The most common retort I see online from people talking about “The Aristocrats” movie is “I’m curious but 90 minutes of the same joke getting told over and over again is going to get old fast.” This movie is not that simple. The Aristocrats is about one joke, but really about comedy and laughter’s ability to unite us, even when all of us sing a little bit different.
If you’re not familiar with the joke, it goes like this: A family walks into a talent agent’s office. They offer him a chance to represent them and he agrees to watch them perform. The next part is always improvised by the teller, but it could involve all manner of bodily fluids, sexual behaviors and disturbing images - giving the joke the comic’s unique signature. The punchline is always the same, the agent asks the name of the act and the family replies “The Aristocrats!”
The Aristocrats joke is traced back to the days of early vaudeville and it’s sort of an initiation rite for many a comic. Or possibly a masonic handshake. The ultimate insiders material, it’s never really been considered for public consumption. In some sense to be told the joke by a fellow comic was almost a private version of being invited to the couch by Johnny Carson (to whom the film is dedicated). It’s the marker of “hey kid, you’re in.”
Talking about funny stuff can be a real snoozefest than the laugh riot some expect (hence my own warning on the top right hand corner), but “The Aristocrats” keeps the conversations about the joke involving and funny as well, floating from speculation on why the agent in the joke just doesn’t stop the act right at the first sign of depravity to the disappointment of screwing up the punchline after a marathon hour-long telling of the joke.
The jokes most well-know public performance gets featured near the end. Gilbert Gottfried, one of many comics attempting to mine laughs at a Friar’s Club Roast only a few week after 9/11, begin to tell the joke after losing the crowd with material that’s just too soon to tell. Deploying the joke at that moment brings howls of laughter, reversing the room’s mood in an instant. With 9/11’s brutal reminder of how fragile we are, a joke that revels in the depravities of our bodies was exactly what’s needed.
Laughter won’t unify anybody who finds this material too coarse. But Producer Penn Jillette has a simple solution: don’t come.