|A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Paul Provenza, USA, 2005, 89 mins
Cast: Hank Azaria, Billy Connolly, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Izzard, Robin Williams
Comedian Paul Provenza’s debut DV documentary aims to explore the anatomy of a single joke.
Imagine gathering together some of the most interesting thinkers alive for a series of interviews. Maybe Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Germaine Greer. Whoever. People who will have something to say, who could offer valuable reflections on interesting contemporary problems. And in your interview you ask each of them the same single question: do you prefer milk or plain chocolate?
That’s what The Aristocrats feels like. Provenza clearly has a huge showbusiness phone book, and many, many well known comics appear in the informal interviews that make up his film. Their combined performance experience must run into thousands of years, and together they could shed some genuine light on that most complex of cultural phenomena, humour. But sadly the scope of their interviews is not quite so wide. Instead they tell, discuss, retell and re-retell the same joke - a joke called ‘The Aristocrats’. It is a supposedly legendary comedy circuit joke, a gag so filthy, so disgusting, so offensive that it could never be told on stage, and was only passed around in the dressing room like some thrilling comedic contraband.
The film enjoys strains of the Monty Python sketch ‘The Funniest Joke In The World’ for the first few minutes, and the anticipation slowly mounts. But then, maybe too early in the movie, one of the comics actually tells 'The Joke'. And after such high expectations, the gag sadly isn’t so much offensive as just rather infantile.
This may reflect on the difference between cultural expectations in Europe and in the US, rather than highlighting a problem with the film itself. After all, in Britain one is not surprised to hear almost any swear word on television after 9pm, while in the US the sight of Janet Jackson’s nipple can virtually bring the country to a halt. So when a number of talking heads in the film repeatedly mention ‘pushing the envelope’, from a British perspective this particular envelope already feels flabby and flaccid after being pushed so decisively in the past by acts from Chris Lynam to Ricky Gervais to Puppetry of the Penis.
Nonetheless, there are a number of witty and insightful moments during the movie. Lewis Black comments that what would originally have been considered offensive about ‘The Aristocrats’ would these days be fair game as a pitch for a reality TV show. And when at the end of the film there is a very brief flash of a woman’s breasts, they are pixellated out in a dig at the censorious nature of American broadcast television.
Unfortunately it must also be said that there are some genuine lowlights, most prominently when Sarah Silverman considers 'The Joke' to be a licence to tell a couple of gags about Down’s syndrome which are neither funny nor enlightening.
At its conclusion the film makes a claim to be about freedom of expression and the unique spin every successful comedian can give their material. ‘In all of art, it’s the singer and not the song,’ says Executive Producer Penn Jillette more than once during the movie. What he says makes sense. But unfortunately in this case, despite a procession of skilful and talented ‘singers’, the ‘song’ is more ‘Agadoo’ than ‘Yesterday’.