After opening to mostly stellar notices (including one from our own Nathan Rabin) and staggering box office ($250,000 in four theaters!), The Aristocrats appears to be turning into the latest documentary sensation. But at the risk of undermining a colleague’s opinion for the second post straight (it won’t continue fellas, I promise) I feel compelled to offer a dissenting vote. Much of my disappointment comes in relation to the subject matter, which is impossibly rich: Through the telling of one joke—a filthy vaudeville gag that’s been passed along and improvised from one generation of comedian to the next—the film touches on the fraternity between performers, the immense diversity of comedic invention and delivery, and the constant shift in societal standards, for which this joke functions as a sort of litmus test. For this occasion, directors/comedians Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette have gathered a Rolodex full of the brightest (and in the cases of Carrot Top and Bruce Villanch, not so brightest) comic minds in America to offer some perspective and their own perverted twist on the joke.

The Aristocrats has the rough quality of a home movie, as if Provenza and Jillette are inviting the audience to peek into some secret underground society that operates well outside the acceptable bounds of taste. It all sounds great and occasionally it is, but I can’t imagine a crummier documentary being made from such a wealth of good footage. To give you an idea of what the cutting is like, here’s what Provenza and Jillette would have made of the above sentence: Cut to Paul Reiser (“It all sounds great and occasionally it is”), cut to Richard Lewis (“but I can’t imagine a crummier documentary”), cut to Sarah Silverman (“being made from such a wealth of good footage"). Pretty annoying, huh? For awhile, I was expecting things to slow down a bit; with dozens of comedians on the slate, the film admittedly has a lot of introductions to get out of the way. But the spastic editing never really stops, and it caused my brain to shut down in the same way it does when I watch a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. What’s lost is the precious continuity of individual performances: This joke has a distinct three-act structure, with a special emphasis on the second, but only a few comedians are allowed to tell it in full before Provenza and Jillette cut away to someone else. And how effective can a joke be when it’s constantly interrupted midstream? It’s no coincidence that the funniest segments in the film are the ones that allow great comedians to simply tell the joke in full: Steven Wright, George Carlin, an inspired South Park sketch by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The rest is just chewed-up hash.

Advertisement