Bob Saget, of all people, reigns supreme as the foulest, sickest mind in The Aristocrats, a galvanizing new documentary. Known to millions for his innocuous TV persona on Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos, Saget — who’s notorious for his raunchy humor in his stand-up act — comes alive here in a way that shocks even him.
Saget tells a joke — a joke legendary among comedians but unknown to general audiences. The set-up is simple, the punchline nonsensical and not especially funny. There’s a guy, see, who walks into a talent agency. Talent agent says, Whaddaya got for me? Guy says, I got a family act. Talent agent says, Okay, what do you do? And the rest of it is as vile and obscene as the teller can make it, varying from comedian to comedian. The family’s act consists of them engaging in all manners of revolting behavior, wallowing in the perverse, the incestuous, the scatalogical, the bestial. Finally, the talent agent says, “That’s some act. What do you call it?” The guy says, “The Aristocrats.”
No, I don’t get it either. And neither do most of the comedians. The joke is an anti-joke — an engraved invitation to fill the middle void with elaborately vulgar riffing. The Aristocrats, directed by comedian Paul Provenza and executive-produced by him and Penn Jillette, is a loving act of meta-comedy, bringing us infinite variations on the joke, dissecting it, critiquing it, ruminating on the best ways to tell it. Drew Carey, for instance, always completes the joke with a finger-snapping flourish, and is surprised to learn that he’s the only one out of the over 100 comedians interviewed in the documentary who does that. Whoopi Goldberg demurs at first, saying that her version would be too much like the others, and then comes up with an infectiously funny bit involving foreskins. Carrie Fisher brings her Hollywood parentage into it. Lisa Lampanelli, seen as one of the harshest voices on Comedy Central’s roast of Pamela Anderson, cheerfully throws racism into the mix, as do a few others, reasoning that if sexual fantasias shock few people any more, racist humor still does.
The movie’s ads proclaim “No nudity. No violence. Unspeakable obscenity.” But, in a way, The Aristocrats features the most nudity and violence in movie history — worse than the worst porn or horror movie — because the outrages unfold in your mind’s eye. The comedians are successful at the telling (some aren’t — Eddie Izzard, for instance) to the extent that they can paint a verbal picture through sheer physical specificity. Bob Saget excels on that level, almost sheepishly giving voice to the squirming atrocities in his head. He’s almost touching: he can’t help himself. Given carte blanche to let his comedic id run free, he visibly falters twice, cackling face down into the table. A couple of comedians, including Andy Richter, tell particularly nasty variations while holding their infant children (who goggle at their daddies uncomprehendingly, adding to the hilarious wrongness of it all).
Apparently filmed on the fly on an array of camcorders, the movie is no great shakes as cinema, and Provenza and Jillette might’ve aimed more for quality than quantity. At times, The Aristocrats seems like nothing so much as an archival project, gathering together generations of comedians with this one joke in common. Time constraints, I’m assuming, account for some of the omissions; many of the comedians, like Chris Rock, appear only to discuss the joke. Other omissions were unavoidable and greatly pained the filmmakers, who would’ve killed to have Buddy Hackett, Rodney Dangerfield, and Johnny Carson (it was his favorite joke) in the movie, but they were all too ill to participate at the time of filming. Provenza and Jillette do try for variety, employing a mime, two jugglers, and a ventriloquist to give their unique twists on the joke. The South Park boys appear, with Cartman delighting in perhaps the most self-consciously transgressive variation, poking fun at the ultimate sacred cow of our times — 9/11.
It was 9/11, in fact, that led to Gilbert Gottfried’s celebrated telling of the joke at Hugh Hefner’s Friars’ Roast. It was only a few weeks after the attacks, and the city’s comedians were frozen, unsure of how far or how hard to push. Gottfried, who never gives a fuck who he offends, warmed up his roast with a 9/11 joke, and was met with stony silence and a call of “Too soon!” from the audience. Undeterred, Gottfried reached elsewhere for his edgy comedy — into the familiar territory of The Aristocrats. Sensibly, Provenza and Jillette show most of it in the film. Everyone in the room knew the joke and couldn’t believe Gottfried was going there, and the joke killed; Rob Schneider, in perhaps the sole instance of his being funny onscreen, literally fell off his chair laughing. The ice was broken, and Gottfried, through a particularly scabrous path, had performed an odd act of catharsis. It was okay to laugh again; it was okay to be filthy and vicious again.
Does the joke — or the movie — have any larger significance than being a comedians’ in-joke (or a document of it)? Well, it’s not the sort of documentary that will win an Oscar, nor does it have to be. Its very about-itself unimportance is what makes it a liberating experience for its own sake. Some commentators have theorized that Jillette, the famous master of bullshit in order to reveal the mechanics of bullshit, actually fabricated the Vaudeville history of The Aristocrats — the joke, according to this line of thinking, never actually existed until this film, in which Jillette and Provenza invited dozens of comedians to expound and riff on this theoretical joke. If that’s true, the joke is on us, but that doesn’t invalidate the joke’s power to let people like Bob Saget swim deep into their own wild subconscious and marvel at what bubbles to the surface.