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The Aristocrats Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 1, 2006

    The Aristocrats Review
    Ok ... ok, so this guy goes into a talent agent's office and he says to the agent, “Look, I've got this act that you've just got to see ...”

    And so begins the subject of this bizarre quasi-documentary about perhaps the foulest, most subversive and downright offensive joke that stand-up comics from around the world - but mainly North America - have kept under their hats as a sort of professional in-joke, almost a mythological set-up, gross-out and naff punch-line combo that appears to have become legendary around the circuit. Made by Paul Provenza and magician Penn Gillette (the talking half of the excellent Penn and Teller double-act), The Aristocrats - which, incidentally, is the punch-line of the gag - is a whirlwind conglomeration of dozens of comedians embarking on their own observations and thoughts of the same joke, its heritage and its evolution over the years, and, obviously, telling their own versions of it, ad nausea for ninety minutes. But don't expect them to deviate too much from the well worn, and hideously stained, track that gets us to the pantomimic announcement of “The Aritocrats!” at the end of the gag, because the point of the joke literally is to be as nastily outrageous as possible.

    Regular readers of my reviews will know that I usually sprinkle quotes liberally throughout them, but in this particularly crude case, I'm afraid that it is nigh on impossible. For, as tempting as it most certainly is to pepper the write-up with disgustingly obnoxious and wildly excessive foul language describing the even fouler acts that the joke finds it crucial to include, common decency prohibits me. Sorry, but you'll just have to take my word for it that The Aristocrats goes way, way beyond all boundaries of taste, guaranteeing to offend every minority, every religion and every moral standard that the civilised world holds dear. And this, folks, is the entire point. You see, the joke, itself, is simply not funny. No, not funny at all. The punch-line has the bemusing impact of a joke that has fallen flat - picture those tumbleweeds rolling past - but the funny element has been explosively delivered in the minutes, or even hours in one or two celebrated cases, that have gone before the payoff. The joke, itself, must conform to only a couple of rules besides the regular introduction. Firstly, it must be as vile as is it humanly possible to be, therefore the act described for the poor talent scout will tend to contain colossal amounts of incest, paedophilia, bestiality, S&M and necrophilia, plus a stomach-turning level of every form of scatological misuse conceivable. And, secondly, it must obviously end with the line “The Aristocrats!” for its famous let-down finale.

    The roster of comics roped in from stages, bars and even a bubbling spa are huge stars of the stand-up circuit, though many may prove to be complete strangers to those of us on this side of the pond. Some familiar faces appear in the likes of Drew Carey, the insane Gilbert Gottfried, Emo Philips, Steven Wright, Whoopi Goldberg, Paul Reiser (sit-com star and Burke in Aliens), Kevin Pollack and Robin Williams. And from these shores, there is some able support from the likes of Billy Connelly, Eddie Izzard and Eric Idle, whose contributions are very welcome. The Brits, however, are new to the telling of the gag and Izzard, especially, makes a pretty pathetic attempt at his version - though the commentary track does assure us that he can tell the joke properly, and well. Eric Idle admits that he is lousy at remembering jokes at all, and even the one that he does know he manages to get wrong. But the Yanks excel at it, taking toilet-humour (God, that phrase just does not do justice to this uniquely depraved brand of comedy!) to unfeasible new depths. There is a marvellous sense of theatricality to the whole thing that simply beggars belief, the delivery is so imaginative, vivid and engrossing that the gag takes on almost religious fervour. Provenza and Gillette cross-cut between the contributors with alarming speed, at times splicing several together to put the story across through a variety of mouths and styles, sometimes sticking with one comic for a fuller, and more personalised rendition. Only occasionally do we get some background on the history of the joke, such as where and when a comic first heard it and how they adapted it to suit their own fashions and mannerisms, and quite prevalently, the vibe I got from the feature was that I was watching one huge con-trick being perpetrated. This, let me stress, is actually not the case at all, but the approach that the makers and the contributors adopt has the feel of stage-bound mischief, the inside knowledge behind the laughs and the smiles, the inherent glee that is expressed with each shocking new extreme dredged up from the pit of someone's deranged imagination seeming to possess some knowing twinkle in the eye. The competition between one another to come up with a sicker, nastier version seems to have taken over the humour that is held within the joke, forcing each new rendition to push back the boundaries of free speech and free expression even further into totally wince-inducing new territory.

