Going deep inside the improvisers’ studio, The Aristocrats examines the timeless appeal of a notorious vaudeville joke—a kind of “secret handshake” among comedians. The so-called “aristocrats” routine suggests Catskills by way of Andrew Dice Clay: A man strolls into a talent office saying he’s got a show that’ll knock ’em dead. He proceeds to tell the agent about his act, the world’s most depraved, obscene family revue—involving shitting, incest, you name it—and starring his own family. “Whaddaya call it?” the agent asks. The man replies, “The Aristocrats.”
The punchline, of course, is a red herring. What matters is the description of the revue, a blank canvas that each fabulist is encouraged to douse with as much smut as possible. “I think you can put people to death for what happens in the best versions of this joke,” quips Jake Johannsen, one of more than 100 comedians featured in the film. Director Paul Provenza and his collaborator, Penn (of Penn & Teller) Jillette, set out to prove what’s already evident: that each comic puts a personal stamp on the material, spinning a fundamentally hollow gag into ostensible gold. “You gotta save the scatological for the end,” Paul Reiser informs us, rating diarrhea as more shocking than intra-familial blowjobs. (A typical “aristocrats” recitation would involve both.) Chevy Chase apparently held parties where the goal was to stretch the joke past 30 minutes.
Simpsons writer Dana Gould claims to have once drawn it out for two and a half hours—including mentions of white slavery and zeppelin crashes—only to flub the final word.
Virtually structureless, The Aristocrats finds an apex in Gilbert Gottfried’s performance at a September 2001 Friars’ Club roast, where the screechy comedian ad-libbed an “aristocrats” delivery after his attempt at early 9-11 humor fell disastrously flat. Despite much conjecture about why the joke has endured—the movie deploys George Carlin as the stand-up-comic equivalent of Mark Shields—The Aristocrats is most enjoyable as a series of riffs. Reminding us that he used to be on Full House, Bob Saget unfolds a variation that features “projectile shit.” Thinking outside the box, Kevin Pollak does his version in the voice of Christopher Walken. Whoopi Goldberg, one of several comediennes who talk about the difference between male and female renditions, devises unspeakable uses for foreskin. With Robin Williams, Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Eric Cartman (in an animated segment), and the staff of The Onion treated as almost incidental presences, The Aristocrats is a veritable talent show itself, albeit one that feels inescapably slight. To rejigger another ancient joke: The food at this place isn’t terrible. But the portions are really small.