Although it may seem simple on the surface, vulgar or crude humor is an artform. The true masters only make it look easy. If you can shock and offend, while still making your audience laugh in spite of it all, you've succeeded. Fail, and you wind up getting booed off the stage, or are met with a resounding sound of silence from your audience. The Aristrocrats, a new documentary from director Paul Provenza, is a film that celebrates the art of vulgar humor - namely one joke in particular which many have deemed the dirtiest joke ever told, as it can be anything the teller wants it to be.
The joke in question is as old as the hills. No one knows how or where it originated, or who told it first. But, it is a joke that has been passed down by just about every comic, past and present. What has made the joke endear for so long is that it relies completely on improvisation. The only rules is that it must open with someone walking into the office of a talent agent, and trying to sell said agent on an act, and the punchline must be the agent asking what the act is called, with the response "The Aristrocrats"! The entire middle portion of the joke is devoted to describing the act in question. There are no rules in this part of the joke. You are simply to describe the most vulgar, disgusting, putrid thing you could ever imagine. More popular variations of the joke involve a family (usually a mother, father, and young children) deficating or urinating on each other, having sex, or other such unspeakable attrocities. Many comics will also throw in grandparents, the family pet, or other family members into the act as they perform unspeakable acts of incest or the spraying of bodily fluids upon each other or the audience watching the act in the most graphic of detail.
The film does not attempt to explain how or why the joke originated, it merely wants to explain why this joke has endeared for so long, and just what makes it work. You may not understand it the first time you hear it. That's why you hear it many times throughout the course of the film. The documentary has rounded up a large number of comedians, past and present, who either tell their own version of the joke, or talk about the joke itself, and their beliefs as to why it has stuck around for so long. It is a joke that few comics have ever dared to tell on the stage, except for Gilbert Gottfried who gave a very memorable rendition during the New York Friar's Club Roast of Hugh Heffner that was held just weeks after September 11th, 2001.
Now, you may think that the idea of sitting through various comedians telling the same joke would not be enough to fill a movie, but you have to remember, the joke is anything you want it to be. The beginning and the ending are the only things set in stone, besides that, there's no right or wrong way to tell it. This movie is almost like an 85 minute long lecture on the art of crude comedy, and we get many examples of the right and wrong way to do it. Some of the best examples featured in the film include...
-George Carlin, who gives the very first version of the joke we hear early in the film. It's not so much the joke itself, but rather the amount of detail he goes into that describes this act that this family is performing, right down to what can be found in the fecal matter that is dropped on the stage. His almost deadpan delivery makes it all the more funnier.
-The previously mentioned Gilbert Gottfried, whose rendition literally had the comedians in attendence falling on the floor in laughter. Half because of Gottfried's delivery, and half because of his balls to actually do the joke on live television. (I never saw the Roast that was aired on the Comedy Channel, but I'm certain the censors got a workout bleeping out numerous words.) He also gives a hilariously crude explanation of the joke in a different interview, where he explains why blood would be flowing during the course of the act.
-Billy the Mime, a street mime who gives a shockingly hilarious physical rendition of the joke that proves that it works even without words. The look on the faces of people passing by on the street in the background during his performance (including small children) is what makes it even funnier, and is one of the most laugh-inducing moments of the film.
-A short original South Park cartoon where Cartman tries to explain the joke to his friends, and even finds a way to tie it into September 11th.
-Bob Saget, whose rendition of the joke is probably going to make any fan he gained from his Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos days die of a heart attack.
Unfortunately, not every comedian is as skillful as the ones mentioned above, and this is what ultimately makes The Aristocrats an uneven experience. Some renditions will leave you gasping for breath, while others crash and burn faster than a Rob Schneider movie marathon. But, in a way, I also found this fascinating. There is a certain art to vulgar humor that I've never put much thought into before. As I mentioned before, it's not as easy as it looks. You can't just be crude, it's also in the delivery - the mastery of the art of vulgarity. That is what I took away from this film. It gave me a new respect for the form of humor that I've never had before.
Is The Aristocrats a movie worth seeing at the theater? Well, I certainly thought it was $5.25 well spent, but I don't think it will lose anything on DVD, since the movie is entirely shot on handheld cameras, with comedians sitting or standing around, talking to the camera. The film does not have an official MPAA rating, but if it did, it would most certainly be NC-17 thanks to the seemingly endless stream of obscenities and descriptions of rape, incest, animal sexuality, and other forms of sexuality that you probably have never thought of. Just a word of warning. If you are not offended easily, I can recommend this film. The masters know how to gross out without going too far. The lessers just can't make it work. If anything, it proves those who belong in the business, and those who do not.
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