The Aristocrats is at its dirty core the flogging of an old time insider joke. This documentary gets forty or so comedians to take on the same punch line, each trying something a little different, each bring their personality to the table. The premise is a simple one but the joke sometimes takes directions you couldn’t have expected. When it is running well it gets some great laughs, when it’s not it can feel a bit too “one note.”
The film is not for the easily offended, I saw at least eight people walk out of the screening I was at. Nothing is off the table in this film (incest, bestiality, scatological humor), in fact it seems as though the point of the joke and the movie is to purposefully offend some. It’s a joke comedians tell other comedians. Like a high wire act comedians have to raise the stakes with each other because they know it’s hard to shock someone who shocks others for a living.
I didn’t find the joke documented in its basic form to be very funny at all. It’s just an old time style of joke and once you know the punch line you become too married to the process to find a ton of laughs. I did, however, find the occasional deconstruction of the joke to be funny. The Aristocrats is at its best when it tries to make you laugh instead of trying to shock you.
A few comedians stood out for their renditions of the joke. My personal favorite was Sarah Silverman who took a long slow build up into a unique punch line that really has nothing at all to do with the joke everyone else is telling (It’s a bit strange to talk about comedy so technically but that’s how the film plays it). The Smothers Brothers were great because one of them didn’t even know the joke. Or maybe he did, and that was the joke. Bob Sagat single handedly both submarines his career and redeems himself for both “Full House” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” You’ve paid your penance Bob, well played sir. The “South Park” boys get in on the act with some good results. Greg Rogell plays the joke the exact same way as most others until he hits you with a surprise punch line at the very last second.
Don’t take your grandma! Whew, got that community service out of the way. If you are looking for a documentary that shows a much more interesting take I’d try Comedian if I were you. That’s a more interesting story, more compelling. The Aristocrats is a cool look at a single joke with some truly funny moments and it’s off the charts in terms of innovation. Where it comes up sorely lacking is in complexity and to that, I can’t heartily recommend or dissuade. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I hope movies like this can get past the censors going forward. We need filmmakers (and comedians) to test the limits, to push the boundaries, at the very least I admire the spirit of this film if not the overall execution.