Friday, April 22, 2011

FI: The Aristocrats

The Aristocrats
US, 2005
Directed by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette

The Aristocrats is a documentary about a single joke and the infinite jazz-like interpretations comedians have given that joke over the decades. The joke begins with a man walking into a talent agency to pitch a family act, and it ends with the agent asking what the act is called, prompting the two-word punchline "The Aristocrats!" In the middle, we find a depth and breadth of hilarious, transgressive smut unlikely to be matched by any joke, running the gamut from bestiality to coprophagia.

Jillette and Provenza's documentary is obviously a labor of love. The footage was collected from hundreds of on-the-fly interviews over the course of years, it seems, and has been edited together into a semi-cohesive whole, though there are a few mildly-irritating stylistic choices. Sometimes the film cuts away from an interview in the middle of a funny bit, or covers too much of the same ground from multiple interviewees. Constraints on the amount of time some subjects could give to the filmmakers mean that we get too little of some interviewees and too much of others. And, although I recognized the majority of the people in the film, there's no identifying text for each subject—as the filmmakers chose to do a video credit sequence at the end—which means that sometimes you're left to ponder who someone is or how to contextualize their thoughts.

Still, for what could easily have felt like beating a dead horse—which, incidentally, would not be at all out of place in The Aristocrats' act—the film works because the filmmakers were smart enough to let the performers' enthusiasm and energy carry the show. It provides a perspective on comedy writing that the audience isn't generally privy to seeing, peeling back the "process" of humor just enough to generate insight without "explaining" the joke into submission. It's worth seeing, whether you're interested in the craft of comedy, or just in need of a good laugh.

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