Unless you’re a professional comedian, or at least someone in the loop, chances are you haven’t heard The Aristocrats, an in-joke which over the years has taken on a life of its own. Nasty, vile, filthy, dangerous, and politically incorrect, The Aristocrats is the joke equivalent of the secret handshake. Shared by comedians since Vaudeville, The Aristocrats is simple in premise:

A husband, wife, and their children enter the office of an agent and say they have the perfect act. They get up on the stage and engage in all sorts of deviant behavior. After they’re finished, the agent asks what the act is called. The Aristocrats. The opening and ending are always the same (well, almost always), what distinguishes the joke is its Oreo center.

Since The Aristocrats is commonly shared among comedians, the trick is top previous efforts and personalize it. This is done numerous ways, most involving exaggerated sexual acts, free flowing bodily fluids, incest, bestiality, religion, comic violence, impossible physical contortion, you name it, at one point in time, it has been included in The Aristocrats.

Comedian Paul Provenza, working with producer Penn Jillette, attempts to demystify the notorious nature of The Aristocrats by interviewing approximately 100 comedians. Some share their own version of the story, some dissect it, while others riff on the nature of comedy and comedians in general. One would think a documentary featuring 100 comedians relating the same joke would become monotonous, and in some ways its does.

There are only so many variations before The Aristocrats starts repeating itself. Like all good comedians, Provenza saves the best for last, creating a tidal wave of laughs and disbelief until we’re completely engulfed in one of the nastiest and funniest takes on the joke by Gilbert Gottfried. During a Friar’s Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, which took place just weeks after 9/11, Gottfried finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place after making what the audience deems to be an inappropriate joke about the World Trade Center.

Desperate to reflect some of the heat, Gottfried launches into his version of the joke, attacking it with the ferocity of a pit bull in heat. His presentation is so outrageous and offensive, you can’t help but be distracted by his desperation. Fueling the joke is the knowledge Gottfried is telling it in public for the first time, to an audience largely made up of comedians, which means the only way for the joke to work is to make it larger than life.

Gottfried does, even causing Hefner to blush. With his shrill voice, Gottfried punches every profanity with glee, obviously enjoying making the audience and dais squirm. Some members of the film audience may find themselves in the same situation. The Aristocrats is not for prudes. It celebrates raunchy adult humor without apology, and while audiences expect such behavior from comedians like Robin Williams and George Carlin, they might be surprised to find some of their family-hour favorites getting down and dirty.

Bob Saget paints a streak so blue even he seems offended, and Sarah Silverman gets two bites at the apple and cements her reputations as one of the foulest and funniest female comedians working. Her take on the joke is hilarious, but Silverman’s sudden realization of an audition gone bad brings down the house.

Like sex, comedy is subjective and can get messy. Some people will applaud The Aristocrats for its bawdy behavior, others will simply walk out, wondering how anyone can find 90 minutes of filth funny. Why those people would even subject themselves to The Aristocrats is beyond me. While the joke is the main course, it is by no means the whole meal. There’s a lot to chew on, including observations from famous and not-so-famous talking heads examining the state of comedy.

These observations are the glue that hold the film together, like Whoopi Goldberg abstaining because for her it’s a lose-lose situation. With a little coaxing, Goldberg continues by saying what her act would include, unaware she has actually completed the joke.

The famous names (both comedians and actors) give the documentary enough weight to anchor the non-famous names, many who are just as funny. The joke goes through various mutations (most comedians stick to the formula, George Carlin adheres to the rules verbatim, while some give the joke their own spin), with each and every participant bringing something new to the party.

There are some misses, but that’s comedy. After all is said and done, the question remains: is The Aristocrats a joke worth telling? The answer is yes. For those in the right mood, it won’t just tickle your funny bone, but extract and beat you over the head with it. Now that’s entertainment.

A Cunning Stunt

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

The Aristocrats

A Documentary by Paul Provenza. Unrated. 89 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $8.00

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