The most offensive film this summer doesn't show severed body parts, steamy sex scenes, buckets of blood or even a single frame of anything inappropriate. In fact, aside from an errant mime, it might even be one of the cleanest films released this year provided it's viewed on mute. The first film to earn an NC-17 rating sans sex or violence (though it's being released unrated), 'The Aristocrats' is a triumphant testament to comedy in the form of the dirtiest joke ever told. It's vulgar, filthy, creative, clever and extraordinarily offensive to anyone with a functional sense of hearing provided they can stop laughing long enough to get indignant.
Culled from over 100 hours of footage shot over the course of three years, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette's no frills documentary features scores of comedians telling, retelling, miming, analyzing and reminiscing about one of the oldest, dirtiest jokes in existence, a marathon of improvisational indecency that's as jubilantly distasteful as it is hilarious.
Like any good film, 'The Aristocrats' pushes the limits of our comfort zone as well as decidedly ignoring those of taste and decency in order to expose us to something beyond our usual routine, in this case the backstage realm and culture of stand up comedy. Armed with nothing more than their insider status and a couple of consumer DV cameras, Provenza and Jillette filmed their fellow funnymen (and women) in their natural settings homes, cafes, backstage, even on street corners to capture an unvarnished portrait of comedy in action. It's a veritable who's who of the world's most famous and gifted comedians talking about the joke that's become a sort of secret handshake among them, and the best part is that's not for a gig, not for money, but purely for the fun of the telling and of course, a chance to show off.
The joke itself I won't spoil it here is relatively simple, the setup and punch line never change, but the middle is a spontaneous free for all of comedic one-upmanship. With no audience or censors to worry about, the only goal is make it as long and outrageous as possible (some versions are rumored to have stretched past 90 minutes), usually detailing a parade of perversions encompassing bestiality, scatological humor and a laundry list of deviant behavior sexual and otherwise that's as imaginatively disturbing as it is unfit for print.
Naturally, the film's legions of detractors all of whom could use a good laugh, and most of whom will probably never even see the film have already fired up the moral outrage machine, condemning the film and dismissing it as nothing more than shock value for sale, an analysis that's as ill-informed as it is preposterous. Beyond its graphic descriptions of all things obscene though a few versions of the joke are clean enough for a Disney cartoon 'The Aristocrats' is about the nature of comedy.
Like a jazz musician riffing on a melody, it's the comedians and the delivery that make the joke funny, not the other way around. Whether in Steven Wright's deadpan delivery, Robin Williams's manic energy or Sarah Silverman's deft display of comic timing, 'The Aristocrats' isn't just about the joke, it's also a star studded clinic on comedy.
As with any film that exercises its First Amendment rights in such filthy fashion, 'The Aristocrats' is a ringing endorsement of free speech (by example rather than preaching), a gleeful one fingered salute to censorship at a time when it's sorely needed. It's also a subversive celebration of the cathartic nature of comedy, best illustrated by Gilbert Gottfried's boisterous delivery of the joke at the New York Friar's Club one of the rare occasions it's been performed at a show.
Shortly after 9/11, tension still hung thick in the air, and Gottfried was floundering at the Friar's Club Roast of Hugh Hefner. After an ill-advised airline joke prompted a chorus of boos, he paused a moment, took a deep breath, and launched into one of the raunchiest renditions of the joke seen in the film, detailing a heinous host of sexual and scatological depravity that had his audience many of them professional comedians rolling on the floor. Crude and wonderful, the joke's dirty absurdity served as a powerful reminder that sometimes, laughter is the best medicine.
The Aristocrats opens July 29 in Los Angeles and New York.