*The Aristocrats (NR)
Kimball's Twin Peak
The joke sucks!" bellows Pat Cooper, an old-school Don Rickles-style comedian, in the early moments of The Aristocrats, at once the funniest and most disgusting movie of the year.
Filmmakers Paul Provenza and Penn Gillette (the magician-spokesperson for the duo Penn and Teller) rounded up a hundred of their buddies to explore the mythology of a famed insider joke:
A guy walks in to a talent agency and says, "Hey, I've got an act you've got to see. It's a family act." The agent says, "OK, let me see what you've got," and the family launches into raunchy sex, acts of incest and bodily functions onstage. "What do you call the act?" asks the astonished agent. (Attention: This is the punch line.) "The Aristocrats!"
No, it's not funny in print. Nor would it be onstage, and though most people who make their livings as stand-up comics appear to know and cherish the joke, rarely does it show up in anyone's act. As George Carlin astutely observes early in the film, comedians don't really tell jokes onstage, they make observations. People would think they were dorks if they just got up and started telling jokes.
"The Aristocrats," however, is one of those pieces of comedy's Holy Grail, a joke that defines the joke itself. A secret handshake among comedians, it's shared backstage to cement bonds among people who are so fundamentally weird that the joke allows them a rare chance to wallow in something weirder than themselves.
Its vulgarity knows no limits. As the documentary progresses and we get versions of the joke from everyone from Drew Carey to Martin Mull to Paul Reiser to Whoopi Goldberg, the gross-out factor intensifies.
There are no sweet words for piss, shit, fuck or fist, and they all come pouring across the screen like an avalanche of bad taste. And that is part of the film's point, which you'll discover if you stick with it for the entire 90 minutes. As Gillette observes in a moment of reflection on the joke, "It's the singer, not the song."
These guys could just as easily be describing perversities of auto mechanics as bestiality; the delivery is what makes the joke. Some of the film's more sublime moments feature Bob the Mime telling the joke with gestures, an incredibly talented magician named Eric Mead telling the joke with a deck of cards and sleight of hand, and jugglers telling the joke while balancing on shoulders and tossing around, well, flaming elephant penises. (Or representations thereof.)
The climax -- and I hesitate to use that word -- comes when Gilbert Gottfried cuts loose with "The Aristocrats" at a post-9/11 Friar's Club Roast of Hugh Hefner in New York City.
Gottfried's tired of having to be careful in the tedious post-disaster era and launches into the comedian's creed with such bombast and unmitigated filth that the podium shakes beneath him. On the stage surrounding him, comedians assembled for the event are falling out of their chairs with laughter at the ultimate inside joke. After all, they are roasting the king of tits and ass. (Hefner kind of looks on, puzzled, from the seat of honor.)
Comedians are smart. They know the cultural implications of their work, and they know the value of throwing caution to the wind. There is an undertone of such delight in this unbelievably bawdy love fest that one walks away from The Aristocrats with a newfound respect for a good stand-up routine, and wishing for more chances to laugh uncontrollably, at anything.
-- Kathryn Eastburn