High Humor

February 10, 2006 at 1:25pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in 625 Elm Street

I have a confession to make: The Missus and I watched a dirty movie recently. A filthy, wretched, hide-the-kids-and-put-grandma-to-bed kind of movie. Yup, we watched The Aristocrats.

I had high hopes going in. I was really intrigued by the concept of a documentary about “comedy jazz”, about the one joke that every comedian can make his own. And as a bonus, half the point of the joke is to cross boundaries, to “shock and awe”, to flirt with the unflirtable. My spirits leapt when a pseudo-warning at the start of the movie indicated something along the lines of “This movie is not rated, but is protected by the First Amendment”. Sweet.

But you know what? I found the film bland and boring. Maybe it’s because I’m already familiar with the joke, but I only laughed a couple times throughout the entire movie. My biggest laughs were for Billy the Mime, the card trick guy, and for a couple of the comedians who didn’t even tell the right joke.

Let me make one thing clear: the film is not one comedian after another telling the joke. It is instead a collection of clips loosely organized into a story about the joke. The editing is a little frenzied at times, but there is an overarching structure.

The comedians were surprisingly uncreative. Most did little more than recite cliched interpretations of the joke, relying heavily on the usual scatology, bestiality, and incest that make the joke so (in)famous. Their interpretations were so cliched that the filmmakers were able to switch rapidly between them with almost no loss of continuity. This wasn’t comedy jazz, it was comedy 7th grade concert band.

The worst examples were George Carlin, Bob Saget, Sarah Silverman, and Drew Carrey. Carlin’s time came and went long ago. Bob Saget was supposed to be the most offensive of all, but the only thing offensive about his rendition was its insipidness. If you’ve ever seen Sarah Silverman’s “act” you already know exactly how she told the joke. And the always awful Drew Carrey was, as always, awful. (I’ve got to give the guy credit, though, he has lost a lot of weight.)

The most admirable performance came from Gilbert Gottfried. It wasn’t so much how he told the joke, but that he told the joke, and the context he told it in. A mere three weeks after September 11, 2001, the Friar’s Club roasted porn magnate Hugh Hefner. How do a bunch of comedians tell jokes so soon after a massive national tragedy, and especially in New York? It wasn’t easy. Gottfried was dying on stage. He tried a current events gag, only to be shot down by the audience. So he switched gears. He started into The Aristocrats. The audience stirred as they realized what was going on. By the time he was finished, Gottfried had the audience rolling. It wasn’t that Gottfried’s version was the funniest version ever told. Rather, he had given the audience permission to laugh again. At that time in New York, that was an incredible gift.

If you aren’t familiar with The Aristocrats you might get a lot out of the film. But for me watching the film was anticlimatic. I expected more than just schoolyard versions of the joke. I expected creativity and boundary crossing. With the exception of a very short segment toward the end of the film discussing no-no topics like race, the comedians mostly remained tame.

When you’re playing a song everybody has heard, you have two options: you can play it the way everybody expects it to be played (e.g. the solos in Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”), or you can really make it your own. For the most part the comedians in The Aristocrats opted for the former. Tis a shame.

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beerorkid February 10, 2006 at 9:45pm

I got bored and there was no way to be shocked anymore towards the end.

I still loved it though.  And the mime ruled.

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