In 10 Words or Less
In celebration of being filthy and funny
Loves: Penn Jillette, "Bulls#!t!", stand-up comedy
Dislikes: Unnecessary vulgarity
I'm not about to pretend like I knew about the Aristocrats joke before Gilbert Gottfried opened the public's eyes to it at the Hugh Hefner roast, but I'm no comedy neophyte either. I was the editor-in-chief of Nonsense, the comedy magazine at Hofstra University, part of a long tradition of college humor. As such, I have an appreciation for the history of comedy, and thus was extremely excited to see The Aristocrats.
As an examination of the art of telling a joke, The Aristocrats is hugely ambitious, gathering 100 comedians, both veterans and newcomers (but mostly veterans) to illuminate the infamous improvisational joke, by telling it and talking about it. Co-creators Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza managed to put together an excellent roster for the movie, calling on legends like George Carlin and the Smothers Brothers, as well as talented, yet relatively unknown acts like Taylor Negron and Wayne Cotter, and many recognizable names in between, covering a wide swath of the world of comedy.
The joke itself, a story about a family variety act that relies on an ironic word choice in the punchline, is really not that funny. The way a comic tells it certainly can be though, as it lets the artist show how deranged and creative they can be, stretching the limits of decency by describing an unholy string of filthy and illegal acts among the members of the clan. As with anything, if you can put a new spin on the joke and make it your own and unique, you will make it all the more interesting.
There are several comics who do just that, and end up being the stand-outs in an all-star line-up. Gilbert Gottfried's unusual and manic delivery helps him own the joke, while Sarah Silverman's autobiographical version is simply more compelling. Of course, Bob Saget remains the gold-standard of filth, and anyone who can come close to him in terms of envelope-pushing deserves a medal.
Also deserving of a medal is the editing team of Provenza and Emery Emery, who had the tough task of culling together this film from over 140 hours of footage that's hardly cinematic magic. On the downside, doing two-camera shoots with many of the comics gave the editors too many angles to choose from, and in what seems like an attempt to liven things up, they choose...often. As a result, the film has a sense of visual whiplash, flipping around too often for a documentary.
That effort to "speed" up the movie really was unnecessary. Though you'll hear the phrase "The Aristocrats" more times in this movie than you hear your own name in a week, thankfully, this isn't just 90 minutes of people telling a joke over and over. Instead, there's quite a bit of discussion about the art of the joke, comparing its free-wheeling style to improvisational jazz. A casual analysis of jokes and comedy is woven through the film, using the comics to put actually thought into a topic that only a select few truly even consider past the laughs.
Provenza notes in the insert that some feel "the best way to kill a joke is to analyze it." Perhaps that's why good documentaries about the idea of comedy are few and far between. It certainly doesn't explain this film, as it analyzes The Aristocrats and actually gives it new life. Perhaps a movie about why the chicken crossed the road would have been stretching, but in this story of a horrifying family, Jillette and Provenza struck gold, doing the flagging world of stand-up comedy a positive service by potentially inspiring real innovation.
The Aristocrats arrives home in a virgin white keepcase, which has a four-page insert that includes letters from Jillette and Provenza and a list of special features. The disc features an animated anamorphic main menu with animated transitions, and a choice of play, set-up, scene index and special features. Language options include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, with closed captioning, but no subtitles, while the scene index has animated previews and titles for each chapter.
Presented in full-frame 4:3 format, the video varies as the movie jumps from subject to subject, thanks to a very low-budget shooting style. As a result, there are focus issues, bad lighting and misframed shots. The movie looks fine for what it is, though it's loaded with video noise, as well as haloing, edge enhancement and artifacts. The color is a bit dull, but there's not a bit of dirt or damage visible.
The audio is included in Dolby Digital 5.1, but it's hard to find a reason why anyone would need to hear this joke in such clarity. The audio, like the video, varies greatly, with some comics, like Eric Idle, sounding distant, while Gottfried might blow your speakers out. This isn't a DVD issue, but a recording issue. Most of the film sounds just fine.
Serving as a guide to the film, Jillette and Provenza provide a feature-length audio commentary, with a short audio intro. Due to the insane amount of comics involved, much of the track is made up of naming the participants, but the duo share some stories and comment on what's on the screen. Because of the rapid-fire pace of the movie, you don't get a narrator's voice, and this track helps serve as that narrator, making it important to give the film a second viewing with this track.
"More from the Comedians" includes 21 clips from comics featured in the film, totaling an astounding 90 minutes of deleted or extended footage, including interviews, a musical number, a pantomime routine and Saget and Gottfried's full takes on the joke. Though it repeats much of the film, it eliminates the quick cuts of the film for a more complete feel. Among the highlights of this mish-mosh of material, which can be viewed by segment or in a big bunch, are Hank Azaria's foreign take and Silverman's uniquely disturbing story, but it's pretty much all worth watching as a supplement to the movie.
Anyone coming to this movie looking for joke telling should enjoy "Behind the Green Door: Comedians Tell Some of Their Other Favorite Jokes," which is exactly what the title says. For 16 minutes, comics including Carlin, Larry Miller, Paul Reiser, Martin Mull, Dom Irrera, Jackie Martling and several others, tell a variety of jokes, some of which are actually funny, more for the delivery than the jokes. There's five more minutes of joking in "Aristocrats do The Aristocrats," which is an edited jam session of the joke, with each line told by a different comic.
There are a pair of unnecessary extras, the first being the two-minute clip of Miller and Dana Gould, "For Johnny," about Johnny Carson's love of the joke. The other is a pair of retellings done by contest winners, that run 10 minutes combined. One is a live-action piece that's way too long, while the other is a sparsely animated version that's a bit better.
The Bottom Line
I like to think I'm a funny person, and most people would agree that funny people are the hardest people to make laugh. Thus, I'm not that surprised that, despite what Rolling Stone declared, I did not laugh till it hurt. In fact, the only comics who really made me laugh were Silverman, Saget and Gottfried. But despite that, the film definitely works as an examination of what comedy is, by dissecting and showcasing a legendary joke. The DVD doesn't have to try too hard to present the film well, but it does give it a decent amount of help as far as extras go. If you go in thinking you'll laugh a bit and get a good education about comedy, you won't be disappointed, but if you're looking for a 90-minute stand-up best-of, keep moving.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.