The Aristocrats

Movie Information

Genre: Comedy Documentary
Director: Paul Provenza
Starring: George Carlin, Billy Connolly, Gilbert Gottfried, Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Stewart, Bob Saget
Rated: NR

“No Nudity, No Violence, Unspeakable Obscenity,” claims the tag line for this most unusual documentary, and they ain’t just playing “Annie Laurie” on kazoos when they say that. The movie is unrated — but would have gotten an NC-17 if it had been submitted to the MPAA — for a very good reason: It speaks almost entirely in “unspeakable obscenities.” It’s not a movie for those with tender sensibilities. There were very few people at the decidedly off-hour matinee I attended — and fewer still by the end of the movie.

What exactly is The Aristocrats? Well, the name is both the title and the punch line of an old joke. No one is quite clear on when it started, but “The Aristocrats” dates back to vaudeville. It isn’t a joke meant to be told onstage. It isn’t meant to be told to the world at large, but one that’s a kind of secret-handshake affair of the fraternal order of comedians.

The joke is simple — a man walks into a theatrical agency and claims to have this wonderful act he wants the agency to book. He then describes the act — and this is where the joke takes on its legendary status, because it’s a kind of free-form jazz riff of obscenity made unique by the perverse creativity of the individual. There are no rules — except to be as gross and disgusting as possible. The description of the act usually involves incest, sadism, bestiality, humiliation and every possible bodily excretion known to man. The punch line comes when the agent asks, “What do you call the act?” “The Aristocrats” is the answer.

The concept of the documentary — brainchild of filmmaker Paul Provenza and comedian Penn Jillette — is to let 100 comedians loose on this bewhiskered outrage. They tap everyone from A to W (there being no X, Y, or Z comedians, it seems). Some just tell the joke, others comment on it. There’s an unevenness to the film, and, frankly, I rarely found it funny (it’s almost impossible to shock me — except for that time I laughed at a Rob Schneider gag). But I never found it less than fascinating and invariably entertaining.

Its brief 87 minutes flew by — largely from the surprises and the chance to see people you rarely see anymore (Larry Storch, Phyllis Diller, Don Rickles, the Smothers Brothers). The surprises come from who the raunchiest and most creatively disgusting comics turn out to be — people like Bob Saget (“Can I get a copy of this? I’d like to send it to the kids from Full House“), Paul Reiser and Carrie Fisher are not who you expect to be working this material. Vile, crude, and disgusting — and nearly mesmerizing. Not Rated.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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