Directed by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza.
“A guy walks into a talent agent’s office and says ‘do I have an act for you’…”
Why Did I Get This?
I was sure I saw/bought this while still at university, but looking again at the release date, it came out after I’d left. Consequently, I have genuinely no recollection of what made me spend my hard-earned cash on a documentary about a filthy joke featuring some incredibly famous and funny comedians when I could least afford to be dropping £10+ on a niche DVD, but purchase it I did.
This was one of those discs that quickly got passed around my circle of friends, all of whom were fascinated by the topic, the joke and its telling, and “The Aristocrats!” quickly became a common thing to hear after someone shared a particularly unpleasant story or thought down the pub.
I probably haven’t seen this in 15 years, maybe more, but was tempted to revisit it after reading a terrific biography of Robin Williams who appears briefly, and recently dipping my toe back into South Park to see how some of it holds up (no, you’re trying to recapture your youth… shut up!).
Comedy has changed a lot since this was released, but so has public opinion about what is and isn’t acceptable to say on stage – the debate has raged since people first took to the stage, and it’s not going to be resolved any time soon, so I’m really curious to see this again and whether there’s much of a difference between the conversations and cancellations we’re seeing in 2023 and the way this topic was perceived in 2005.
Let’s give it a go…
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.
The Aristocrats is a joke, but not one that comedians tell in public. Rather, it’s a set up and a punchline with a gap in the middle for performers to fill and make their own. Usually with the most unpalatable, obscene, filthy and inappropriate material they can possibly think of.
This documentary features details about the history of the joke, multiple interpretations of it, and a look at how the gag – previously a fairly well-kept secret amongst the comedy community – came to the forefront of public attention as a response to 9/11.
I first heard this quote in an interview with British comedy legend Barry Cryer (though I don’t think he actually wrote it)…
“Analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies.”
What Provenza and Jillette managed to do with The Aristocrats is to dissect the frog in such a way that everyone gets a good look at its guts and sinews while it still manages to hop around the stage and give everyone a good chuckle at the same time.
A lot of that is down to how much fun the interviewees are having recounting their experiences of the joke, or telling the gag themselves. As a joke, it’s not particularly funny – a straightforward setup and an intentionally weak punchline, really – but the humour comes from the bit in between.
Each comic creates their own, unique act that the family act perform, and while there are lots of similarities (the repetition of bodily fluids and functions, unspeakable and illegal sex acts, violence, etc), the variety and glee with which these horrific imaginary acts are described by comedians like Billy Connolly, George Carlin, Michael McKean, Fred Willard and Whoopi Goldberg, to name but a few, are filled with the mischievous giggles of people who know they shouldn’t be saying these things.
You know when you start giggling while waiting to see the headmaster or at a funeral, and it’s hugely inappropriate, but you just can’t help yourself? The Aristocrats is filled with that kind of laughter. Everyone knows it’s wrong, but they can’t help themselves, and they’re showing off for their naughty friends.
If it were just 80-odd minutes of this, it would get really grating, so I was grateful that there’s a genuine (although brief), exploration into the first known telling of the joke and a really simple, short and reasonably clean telling of it by magician Jay Marshall. His simplicity gives his version its power, and while many of the other comedians will lean into the “jazz riff” element of it, I think even the biggest lovers of jazz would admit you can play too many notes and spoil a performance.
Indeed, some of the more off-beat versions of the gag were refreshing and among my favourites of the film – there’s a silly, silent performance in a public street by a mime artist, a card trick version of the joke by Eric Mead which is a little bit filthy but stunning to watch, an outstanding version by Kevin Pollak as Christopher Walken (I’d forgotten how good his impression is), and Penn & Teller give a pretty decent version of it which accounts for Teller’s muteness.
Elsewhere, Carrie Fisher makes a surprising appearance in which she recounts her connection with the joke rather than telling a version of it – stating her mother was “a golden shower queen”, and her father was known to have sex with goats. This kind of dry, knowing nod to the gag works well, while Sarah Silverman’s revelation that she was a member of the original Aristocrats act and unrepeatable allegation against a Hollywood player is creepy, dry and hilarious, while still being utterly unsettling.
