It’s hard to imagine a documentary more foul-mouthed—or jaw-droppingly, side-splittingly hilarious—than The Aristocrats, Paul Provenza’s investigation into the titular joke, a bawdy, improvisation-heavy routine from the vaudeville era (though its precise origin and original form remain unknown) that’s legendary among professional comedians but too raunchy to ever be told on stage. Known as a “switch” because it leads the listener in one direction, only to culminate with an ironically polar-opposite punchline, “The Aristocrats” is a joke that can be told a thousand different ways, and Provenza’s visually crude DV-shot doc (conceived and executed with the help of Penn Jillette) captures nearly 100 different comedians, including George Carlin, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Drew Carey, and Sarah Silverman, enthusiastically discussing the joke’s history and form, as well as delivering their own can-you-top-that lewd performances of the profane, perverted piece.
Usually involving a family, an animal, and as much incest, blood, bodily fluids, and bestiality as a comic’s filthy mind can conjure, “The Aristocrats” is about show business (its structure revolves around a talent agency audition) while also functioning as a “secret handshake” for those in the comedy biz, and its enjoyment is largely dependent on the extent of the teller’s revolting inventiveness. Thus, even with humorous recitals by Carlin, Stephen Wright, and Kevin Pollack (impersonating Christopher Walken), the film’s stars turn out to be the truly vulgar Bob Saget and Gilbert Gottfried, the latter of whom salvages a floundering bit at a Hugh Hefner roast three weeks after 9/11 by daringly—and triumphantly—introducing the audience to the joke’s crude delights. From Silverman ending her rendition with “Joe Franklin raped me” to Andy Richter and The Man Show‘s Doug Stanhope repeating it to their infant sons (Richter’s kid is even dressed in a Christmas outfit), the joke proves both painfully simplistic and yet consistently uproarious, a tribute to the virtuosity of riffing and the infectious giddiness that comes from a seemingly non-stop stream of excessive excrement-laden images.
Provenza valiantly attempts to address both the underlying appeal of the joke—how it taps into comedians’ flair for theatricality, and how it encourages, and rewards, efforts to stretch the boundaries of good taste to their breaking point—and the way in which its myriad manifestations unconsciously reflect society’s current definitions of taboo material. Yet such deeper concerns merely intrude upon the film’s fun, and though it may serve as a comedian’s “signature” (since everyone puts their own filthy spin on the story), “The Aristocrats” really reveals little about its practitioners besides the fact that they enjoy upstaging one another and possess an endless infatuation with urine and feces. And when dealing with a joke that often requires the use of terms like “felching,” “Dirty Sanchez,” “Rusty Trombone,” and “Space Docking”—all of which are helpfully defined by the film—it’s probably wisest to follow Jon Stewart’s sage advice that, “I think it’s best if we don’t break it down.”