6.26.2008

The Aristocrats




Sarah Silverman in The Aristocrats (dir. Paul Provenza, 2005).

Uneven but frequently hilarious "documentary" about the stupidest joke of all time. I put "documentary" in quotes because much of what is treated in it is pretty hard to take seriously as something that could be intelligibly considered documentable. There's this long, pointless, dirty joke that all comedians know and occasionally tell to each other (but rarely to an actual audience). End of premise. We don't really learn anything about the joke's origins, or how it became a familiar comedic meme, or why it maintains such a foothold in the profession; we're just treated to comedian after comedian talking about how foul and silly it is, and giving their own renditions (which, again, are sometimes flat, sometimes inspired).

The fascinating thing about the joke is the way in which its fundamental conceit causes all the obscenity in it to become emptied of signifying power. Since we know in advance that the point of the joke is to include as much filth and atrocity as possible, we never experience it as actually referring to any of the unspeakable acts involved. Everything is leveled into a purely prosodic or phatic device. The basic outline of the joke is as follows:
A man walks into a talent agency and says, "Have I got an act for you. It's a family act. My wife and I and our son and daughter and dog come out on stage and ... [insert long recounting of over-the-top pornographic, incestuous, pedophiliac, scatological, violent, and otherwise immoral actions the family is said to perform]."

Talent agent: "That's quite an act. What do you call it?"

Man: "The Aristocrats!"

The spectacular unfunniness of this skeletal set-up is what puts all the burden of the joke on whatever sick abominations the comedian can come up with to fill in the middle section. The movie itself takes on some of the structure of the joke in treating the joke as a subject worthy of having a whole documentary devoted to it, and filling ninety minutes mostly with examples of the depravity one is required to imagine in order to tell the joke.

So it's all pretty interesting and amusing. Some viewers have complained about the disgustingness. Like I said, the language itself gets entirely neutralized for me by the conceptual apparatus. I just wish I didn't have to see Carrot Top's butt.

Or the rest of him either.

1 comment:

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

I agree that the obscenity gets flattened out and emptied over the course of the 90 minutes, but what I found fascinating about the variations in the joke is that it asks you to examine what you, personally, find offensive. The only thing in the film that even came close for me was the South Park segment's 9/11 jokes. But after the film, my friends and I did our own renditions, and what we found in our versions were revealing. My own "Aristocrats" involved blasphemy and drug use-- who knew?