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The Aristocrats

The central joke of The Aristocrats (2005) is not funny. In fact, this point is made a few times, when the shaggy-dog story is told to the uninitiated, only to have the punchline fall flat. Such reveals two things: As a joke, "The Aristocrats" is quite old. And over the years, it has been told and re-told primarily amongst comedians themselves. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal the joke, in an economical form: A man enters a booking agent's office and pitches his vaudeville act. He, along with his wife, son, and daughter, take the stage, remove their clothes, and defecate on each other, after which they smear the excrement on themselves and throw it around. "That's outrageous," the agent replies. "What do you call yourselves?" The man says "The Aristocrats!" If you're scratching your head a bit, understand that the central part of the joke goes much, much longer when told by working comedians, where improvisation takes over. Furthermore, an "aristocrat" carries little meaning in 21st century America, where we tend to associate sophistication with celebrity and wealth with business acumen — the mostly European idle class of inherited wealth does not strike the popular imagination the way it did generations ago. And also, Walt Disney made a film called The Aristocats, causing untold amounts of young people to easily swap the two words during the course of their adult lives. Really, the punch-line should be different — one comedian suggests "The Sophisticates," which sounds much better after enduring a hilarious, overlong description of public incest, bestiality, and poo-flinging. But "The Aristocrats" it must be, because it's the established code-word of a joke that's so old it actually involves things like cold-calling booking agents, as well as family acts on vaudeville/nightclub circuits. What director Paul Provenza and producer Penn Jillette manage to create in The Aristocrats — with the help of around 75 joke-tellers — is a very low-cost look into comedians and what makes them laugh. Telling this particular joke is a challenge of narrative and improvisation, doubly so because it exists only in the insular world of working comics, most of whom already have heard countless versions of it. Shock, detail, absurdity, and surrealism are the essential tools here, in addition to endurance (urban legends claim tellings as long as 90 minutes). As Jillette notes, "It's the singer, not the song," which is why this particular element of comedy neatly crosses over into jazz, where the improv of beebop and freedom of modality mean that no piece of music can ever be played the same twice. Perhaps it also could be compared to rap, where new art emerges from snippets of older works — some of the most amusing moments in The Aristocrats involve retellings by a card magician, a mime, jugglers, and the "South Park" kids, while Martin Mull turns the entire story around by merging it with an equally hoary joke about cannibal captivity, and Kevin Pollack delivers the gag as told by Christopher Walken. There is play with the punchline as well, as inventive comics try to restore surprise to a phrase that has very little tread left on it. As Michael McKean says of this oft-told number, "It kind of makes its own gravy." And while it may have been a more efficient film at a crisp 60 min. (at 90 min. it feels a bit overlong), The Aristocrats is a vulgar, bawdy, liberating look at how comedians amuse each other when they're not on stage.

ThinkFilm's DVD release of The Aristocrats features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.33:1) from the original video sources, while audio is available on Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround tracks. Supplements include a chatty, rapid-fire commentary with director Paul Provenza and executive producer Penn Jillette, "More from the Comedians" with 21 outtakes and a "play all" option, the montage "The Aristocrats Do The Aristocrats" (5 min.), the tribute "For Johnny Carson" (2 min.), "Behind the Green Room Door: Comics Tell Us Some of Their Other Favorite Jokes" (16 min.), "Be an Aristocrat Contest Winners" (12 min.), and trailers for other ThinkFilm titles. Keep-case.

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