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Volume 71, Issue 5, Friday, August 26, 2005

Life & Arts

'Aristocrats' scoffs at social taboos

Film based off interpretations of dirty joke challenges audiences and comedy professionals 

By Barrett Goldsmith
The Daily Cougar

Some of the biggest names in comedy turned up for what was supposed to be a lighthearted roast of Hugh Hefner. But it ended up being a subdued, almost somber occasion with very little laughter. 

The mood was understandable: Only three weeks before, some people had flown planes into buildings and killed 3,500 people. It was too early to make jokes. This was a time to heal. 


Director Paul Provenza (left) said the purpose of his and co-director Penn Jillette's The Aristocrats is to show audiences as well as comic professionals that the job of comedians is to push boundaries with no regards to discretion. The film features various comics interpreting the same dirty joke, all with their own vulgar additions.
Courtesy of Think! Film

Gilbert Gottfried decided he'd had enough. When his opening joke about 9/11 earned him boos and groans, the gloves came off, and Gottfried reminded the comedy world what it was supposed to be doing: making people laugh. 

He launched into a 10-minute joke that probably wouldn't pass the censors at HBO, let alone Comedy Central, on which the roast was being televised. It was full of the most graphic sexual, biological, bestial, racial and sometimes criminal language and imagery Gottfried could summon to his command. 

The joke was not new. It had been an inside joke among professional comics for decades, told in smoky backrooms from small-town open mikes to backstage at the Comedy Store. It's called The Aristocrats, and it's the subject of a new feature film of the same name. 

"Here's a guy performing in front of 1,500 comedy professionals, and he's getting booed for crossing the line," said Paul Provenza, the director of the film and an accomplished standup comic. "By pulling out that joke, he's slapping them on the wrist and saying ‘let me remind you what our art is. We're supposed to cross the line.'" 

Penn Jillette, the vocal half of the comedy super-duo Penn & Teller, helped direct the film.

The joke is not about that specific incident, but its spirit pervades the entire hour and a half of running time. On the surface, it might seem like a bunch of comics trying to cross the line, but it is actually an eloquent argument that no such line should exist. 

The Aristocrats challenges all the notions of what is offensive and taboo. It also challenges the viewer not to laugh, as some of the individual performances "cross the line" from funny to hysterical. 

At the center of the film is the joke, which is told differently by each comic but goes roughly like this: A man goes into the office of a talent agent and says he and his family have a variety act to show him. The family then proceeds to engage in a series of lewd and grotesque acts with one another. The agent asks what the act is called and, with a flourish, the man says, "The aristocrats." 

Not a very funny joke on its own merits. But in the hands of a comedy virtuoso, the joke becomes an extended jam session that showcases the full flower of the teller's personal style and comedic talent. 

"This is a love letter to comedy," Provenza said. "It's the first time I've felt this proud about something. This film really shows what those of us in the world of professional comedy can do and should be doing." 

Some have deemed the film, which is unrated, as being too offensive for mainstream audiences. AMC Theaters has banned the showing of the film in all of its roughly 3,500 theaters nationwide. 

"We don't have a problem if this isn't some people's cup of tea," Provenza said. "A supermarket has the right to not sell Twinkies. But we find it interesting that AMC shows movies with violence, nudity, rape and a parody of 9/11 (War of the Worlds)." 

Some of the heaviest hitters in comedy come to bat in this movie -- if mainstream audiences have heard of a comic, he or she is probably in the film. Not every comic tells his or her version of the joke, but often the editorial side comments are just as funny as the joke itself. 

Standout performances include Taylor Negron, Sarah Silverman, Bob Saget, Billy the Mime, Kevin Pollack, Wendy Leibman, Lewis Black and Eric Cartman (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) from Comedy Central's South Park. Viewers also can see behind the scenes at The Onion, as staff members try to incorporate the most offensive elements possible.

The Aristocrats

Rated: Unrated

Starring: Various comics

Directed by: Paul Provenza, Penn Jillette

Verdict: Hilarious tribute to the fine art 

of dirty jokes.
 

Send comments to dcshobiz@mail.uh.edu

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