You'll need to wash your hands after this one. Wading in a sea of four-letter words, The Aristocrats talks every bit as dirty as South Park in a college locker room, times 100--plus add in the perversion of John Waters' A Dirty Shame. A hit at Sundance 2005, the ThinkFilm documentary, directed by comedian Paul Provenza, sheds insight on the trial and error--and not-so-simple beauty--of making people laugh.
As an inside, if outdated, joke among comedians, ''The Aristocrats'' is rarely told on stage. How the world's oldest joke is told depends on the comic; it doesn't exactly have a script. In a nutshell, it's about a stage family who combines bestiality, incest, rape, excretion, ejaculation, vomit, and blood (or any other repulsive you can think of) into their act. The joke's punch line doesn't quite translate as well for today's audiences, but that's not the point. It's the set-up, the telling of the joke, which fuels The Aristocrats' story. The joy of Provenza's film is in seeing how today's most gifted, well-known comics (from George Carlin to Jon Stewart to Sarah Silverman) riff in free-form, all telling the same joke, working from the same platform, but delivering their own interpretations. It's the singer, not the song.
The real-life comics are themselves, letting it all hang out--including Carrot Top running around with no pants. Drew Carey pals around on the set of his TV show; Bob Saget preps for a stand-up set; Bill Maher trash-talks the Osbournes--these guys are the real deal. But The Aristocrats' true acting in is the improvisation, framed as the ultimate comic talent. As Andy Dick and Whoopi Goldberg rant about penises, they're embracing improv as a metaphor for the spirit of comedy: organic, spontaneous, and a symbol of the performer.
Provenza might want to keep his day job, as his directing on The Aristocrats, his first feature, is a fine mess. Provenza grabbed a couple mid-range camcorders, enlisted some friends (including executive producer and creative collaborator Penn Jillette of HBO's Bulls**t!), and hit record. The film's free form matches its spirit, but the sloppiness is just a little too cavalier. Some shots are close, some are far away; some scenes are cut too quickly, some are just one long take. There is no clear three-act form. The movie's thematic through-lines are limited, except those that occur naturally. But even for all the chaos, the movie's 83-minute cumulative effect is poignant, fostering a greater respect for the genius of comedy creativity. It speaks to the talent on display.
Even though its roughshod storytelling can be as untidy as the adult language, The Aristocrats is an important document to the creation of American stand-up comedy, in the tradition of 2002's Jerry Seinfeld's Comedian and 1988's Punchline. Just don't watch it with your grandparents.