    At the time of writing, this mention of free speech is incredibly relevant with the news dominated by an Islamic backlash against perceived insults against their religion. And, whilst I will draw back from making any overt comparison, I will say that only a fool would fail to see the absurdity of such a radical stand-off as that between one man's devotion and another man's derision. By nature, humour is subversive and aggressive and, as a direct consequence, there will always be collateral damage from a comical fusillade. In other words, there will always be someone who doesn't get the joke.

    Thus, the joke (any, and all jokes, that is), in essence, pushes the envelope of acceptability, breaking down barriers and taboos with a kind of coveted insulation that serves to remove disrespect from the equation. Or, at least, this is what the makers of this documentary and its participants go to great lengths to prove. They put it forward that jokes, such as The Aristocrats, are meant to test and to confound, to poke fun at any, and all events, creeds and societal constraints. That, in comedy, literally everything is fair game, forcing us to confront our deepest truths and fears head-on, in the illusionary bubble of a comic scenario. Yet this same Comedians' Code is revealed as broken in The Aristocrats, when the 9/11 atrocities are brought into play. “Too soon! Too soon!” came the cry from the comic-packed audience at the Friar's Roast Charity gig as Gilbert Gottfried made reference to the attack on the Twin Towers as part of his routine. The politics of comedy is about breaking rules and finding the funny bone in any given situation, but the limits of such liberal expression are difficult borders to sense, and even harder to police. Thus it was that Gottfried managed to escape the lynch mob by resorting to the classic Aristocrats joke, and the performance that he gave to his peers - who all obviously knew the score, but couldn't quite believe that he was actually going to do it - is shown here. Check out Hugh Heffner's perplexed reaction to it all. He's not a comic, so he has no idea what is going on. In a way, this documentary, which can be viewed as either a celebration of escalating obscenity, or as a smart assault on established decorum and hypocritical doctrine, subverts its own policy when real nudity is digitally hidden. Now there's double standards for you.

    Now, I have to say that there is a great deal to enjoy here. The production fizzes with enthusiasm and energy and several of the comics really do this joke incredible justice with utterly jaw-dropping filth-frenzies. Personally, I can appreciate this kind of humour. It is faceless and nameless, existing in the existential limbo of jokeland, so far removed from reality that only a puritan could really find offence. I love the finger-clicking flamenco-finale that Drew Carey does for his rendition, the infectiously dirty laugh from showbiz legend Phyllis Diller when she first hears the joke in its entirety, Billy The Mime's eye-rollingly graphic silent depiction and, best of all, the version as performed by a ventriloquist act. Also, the other names that comics have come up with for the vile act besides The Aristocrats are pretty cool. Try on The Sophisticates or, best of all, The Debonairs. However, I did not like the scenes showing two separate comics telling the joke to their respective babies. This may have been done to prove a point and the makers do discuss their motivations behind this element in their brilliant commentary track. Yeah, I know the kids don't understand a word of it, but this part still wiped the smile from my face, guys. So, quite obviously, I have found my limits - but I doubt I am alone here.

    Fundamentally and unmistakably an American joke, the Aristocrats gag is big, brash and outrageous, it goes on far too long and wallows in its own puerile self-indulgence, yet ... it works. And it works because it fits into a humour-pattern that evolved and was honed in the schoolyard from grinning congregations of limit-pushing kids who would each add a line, a concept or an ingredient to the merry maelstrom of a dirty story, helping to embellish it into legendary proportions. So, while it may be essentially an American style to take it on to the stage and flavour it with vaudeville, method or improve, the underlying desire to tell a shameless gross-out, one-stop-shop, offend-everyone-within-earshot gag is completely universal.

    Not to everybody's taste, obviously. But I still recommend The Aristocrats unreservedly. It's brave, bold and bizarre.