There's an old joke popular amongst professional comedians that they don't usually tell to their audiences, mainly because it's obscene, but also because relating it is a badge of pride depending on how revolting they can be and still make people laugh. And it's the telling that is important rather than the punchline, which is largely a letdown compared with what has gone before; the joke basically tells of a man entering the office of a theatrical agent and telling him he has a great act that he may be interested in. The agent asks him to describe it, or show it to him in some versions, and what follows is a wallow in depravity that finishes when the agent asks the man what the act is called. "The Aristocrats" is the reply.
Considering the amount of comic talent assembled for director Paul Provenza's film, you might be eagerly anticipating a laugh riot, but what you actually get is the comedians' equivalent of a group of salesmen talking shop for an hour and a half. You may be mistaken for thinking the joke central to the proceedings was in fact all made up for the occasion, and has no history after all, but the participants describe it in such detail that you're forced to draw the conclusion that it is indeed a real gag. Unfortunately, while the comedians say that it's the story in the middle that really makes it funny, after hearing it performed over and over again in various permutations, you may well beg to differ.
The array of faces on display here is nonetheless impressive, but despite their good-natured efforts they just can't raise so much as a giggle for the greater percentage of the running time. Robin Williams has a try on the beach, Phyllis Diller doesn't tell it but reacts to it, Carrie Fisher brings in her mother to her version, Sarah Silverman claims to have been part of the act as a child, and the joke is analysed to the point of exhaustion but rarely to the point of enlightenment. Eddie Izzard gives the impression of having just being told it immediately before the camera rolled as he fails to make anything coherent out of it. And on it goes, one damn thing after another, but essentially the same damn thing over and over again.
The core of The Aristocrats is the description of the unnatural acts, which can involve incest, shit eating, vomiting, bestiality if the pet dog is mentioned, and perhaps violence too if the teller feels it's necessary. But that's really all there is to it, there's no wit there, and for a feature length film the subject is wearisomely repetitive. The only bit that is really funny, where imagination has been drafted in, is where one Billy the Mime acts out the joke without saying anything, a nice note of the ridiculous that is pretty much absent elsewhere. A few interviewees make the point that these days the joke has lost its power to shock, and that could be the problem here as unless the sound of filthy language tickles the funny bone, there's precious little other material to amuse. So what does shock? By the time race has been brought up, boredom has set in: it's all too calculated and bizarrely, safe, not pushing back significant barriers. Still, the Aristocrats joke seems to have been designed exclusively for comedians to entertain each other with material they wouldn't get away with otherwise, so it's probably best left to them alone. Music by Gary Stockdale.