October 20, 2005

The Aristocrats (2005)

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.

* Wikipedia currently has separate but overlapping articles on Anti-humor, Meta-joke, and (soon to be deleted) Non-joke.

** 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.


  1. You could argue, though, that “Why did the chicken cross the road?” is the only sort of material that could possibly function as Our National Joke. Because it’s a meta-joke, a joke about the act of telling a joke, its content is sufficiently bland to pass muster. By contrast, any joke that was about an actual topic — a Polish joke, a priest/rabbi joke, a man-walks-into-a-bar joke (though the last one comes closest) — is too strongly flavored with a subject other than “joke” to make the cut.

    Anyway, “Why did the chicken…” is only intended to be a metonym for humor, so it’s relieved of any obligation to be humorous.

    Posted by Adam on |
  2. Point taken, though I still disagree. Your comment actually touches on the true nature of the matter, which is that “Why did the chicken cross the road?” is only iconic of a certain kind of American joke – the innocent, dumb riddle joke – whereas our ethnic jokes have their own icon (“How many [Iroquois] does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”) and various other archetypes exist as well.

    You’re right to point out that “A man walks into a bar…” is nearly all-purpose. I think, in fact, that’s the true “adult joke” icon. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” is much more idiosyncratic – apart from representing a joke, it also (probably more fundamentally) represents “ubiquitous yet nonsensical question.” If you look it up online you’ll find that most of its usages are meant to parody philosophical problems and other important enigmas. Seems to me this might arise from confusion/overlap with the genuinely unanswerable “Which came first?” question, but regardless, that’s the state of the chicken.

    Actually, it seems like the essence of “Why did the chicken…” is that while the correct answer is mundane and obvious, the question is not just so jokelike but so rhythmically compelling and, most of all, so famous that it still seems to demand attention and consideration well beyond “to cross the road.” It is the question that, through cultural force alone, insists on being asked despite being worthless.

    I just googled hard to find the origins of the joke, or at least a first recorded usage, but no luck. All I found was French doofus who ultimately concludes only that the joke predates 1982 (perhaps he is joking…), and this unsubstantiated assertion that the joke originated as part of, ahem, “a big middle-school fad during Prohibition in what were called the ‘Roaring Twenties’,” end-ahem.

    I originally intended, in the post, to include my suggestion for a better archetypal “dumb riddle joke,” but decided that it was too controversial. But since you have called attention to the topic, I’ll reveal that it was going to be “Where does a sheep get its hair cut? At the baa-baa shop.” I seem to recall that you didn’t even KNOW this joke. Other suggestions?

    Posted by broomlet on |
  3. There’s “Knock, knock…” That’s not a joke but the frame for a joke; but the same is true of “man walks into…”

    How about, “What’s black and white and red all over?” That could be a stand-in for “pun.” (Admittedly, not as ubiquitous as the others.)

    Also, how would you classify the following, which was immensely popular among young people of my acquaintance:

    Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?

    A. To get the Chinese newspaper!

    Posted by Anonymous on |
  4. I really love the joke about the Iroquois.

    Posted by another Indian on |
  5. re: the Chinese newspaper.

    You either forgot how the joke works or were being coy. Properly, it is four lines long:

    Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?

    A. To get the Chinese newspaper! …Get it?

    Q. No.

    A. Neither do we, we get the New York Times.

    I would classify this, along with a few others, as an “Overflow Joke” – wherein a pseudo-punchline tricks the audience into believing the joke is already over and that we have reentered civilian airspace. This, so goes the theory, makes the real punchline that much more surprising and thus delightful. Standard gimmick for magic tricks. (“Oh no, that’s not your card? Oh well…” and then 10 minutes later the right card shows up in one of your ravioli)

    “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?” belongs in a distinct but related category.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  6. This is embarrassing… but, I actually did not realize the joke was more than two lines long. (Or rather, I knew it when I was in second grade, but had long since forgotten.) Wow — so it’s not an absurdly postmodern exchange after all.

    Feel free to make fun of me for weeks.

    Posted by Adam on |
  7. Rather than being at all postmodern, I believe the joke is actually ordinary ethnic humor. As a little kid in un-PC Ohio, I heard a number of jokes in which chickens and Chinese writing are brought together, usually due to the slang reference to Chinese characters as “chicken scratchings.”

    Posted by Mary on |
  8. Interesting. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that the chicken might actually be able to read that crazy newspaper. I mean, if Chinese is indeed the language of chickens in joke-land, then the listener just might “get it” after all. Of course, then you can always say, “You do? We get the New York Times,” and catch them in the humiliating position of being able to read Chinese, just like chickens do.

    Posted by broomlet on |

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.