The so-called "dirtiest joke in the world" gets told to a fare-thee-well in "The Aristocrats," a raucous insider docu that invites the viewer to share a secret held exclusively by comics for untold generations. More than 100 entertainers relate the joke or aspects of it, explain its private history, comment on its variations and rate renditions of it for fellow funnymen Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette.

The so-called “dirtiest joke in the world” gets told to a fare-thee-well in “The Aristocrats,” a raucous insider docu that invites the viewer to share a secret held exclusively by comics for untold generations. More than 100 entertainers relate the joke or aspects of it, explain its private history, comment on its variations and rate renditions of it for fellow funnymen Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. What cascades forth here for an hour-and-a-half couldn’t be verbally filthier, meaning that some prospective audiences will be offended; but most will be amused by this unique, star-laden homemovie. Commercial prospects are iffy to OK for limited theatrical release, but quite bright indeed in cable and sell-through markets.

Joke in question is one known in comedy circles at least since vaudeville days but never told in public. Without spoiling it, tale has a simple set-up and a clean, satisfying but hardly uproarious punchline. But as everyone points out, it’s the “middle” that counts. “It’s a blank slate and you get to play,” advises George Carlin, and many compare the wide-open opportunity offered by the joke’s format to jazz, with its invitation to improvise and riff to the artist’s content.

What the set-up provides, in fact, is the chance to spin a tale of debauchery to put Boccacchio, the Marquis de Sade and the combined exertions of John C. Holmes and Jenna Jameson to shame; the further you carry it, the more depraved and original your slant, the more successful the telling. Versions that take wing and acquire a life of their own can easily last a half-hour, and the ability to relate it in a way that makes other comedians crack up stands as a test of any stand-up’s talent.

Bob Saget, not publicly known as a dirty-mouth, proves he’s actually a brilliant one in an extended seg, and Whoopi Goldberg makes the valid point that racial humor has now become more of a flashpoint than sexual outrageousness. The most original contributions are made by Billy the Mime, who manages to relate the essence of the joke without a word, and especially by sleight-of-hand master Eric Mead, who loads a series of card tricks with dizzyingly lurid innuendo.

But the star of this smut-off is unquestionably Gilbert Gottfried. Raspy-voiced comic raises scabrous invective to new lows of sustained bedazzlement, both in straight-to-camera comments and, especially, in a tape made at a private roast of Hugh Hefner that’s rightly saved for the docu’s climax. Gottfried’s ever-escalating ferociousness is enough to reduce even heard-it-all audiences to helpless tears of laughter.

No doubt only fellow comics could have induced so many jokesters to let down their guard and participate in such a project. While the lineup of talent is undeniably impressive, most of the comedians are middle-aged types with similar perspectives. The old guard is sorely missed, and one regrets the absence of such giants as Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Red Buttons, Henny Youngman and others, many of whom are now gone but were still alive when the picture went into production four years ago.

Provenza and Jillette grabbed their interview sessions on the run with hand-held consumer video equipment, and, while some of the lensing is less than professional, this is a small price to pay for the access obtained. Editing is snappy, and IDs of the participants are thoughtfully provided at the end.

The Aristocrats

Production

A Mighty Cheese production. Produced by Peter Adam Golden. Executive producers, Penn Jillette, Paul Provenza; Co-producer, Ken Krasher Lewis. Directed by Paul Provenza.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Provenza, Michael Lynn, Tristan Prescott, Spicoli, Emery Emery, Dean Cameron, Corneleus, Micheal Goudeau, Penn Jillette, Mike Jones, Rich Nathanson, Colin Summers, Ezekiel Zabrowski, Emily Zolten Jillette; editors, Emery, Provenza; music, Gary Stockdale; sound, Jillette; sound editor, Eric Wilson; associate producers, Glenn S. Alai, Lynn; supervising producer, Farley Ziegler. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 25, 2005. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Chris Albrecht, Jason Alexander, Hank Azaria, Shelley Berman, Billy the Mime, Lewis Black, David Brenner, Mario Cantone, Drew Carey, George Carlin, Mark Cohen, Carrot Top, Billy Connolly, Tim Conway, Pat Cooper, Wayne Cotter, Andy Dick, Frank DiGiacomo, Phyllis Diller, Susie Essman, Carrie Fisher, Joe Franklin, Todd Glass, Judy Gold, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Gorodetsky, Gilbert Gottfried, Dana Gould, Allan Havey, Eric Idle, Dom Irrera, Eddie Izzard, Richard Jeni, Jake Johannsen, Amazing Johnathan, Alan Kirschenbaum, Jay Kogen, Sue Kolinsky, Paul Krassner, Cathy Ladman, Lisa Lampanelli, Richard Lewis, Wendy Liebman, Bill Maher, Howie Mandel, Merrill Markoe, Jay Marshall, Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling, Chuck McCann, Michael McKean, Eric Mead, Larry Miller, Martin Mull, Kevin Nealon, Taylor Negron, "The Onion" editorial staff, Otto & George, Rick Overton, Gary Owens, The Passing Zone, Penn & Teller, Emo Philips, Peter Pitofsky, Kevin Pollak, Paul Reiser, Andy Richter, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, Gregg Rogell, Jeffrey Ross, Jon Ross, Rita Rudner, Bob Saget, T. Sean Shannon, Harry Shearer, Sarah Silverman, Bobby Slayton, The Smothers Brothers, Carrie Snow, Doug Stanhope, David Steinberg, Jon Stewart, Larry Storch, Rip Taylor, Dave Thomas, Johnny Thompson, Peter Tilden, Bruce Vilanch, Fred Willard, Robin Williams, Steven Wright.

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