C-words it makes ‘In Bruges’ sound like an episode of ‘Hannah Montana’), the subjects taboo and the references vile. But before we go any further, and lest this blog gets saddled with a “content warning” prompt, it’s probably worth mentioning what the joke actually is. Telling it in no way constitutes a spoiler, incidentally, since co-directors Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) include an atypically short, but still crude, version of it within the first five minutes.

The joke, in its most basic exposition, is thus:

A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says, “Hey, I’ve got this amazing act.” The talent agent says, “Yeah? Let’s hear it.” The man says, “Me and my wife come on stage, I’m wearing a tux, she’s wearing an elegant ball gown, and we defecate and urinate all over the stage, then wallow in it. Then we take a bow.” The talent agent is shocked and says, “What the hell do you call an act like that?” The man says, “The aristocrats.”

Told you it wasn’t that funny.

From a deconstructive standpoint, the set up is the characters, the location and the first two lines of dialogue: A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says, “Hey, I’ve got this amazing act.” The talent agent says, “Yeah? Let’s hear it.” The punchline is, altogether now, “The aristocrats” (although other versions of the joke have it as “the sophisticates”, “the debonairs” and – British version – “the royalty”). As regards the middle bit – ie. the nature of what these degenerates get up to on stage – well, folks, it’s open season on how far a comedian wants to take it. And the contributors to Provenza and Jillette’s eighty minutes of profanity take it to some pretty dark places.

My heavily edited, cuss-word-free version of the joke discusses the husband and wife wallowing in their own filth. Imagine the many, varied and potty-mouthed ways this concept could be expressed. Okay? Now throw in blood and vomit. One contributor discusses gargling.

Let’s move on …

My heavily edited, cuss-word-free version of the joke is also considerably redacted as regards the amount and interaction of participants on stage. I only mention the husband and wife. Expand it to an entire family. Including grandma. Throw in an incest angle. No, no, wait, don’t make that call to Social Services … I’m just quoting what the guys in the movie said. Or rather, I’m not quoting them. Not verbatim. Call it paraphrasing. (Then again, how do you paraphrase a reference to fisting, felching or the “rusty trombone”?)

Let’s move on …

The point of the joke – and this is why it’s renowned more as a “comedian’s joke” than a routine familiar with audiences – is to see how perverse, how disgusting, how irredeemably politically incorrect it can be made; how many lines can be crossed; how many buttons pushed in terms of causing offence. If the punchline works at all, it is because of the extreme juxtaposition of screeds of filth and depravity offset against two words describing a strata of society whose standards and behaviour should be the complete antithesis.

So, with the joke itself not all that amusing and the variations on it gross plus VAT, what’s the point of the film and why do I find myself (cautiously) recommending it? Because it’s a reminder that comedy isn’t necessarily about being safe, or giving the audience some light relief. Comedy is sometimes about release, about catharsis, about shining the torch of inappropriate humour into dark, shadowy corners and taking the piss out of what you find there.

‘The Aristocrats’ features a roll-call of comedy greats from both sides of the Atlantic (indeed, the title could have a double meaning: this bunch are certainly the landed gentry of the medium): Billy Connolly, Phyllis Diller, Hank Azaria, Eddie Izzard, Eric Idle, Robin Williams, Susie Essman, Emo Philips, Sarah Silverman, Rita Rudner, Don Rickles, Bill Maher, Bob Saget, Carrie Fisher, Gilbert Gottfried and about eighty-five others (there’s even a specially animated ‘South Park’ clip of Cartman telling the joke; Kyle responds with a bemused “Don’t get it”).

It’s perhaps Gilbert Gottfried who demonstrates the cathartic aspect of the joke more than anyone else, in a jaw-dropping piece of footage from ‘The N.Y. Friars Club Roast’ hosted by Hugh Hefner (an event organised to raise money in the aftermath of 9/11) where Gottfried launches into a stentorian account of the joke to recover from almost losing his audience after joking about 9/11 itself. Audacity isn’t the word!


Aaron said...

I've never seen this but thought about picking it up a few times. I never really knew what it was about or what the "joke" was, so thanks for covering this. I'll definitely be checking it out as soon as I get the chance. So who would you say did the best version of the joke?

Neil Fulwood said...

The version I probably laughed hardest at was Bob Saget's. He goes off on such a vile scatological tangent he even grosses himself out, breaking off to ask himself "What the fuck am I doing?" Both Saget and Gottfried make themselves laugh during the telling, which somehow made it seem funnier.

There's also a couple of reversals of the joke, including this from Wendy Liebeman:

"It's a family, the Cavanaugh's - Ann and William. They're eating dinner, and they just finish, and their maid comes in and she clears the plates. And they have two children, Betsy and Timmy. And Ann suggests that they all go into the drawing room, where Ann then braids Betsy's beautiful blonde hair. The husband, he plays chess with Timmy - and then the maid comes in with strawberries and whipped cream, and they all eat a nice dessert. And that's the act." [The agent says] "What do you call an act like that?" "The Cocksucking Motherfuckers."


Elwood Jones said...

Honestly I didn't get this film, especially seeing how it is a film about a joke which is essentially not funny.
However it does have several great moments, such as Sarah Silverman's skit, which is essential just her doing her act and Martin Mull's version of the joke, which was actually one of the few moments I really cracked up.
Ironically for a documentry about comedy, one of the deleted scenes with the mime, performing "The abortion" is one of the most shocking things I have watched and really stuck with me (not in a good way).

Anyways Great Blog!!

Neil Fulwood said...

Elwood - thanks for stopping by and thanks for your comment. Yeah, 'The Aristocrats' is an easy film to be put off by, particularly when the joke itself isn't that funny.

Maybe it has something to do with the mood you're in. I watched it a day after I'd attended a funeral, and the scatological, politically incorrect, unapologetic vulgarity of the film was such a slap in the face after the solemnity and hushed tones and murmured platitudes of the service and the wake afterwards that, once the shock had worn off, I found some parts of the film almost uncontrollably hilarious. As with the Gilbert Gottfried take on the joke, it's more of a cathartic thing than a traditionally funny routine.

Good call on the Martin Mull and Sarah Silverman contributions, by the way. Is there anyone in comedy at the moment who's as deadpan as Silverman?