Never has a single joke been so thoroughly deconstructed, much less to such satisfying effect, than in the documentary The Aristocrats. The movie is the brainchild of performers Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) and Paul Provenza, who have analyzed the workings of an off-color joke that (according to the movie) has been around since the days of vaudeville.
The basic form of the joke is this: A guy walks into a talent agency and tells the agent, “I have a family act you won’t believe.” The guy then proceeds to describe himself and his family members doing feats that can never be adequately described on a PG-rated blog. The stunned agent says, “And what do you call this act?” The guy haughtily replies, “‘The Aristocrats’!”
As you can probably guess, it is in the second third of this joke where its teller goes to town, as he/she expounds upon the ethical and physical lows to which this family will stoop in order to make it in show biz. To be sure, many versions of the joke (told here by three or four generations of actors and comedians) are enough to prevent you from munching on your popcorn for a while.
But one of the movie’s points is how a comic’s style can make the joke his own, and that often happens here. The Smothers Brothers make it sound like a slightly racier version of their usual routine. A mime does a version of the joke that wouldn’t have been out of place in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie. There’s even a sleight-of-hand card-telling version of it.
And the quiet subtext of this bawdy, often hilarious movie is how some people are easily offended by certain subject matter, while the movie illustrates that once shock value is opened up for discussion, its power is often dissipated. As such, the movie is as interesting an argument for the First Amendment as The People vs. Larry Flynt.
But finally, the movie’s lure isn’t due to its power as a political treatise. It basically shows how talented comedians can make even the most unsavory material funny. And in these times, that might not be such a small talent.