directed by Paul Provenza
A movie where a lot of different comedians tell the same joke is a good idea – seeing people trying to make entertainment work is always interesting. Seeing multiple attempts at the same material, in parallel, can call both the craft and value of art into focus and can offer a chance to really appreciate the skill and effort of each artist. I still think a great movie could be made that would just be a simple document of many different actors performing the same short scene, as in an audition. Whenever I’ve found myself as one of the people “behind the table” at acting auditions where everyone reads the same scene, I end up feeling that I’ve watched a fascinating study of the scene itself and of the individual actors – and through them, of big issues like art and human nature as a whole. Really.
The Aristocrats, at least in theory, had the potential to offer that sort of insight, and some of the reviews I read suggested that it would. (A.O. Scott, attempting to demonstrate that he had seen beyond the veneer of potty-humor, called it several silly things including “one of the most original and rigorous pieces of criticism in any medium I have encountered in quite some time.”) But it fails. This is not to say that it is not amusing and/or worth seeing (it’s a bit long and fairly monotonous, but I generally enjoyed myself), just to say that despite its pretentions of being a window onto wider issues, it actually offers little insight into comedy or comedians, or even, ultimately, into the particular joke that it’s all about.
The movie is doomed to fail, really, by the choice of material. The joke (Guy goes into a talent agent to pitch his family’s act, says, “[elaborate pitch for surreal stage routine so repellent that it shocks those listening to the joke],” talent agent says “and what do you call yourselves?,” guy says, “The Aristocrats.”) is not a true joke, and is thus unsuitable for this documentary’s purposes.
Yes, it has a punchline, but the punchline is only funny in that it defies expectations – specifically, the expectations that are held for the JOKE, rather than for the situation. It is only a meta-joke*, a joke that toys with audiences grown accustomed to standard joke formats. This seems like a blatantly obvious thing to point out, but several people in the film talk about how the point of the joke is that the name of the act is so absurdly misguided and quaint after all the vulgarity, and some of the comedians who tell the joke seem really to believe this.** They are wrong. The humor is in fact that the joke-teller has gone to such indefensibly offensive ends for this shaggy-dog punchline. It’s just anti-icing on the cake that the punchline is, in an incredibly faint way, identifiable as a garden-variety “high/low joke.”
On a related note, I have long felt that it is a significant cultural error to have made “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side!” our all-purpose archetypal “joke,” since it’s only funny because it’s an ill-formed joke – i.e. it has a question and answer but the content is unfunny. Watching this movie I felt like the same mistake was being made – the movie was all about comedy and yet had this un-joke at its center.
The movie recognizes that the joke is all about shocking the audience, but the shock is only in response to the fact that the joke-teller is being so tasteless as to think it is acceptable to tell this joke. Certainly nobody is shocked that the man in the act eats his own poop or whatever; we’ve already written off his reality as being ridiculous***. Since the humor, therefore, results from the dynamic between the comedian and his audience, it is a joke that can hardly work out of context (the context is, as acknowledged in the film, the only reason that Gilbert Gottfried’s much-praised telling of the joke at the Hugh Hefner roast was so apt and successful), a joke that can hardly work in a staged performance situation (such things are meant to be told one-on-one, like scary stories), a joke that really can’t work in a movie (where the performers are nowhere near their audiences in space or time), and a joke that absolutely cannot work more than once, no matter how different the telling. All we can enjoy about seeing different people play with the joke is see what their imagination does to fill a space where there is no viable comedy goal, nothing left to accomplish. We see comedians falling back on their generic tricks, on their other material, because they have been asked to tell a non-joke to people who already know that it’s a waste of their time.
Alternately, we see less lazy comedians giving their best shot to writing new material “inspired by” the original non-joke, which has the potential to be an interesting exercise in its own way, I suppose, but I didn’t think any of the results were all that great. Sarah Silverman’s “I was an Aristocrat” routine, which gets singled out for praise in many reviews I’ve read, seemed to me like just an application of a typical deadpan formula (perhaps one of semi-recent vintage, but I’ve certainly seen it many times before). The movie also features applications of useful inversion formulas, anti-climax formulas, etc. Could have been interesting if they’d broken that down.
Anyway, the comedians in the movie are generally smart about all this stuff, and there is a fair amount of acknowledgement that a singularly unenlightening subject has been chosen for the movie. The implication of the filmmaking, though, is that the filmmakers, by perversely choosing the “wrong” joke, have actually gotten at something revealing. But every time one of the subjects said, “Why’d you have to pick this joke? This is a terrible joke and I don’t think it’s very interesting,” I tended to agree with them. The fact that the excessive gross-out riff is an undeniable element of American humor – pathetic, childish, and generally unfunny, but valuable in its way, as such – is something I’ve known since elementary school recess, and this movie didn’t add depth or breadth to that knowledge.
At the very least, given the concept and the interviewees, there was a fascinating movie that could have been made about the art, craft, and philosophy of humor, and these filmmakers willingly threw away that opportunity. What they actually made is just a good-natured, long, repetitive montage of occasionally-funny dead-baby-joke “jamming.” Seems like a waste. Still worth seeing though, for all the famous people joking around informally. I enjoyed the movie, I would say, in the same way I enjoy all behind-the-scenes footage.
Oh, also, I know this was a zero-budget casual movie, but of the few actual cinematographic choices involved, several struck me as dumb. Why did they shoot some people with two newsroom-style perpendicular cameras and have them look into both? That was awful.
** Paul Reiser, in particular, makes a game effort to make the joke work as a joke about the extreme misguidedness of the eager Aristocrat. I respected him for trying – at least he, unlike most of the comedians in the movie, was trying to actually sell the joke – but there’s just no way. It’s like trying to sell the idea that, no, there really is something kind of funny (and sad!) about this dog not actually being as shaggy as everyone says, after all that…
*** Which is why comedians in the movie get laughs talking about how in reality, the man with the act would have been jailed and the talent agent would certainly have tried to prevent the horrible act from happening – it’s all absurd, because of course these stick figures have never come anywhere near reality, where they could do anything actually offensive. It’s only the comedian drawing the stick figures who can be held responsible for their actions.