Paul Provenza | 85 mins | TV | 18
It’s not unusual for films showing on TV to be prefaced with content warnings about language, sex or violence, but I don’t think I’ve ever previously seen one that feels the need to place such a warning after every single ad break. But if there’s one film that needs that treatment — or, rather, one film they could actually show on TV that needs that treatment — it’s The Aristocrats.
The Aristocrats is, apparently, an incredibly famous joke, well known to all comedians — and, generally, only told to each other, not to audiences — that is flexible enough for anyone to tell in their own way and still have it work. It’s also incredibly vulgar; in fact, the point is often to make it as vulgar as humanly possible. To explain much more would ruin the point of the film, which aims to expose and explain this cultish joke to the masses. Personally I’ve never heard of the thing, and for all I know The Aristocrats could be an elaborate Blair Witch-esque hoax — “oh yeah, all comedians know it”. Note this: the only people you’ll see throughout are comedians, and they all seem to know each other too.
Subject matter aside, there’s not much of a structure to the material presented. Mostly compiled from dozens of interviews, the resultant piece is a jumbled mix of comedians telling their version of the joke, comedians explaining variations on it (those whose telling completely changes it are the ones who succeed), comedians explaining why it’s funny, comedians explaining how it works, comedians explaining how and why it varies, comedians musing on the differences between male and female tellings of the joke…
On the other hand, even though there is a degree of repetition, there’s also a surprising amount to say about it — even by the end, when yet another comedian launching into their version has you reaching for the remote, there’s often another little titbit around the corner. In other notes: for British viewers, the biggest and most widely known names — Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard — barely feature; for everyone, it features one of the worst ventriloquists I’ve ever seen; and a mime artist who singlehandedly makes the entire thing worthwhile.
The biggest problem with The Aristocrats — the film, not the joke — is quite a simple one: it’s about a single joke. Even the most meandering comedians tell several of those in an hour and a half. To compound the issue, said joke can vary so much as to defy a lot of comedy-killing “why’s it funny?” analysis. What you’re left with is repetitive retellings of a joke that, to be blunt, is rarely funny whatever you shove in the middle. It’s an insider’s film about an insider’s joke; for the rest of us, it rather over eggs the point.