I found it weird to see Eddie Izzard apparently completely unable to tell the joke (reinforcing the suggestion that her supposedly ad-libbed material really isn’t), but her appearance lined up with that of Eric Idle who begins his appearance by stating that he hates jokes, then proving himself unable to tell either The Aristocrats or another gag he’d prefer to tell. I wondered whether it was something about the British Isles that left us unable to get behind this kind of gag, but then Billy Connolly is clearly having a whale of a time telling it, hooting and guffawing like he can’t believe someone’s allowed to film him doing this bit.
I’d actually forgotten there’s a specially created South Park sketch with Cartman telling the joke to his friends before they all stare silently at him and admit nobody actually gets the joke, but the real highlight is seeing Gilbert Gottfried deliver it in front of an audience of celebrities at a comedy roast of Hugh Hefner just three weeks after 9/11.
The scene is set and tales are told about how every comedian that night was pulling their punches and restraining their act to respect the tragedy that had taken place less than a month earlier, but when Gottfried was heckled following a relatively tame joke that referenced the attack, he shifted gear.
You can almost hear the gasps of the audience as he begins the setup to The Aristocrats, and the passion, energy and enthusiasm with which he grabs the joke and the audience by their throat and goes with them on a journey through the most repulsive, shocking and inappropriate activities ever recounted on stage is amazing. It’s almost impossible not to get swept along with him, and comedians throughout the room are both shocked and breathless with laughter, falling off chairs from laughing so hard (alright, that’s Rob Schneider, but still…), as Hef sits stony-faced and waits for the end.
By telling a private joke in public, offering up that secret handshake in front of television cameras to a nation that’s still mourning an horrific attack on home soil, Gottfried managed to unite the audience in shocked laughter rather than grief. Regardless of the content of the gag, it’s impressive to see.
In a way, that’s what comedy is best at, creating a tribe who enjoy laughter – whether you’re a fan of the arena-filling popular comics, the ones who have their own chat show, or the ones you can only find by driving for an hour to see their tight five at a seedy bar, as long as you’re laughing, they’re doing their job right.
Does the film work completely? Hell, no.
It’s self-indulgent, self-congratulatory and about 15 minutes too long. But it is funny.
I’ve seen this billed as “a raucous celebration of free speech”, and that’s true to an extent. It’s biggest revelation is really that the joke tells you a lot about whoever’s telling it – their ‘lines in the sand’, their taboos, what they believe can and cannot be said, and how willing they are to shock.
For me, I would’ve appreciated more input from academics or psychologists looking at why we laugh at things we shouldn’t, more details about the history of the joke, and maybe a look at how the joke translates or plays around the world (or doesn’t, as the case may be).
I found it really interesting to see the British comedians struggle with the gag (with the exception of Connolly), but what was also interesting was watching the staff of The Onion come up with a list of topics that could/should be included in the joke. They get no further than the stuff that’s clearly been doing the rounds since the gag was first uttered – incest, race-baiting, assaults, toilet humour – and I found myself wondering whether those lines would be the same almost 20 years after the film?
Part of me remains curious to see some sort of follow-up to The Aristocrats which really explored how tastes (or lack of), had changed in the last two decades, but I suspect fear of being cancelled would severely limit those who would be willing to go on camera and tell the joke.
I also worry that the only ones who would sign up would be the type of comedians who currently complain about cancel culture on mainstream television or in well-paid newspaper gigs, and the act itself would simply revolve around the same minorities who are used as punchbags and punchlines by them and certain elements of the media day in, day out.
So maybe The Aristocrats is probably best left as it is – a niche little time capsule looking at offence in humour and all that goes with it – at least for now.
Definitely not for everyone, and you might feel a little unclean afterwards, but I’m still glad to have revisited this, and laughed a lot more than I expected to.