The Aristocrats directed by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza, with George Carlin, Drew Carey, Whoopi Goldberg, Gilbert Gottfried, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Kevin Pollak, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Steven Wright and others. 87 minutes. A Thinkfilm release. Opens Friday (August 12). For venues and times, see Movies, page 90. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Park City, Utah - a guy walks into a talent agent's office and says, "Have I got an act for you." "Yeah? What do they do?"
That's the set-up, and if it sounds like a faded old vaudeville riff, the payoff gets as sharp as a straight razor up your pucker - which is a tame thought in the context of The Aristocrats.
Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) have assembled dozens of the best comedians in America - and a few from Britain - to tell their signature versions of the dirtiest joke in the world. But filth was never the goal. Though it features frequent descriptions of incest, bestiality and poo, this is a film about the creative process, Provenza and Jillette insist.
"This joke is like a jazz theme," says Provenza. "It has a definite structure, and a simple one at that. The set-up and the punchline are always the same, but the middle is wide open. It's the perfect joke. We didn't choose it because it's the filthiest joke in the world. It just happens to be the filthiest joke in the world."
Lucky fucking break.
Provenza and Jillette sit at the bar of a Park City restaurant, riffing on the similarities between comedy and jazz. It's clearly a subject they've drained countless bottles debating.
"To extend the analogy," Jillette says, "comics write their own songs. You don't usually get to hear them do the same song. But there was this joke that pretty much everyone knew. And yet no one had it as part of his act, because it's a fuck-around-after-hours joke."
That's the thrill of The Aristocrats: to watch Whoopi Goldberg, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Drew Carey and others follow their own ids to find the nastiest, funniest version they can dream up.
For Jillette and Provenza, the true comic genius here is Gilbert Gottfried, screw-faced screamer and player of minor movie roles.
"For comedians, Gilbert is in a category unto himself," Provenza says. "We can't figure out exactly how he's funny, but he just makes us laugh."
"He's important," Jillette adds, "and he's important for the same reason as Stravinsky, as Miles, as Picasso."
At this point I'm sure they're winding me up, but they keep going.
"You have many performers with the craft," Jillette continues. "They're really technically good: Eddie Van Halen, the Marsalis Brothers. And then you get the people who are nuts, who just do anything that pops into their head. But you rarely get someone who's both."
So maybe Problem Child 3 demands a second look?
Seeing that The Aristocrats is all about comics' personal style, and that Jillette tells his own version of the joke in the film, I'm curious about Provenza's.
"The movie is my version," he says instantly.
"I can do a pretty good version," he protests, "but this movie truly is my interpretation of the joke."
I still don't buy it. Is he scared his version won't measure up?
"OK, I'll give you a key phrase," he says finally. "Arcing ropes of cum."
THE ARISTOCRATS (Penn Jillette, Paul Provenza)
"The Aristocrats" is the two-word punchline of a filthy after-hours joke. Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) crisscross America polling comics for their signature versions of the joke. Everyone from Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg to Eric Idle and the editors at satirical rag The Onion weigh in. There's a mime version, an animated South Park version and a version Kevin Pollak tells as Christopher Walken. Even better than the joke itself is the sense of personal comic style that emerges. George Carlin's meticulously appalling version sets the stage early on, while Gilbert Gottfried turns out to be the crazed genius. As Michael McKean notes, "It kinda makes its own gravy, this joke."