It’s been compared to the Rolling Stone’s tune, “The Singer Not The Song”. A rather uncinematic documentary where a collection of comedians riff on one of the oldest backstage jokes known throughout the entertainment industry. The punchline itself is nothing much, barely worth a chuckle. The humor comes in the telling of the joke. Each comedian tries to out do the next, making the joke’s set-up as perverse and disgusting as humanly possible. That is where the real art comes in, if there is really any art in this hilarious, though juvenile joke of movie.
Centered around an entertainer who is either clueless or malicious, the joke works more like a sales pitch with the comedian telling the joke stepping into the shoes of the man in the joke. Starting off slow, the joke builds upon the man’s request that an entertainment agent book his act. When asked to describe his act the humor begins. Stretching out the joke to inane lengths is part of the joke, with the best comedians being able to put the listener in a trance as they describe the most foul and awful acts being performed by man’s family (and sometimes their pets). Finally, the punchline comes when the agent asks what such an awful act could possibly be named. The punchline is always the same. It’s the title to the film. Knowing this, of course, doesn’t spoil the movie. It’s not about punchlines. It’s about performance.
The comedians in this film take the joke to some rather scary places, very deep dark disturbing places that trample all over taboos. Though, in today’s climate those taboos seem less risky. Vomit, fecal matter, rape, incest…We’ve heard it all before. In a day of shock and awe, it’s awful hard to shock. Still, many of the comedians do a frighteningly good job of pushing buttons. Most frightening of all is the fact that Gilbert Gottfried is the hero of a film. This normally funny comedian with the abnormally annoying voice not only delivers one of the funniest deliveries of the joke, but he is also the impetus for the film. During a post 9/11 Friar’s roast when nothing seemed to spark a laugh, he brought this backstage staple to the spotlight. Gilbert let the cat out of the bag.
With the joke now public, over 100 comedians take their turn trying to make the joke their own while exploring the history of the joke and some of the variation that have popped up over the years. While some are better than others, the rapid fire pace of each segment helps the film as a whole. Martin Mull, Bob Saget, George Carlin are three of the better performers. After then there’s a couple dozen really good performers who add a personal touch to the joke After them the field gets thin. Some clearly do not belong at the party. The Amazing Johnathan, Emo Philips, Eddie Izzard, Carrot Top, sadly the list goes on. Organized by comedian Paul Provenza and magician/comedian Penn Jillete The Aristocrats feels as if the two entertainers traveled to their friends’ houses with mid-grade consumer digital video cameras. While its mostly men from the East Coast, there are some women who add some diversity, though sadly they aren’t that funny. Was Jerry Lewis right? Are women just not funny? Probably not true, but Sarah Silverman has over stayed her fifteen minutes and Phyllis Diller is funnier than all the other women in the film combined. But that’s not saying a ton.
More telling is who does not appear in the film. There are few black comedians. Outside of a Chris Rock, who looks like he got caught off guard at a bar, no black comedian, male or female tells the joke. I don’t recall any Hispanic or Asian comedians either. There is a mime, who does the most unique telling of the joke, but for the most part its all white men. Where’s Bernie Mac or Dave Chapelle or George Lopez? Okay, we could do without George Lopez. Geting of the race card, why not go find Gallagher. Over a dozen comedians mention this watermelon hating staple of the 80’s, but he doesn’t appear in the film. It’s rather sad, but it also nice to see that all these comedians have one common enemy. But Gallagher would have been more entertaining than The Smothers Brothers. That or talk to Chevy Chase since he is mentioned in the beginning of the film as someone who used to have parties where comedy writers sat around and told this joke. Someone even mentions that Mike O’Donoghue once told the joke for over thirty minutes at one of these parties. Raise him from the dead. I’d love to hear his telling of it, more so than Howie Mandel – who has turned into a very, very scary man with an obsession for the word “cunt”. That’s not funny. That is unless you deliver it just right and he does not. Frankly, he’s just one of many people sitting infront of a home movie camera trying to impress the world. I would have been more impressed if Provenza and Jillette did some more research and tracked down a more divergent talent pool.
By the end of the film the cast to The Arsitocrats starts to look like a large but exclusive group of friends; a country club. Albeit, it’s a country club for really sick people who can laugh at the most atrocious acts. Of course I laughed. But then again, I’m a sick white male born and raised on stand up comedy…And, I’ll be here all week. Try the veal, and rememberif you are drinking don’t drive and if you are driving don’t drink. Thanks, you’ve been great, be sure to tip your waitress, peace out!