Stop me if you’ve heard this one before …

Rehashing the world’s oldest joke, over and over

If your gross-out factor causes you to gag during episodes of South Park, then The Aristocrats is definitely not for you. For the rest of us perverts, however, this documentary is a rare treat — funny, as in, at times, side-splitting, eyes-tearing, breath-defying, laugh-out-loud funny. The Aristocrats is a documentary about a joke you’ve never heard before. It’s a joke that comedians have been telling each other for generations, possibly since vaudeville. The only thing that stays constant in the telling of the joke over time is the punch line: “We’re the Aristocrats.” The rest is freeform, allowing the teller to go as far as he or she likes with a blue-chip value on nastiness.

Filmmakers Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette show footage of dozens upon dozens of famous comedians in their element — in offices, living rooms, backstage and in cafés — discussing the joke and telling their own renditions of incestuous scatological orgy tales. Some tell it with hilarious effect; the South Park version is genius. But some aren’t so funny, and Provenza and Jillette could’ve edited it down to shorten the film and eliminate some redundancy.

The filmmakers include a great moment at a 9/11 fundraiser in New York — a roast of Hugh Hefner — at which Gilbert Gottfried starts telling 9/11 jokes like, “I was worried about coming in late from Los Angeles. I had a layover at the World Trade Center.” The crowd starts booing, so Gottfried pulls out the Aristocrats joke and leaves the room in stitches.

More than just an exploration of a joke, the documentary is an exploration of comedians, a very strange group that does seem distracted by tendencies toward the scatological and perverse. The fact that comedians only tell this joke to each other, that they all seem to know it and love it, provides a window into their bizarre culture. Perhaps the punch line is this: If a comedian can make you laugh at nasty anal incest, they’re doing their job.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Lisa M. Collins writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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