Comedian Paul Provenza and libertarian magician Penn Jillette (sans Teller) have created a first -- a feature-length documentary about a single dirty joke. But not just any dirty joke, the most depraved, disgusting joke of all time -- The Aristocrats. Yet while the idea is interesting, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
First things first -- Filmbrain doesn't find the joke particularly funny. Classic setup, amusing punch line, but the extended improvised middle is little more than an exercise in how creatively vile one can be. As someone in the film points out, society has changed tremendously, and the power to shock (or get a laugh) with mere vulgarity has weakened over the years. Riffs on shitting, bestiality, or anally fisting a child might be funny to some (yawn), but they are no longer shocking as fodder for the joke. It's the delivery that gets you laughing -- which explains why Gilbert Gottfried's apoplectic rants get some of the biggest laughs in the film. But to listen to somebody like Paul Reiser tell it -- you could almost hear the crickets in the screening room.
Contrary to what Filmbrain had heard, the film is not simply a series of variations on The Aristocrats, but rather a history and analysis of the joke, as told by a cast of about a hundred. This is the first problem with the film -- it's too damn long. While it was perhaps generous of the directors to include just about every comedian in the known universe, do we really need to hear Carrot Top's or Rip Taylor's ruminations on the joke? You spend about a third of the film just marveling at the fact that some of these people are still alive (Larry Storch, Phyllis Diller), and that others still have careers (Emo Phillips). Of the comic geniuses that do offer some insight into the joke, there is a tremendous amount of overlap and repetition. There's only so much one can say about the joke, and it gets said time and time again. At half the length it might have made for a far more interesting (and funnier) film -- 90 minutes is just too much.
The second problem with the film is that like The Aristocrats joke itself (which for the most part was just shared between comics), it's a bit too inside-y. Provenza and Jillette can be heard cracking up off camera, even at things that don't come off as very funny, and it is definitely guilty of casting a sycophantic eye on many of its subjects. (Filmbrain can only wonder what the film would have been like had somebody with even a hint of objectivity directed it.)
Sure, there are plenty of funny moments in The Aristocrats, mostly by comics who take a unique approach to the joke -- i.e., Kevin Pollock doing his Christopher Walken imitation, or Sarah Silverman's turning it into a first-person account. Chris Rock, easily one of the funniest standup comedians working today, sort of writes off the joke by explaining that black comedians never had to worry about whether or not they worked blue -- there were no opportunities for exposure anyway, so what did they have to lose? A similar logic can be applied to today's comedians -- there's nothing dangerous about the joke anymore, nor are they risking anything by telling it on film. Gone are the days of seeing Lenny Bruce escorted off the stage in handcuffs for riffing on religion, sex, Jackie O, etc. And while hearing TV-friendly comedians tell a dirty joke might be amusing to some, the shtick grows old real fast.