Subverting the Perverted

The Aristocrats

Forget about the shit, piss, vomit, semen, vaginal mucus, blood, burst boils, incest, abortions, anal sex, oral sex, fisting, bestiality, sex with wounds, anal musical talent, and other pleasantries in The Aristocrats. I wanna talk about editing!

Seriously, after all the buzz that greeted this documentary most foul by director/editor Paul Provenza (with a major assist from producer Penn Jillette), what else is there left to say about the world’s dirtiest joke? To the surprise of no one, the gag itself gets really fucking tiresome over the course of an hour and a half, and even if you’re easily offended, the repetition of “shit,” “fuck,” “cock,” “cunt,” “twat,” “cum,” et al. has a numbing effect. See? It’s happening already.

Much of the acclaim for The Aristocrats seems to be a reward for its transgressive nature. For critics, who generally loathe the safeness of the movies they see, this film about the comedy world’s secret handshake is a blast of rebellion against the ordinary, noble documentary and against any standard of decency, and it is therefore a good thing, quality be damned. That most critics single out for praise wholesome Bob Saget (playing seriously against type) and grating Gilbert Gottfried (who fearlessly takes charge of a difficult situation) is ample evidence, as both comics’ tellings are among the least inspired in the whole movie; they work too hard, as is their wont.

But there is something special about The Aristocrats, both in entertainment value and in its attempts to not just repeat the joke ad nauseam but to break it down in a nonclinical way and understand it.

The movie’s jovial tone is mostly responsible for how enjoyable it is. A receptive audience is going to have a good time with The Aristocrats simply because the people making it and the people in it are having a good time. I probably smiled more at the end credits — which mostly feature comedians doubled over in laughter — than I did at the rest of the film. In the movie proper, Kevin Pollak can’t maintain his Christopher Walken imitation for more than 20 seconds without cracking up, and Drew Carey seems inordinately delighted by his own joke-ending gestural flourish. It’s almost touching to see familiar faces so amuse themselves that they lose control of their behavior.

The movie is also funny, although it’s important to explain how. As you surely know, “The Aristocrats” the joke is decidedly awful by any standard of humor, with a buildup that can literally be endless and an anticlimactic punchline in which many crude acts are given an inappropriately regal moniker.

As comedians and critics have often noted, the joke is like jazz, with a basic structure and motifs but lots of room for improvisation. Some versions simply work — George Carlin’s precise (but casual) use of disgusting detail is particularly effective — and other don’t. Sometimes you laugh at the telling of the joke (rather than the joke itself), and sometimes you laugh at the comedian flailing.

The bombs are instructive and represent a misunderstanding of the joke. “The Aristocrats” is not necessarily about being as disgusting as possible; rather, it’s a joke that forces the teller to judge his or her audience and subvert their expectations, whatever they are. Sometimes those goals line up nicely; sometimes they don’t.

Take, for example, a variation on “The Aristocrats,” in which all manner of refined and proper activities are given an inappropriately crude moniker. This telling works in the context of the movie because at the point the audience hears it, viewers are shocked to hear about string quartets and reading.

And then there’s Sarah Silverman, lounging on a couch, matter-of-factly sexy. In a beautifully measured deadpan, she tells how she was once in The Aristocrats act. By putting herself in the joke, Silverman catches the audience off-guard. And when she reaches her punchline — “Joe Franklin raped me” — the effect is startling.

And here we get to the editing. For Joe Franklin is not some made-up guy but a talk-show host who gave many performers (particularly stand-up comedians) their first exposure. And the audience of The Aristocrats remembers seeing Joe Franklin earlier in the movie, and marveling at stacks of papers in his office/closet that seemed 10 feet tall. And it clicks: Yeah, I could see that guy molesting poor little Sarah Silverman on the casting couch. One of the most outré jokes in the world is, through the careful use of particulars, given something approaching plausibility and resonance.

The achievement belongs to both Silverman — who obviously had a sense of her comedic competition (differentiation is the key) and context — and editors Provenza and Emery Emery. Their placement of Franklin and Silverman in The Aristocrats is but one example of the careful, elegant structure of the movie. To make her joke work, Franklin obviously had to come first, but Provenza and Emery put plenty of distance between the two. That choice respects the audience’s intelligence but also improves the joke; it’s about rhythm.

And The Aristocrats excels at rhythm. The movie could have easily turned into a monumental bore, but it’s expertly, nimbly assembled, with a superb understanding of tension and release, verse and chorus, repetition and variation.

Its themes are established more through allusion than direct exploration. Several times, for example, the movie approaches the boundary that cannot be crossed, the one joke that cannot be made. Taylor Negron uses a dramatic pause to skewer a cliché — “the tragic events of ... January Third” — but doesn’t piss on the third rail. Gottfried uses “The Aristocrats” to extricate himself from a jam, after telling the following joke at a September 29, 2001, roast of Hugh Hefner: “I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight. They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” A South Park telling of “The Aristocrats” finally does the unthinkable. It’s inappropriate, funny, and (at last!) genuinely shocking.

Through these three well-separated segments, and without belaboring the point, The Aristocrats shows why the joke in its classic form really isn’t outrageous: It might be coarse, but it doesn’t touch any nerves. And as the movie proves, once you drain the language of its shock value, you’re left with an empty shell of a joke — which was all “The Aristocrats” was to begin with.

The same can’t be said of the movie, though. If “The Aristocrats” is jizzy jazz, The Aristocrats is a shit-covered symphony. And I mean that in the best way possible: Compared to the joke that is its subject, the movie is refined, subtle, beautifully choreographed, nuanced, artful, and maybe a touch profound. Even if it is covered in poop.

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