It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even … funny?
A documentary about a single joke is a risky idea. Granted, it’s a joke that George Carlin, Eric Idle, Robin Williams, and Billy Connolly will turn up to discuss; a joke that made Phyllis Diller faint. “Of all the jokes to do a documentary about, you chose this one?” says Dana Gould at the beginning of The Aristocrats, a look at one of the most enduring (and dirtiest) jokes ever told.
The nature of the joke means I can tell it here without giving anything away. A guy goes into a talent agent’s office. He describes the most vile and disgusting family act that you can possibly imagine. “That’s a hell of an act,” the agent says. “What do you call it?” “The Aristocrats.”
If you’re not laughing, don’t worry. No one really believes the joke to be truly funny, even when it makes you laugh. Even defenders of the joke concede that the premise is faulty and the punchline’s too weak.
Because the key to the joke isn’t the punchline, or the set-up, or even the disgusting act described. The important part is that it’s the worst thing that you can possibly imagine. It’s an opportunity for the grossest part of a comic’s brain to go wild.
In that sense, it’s the ideal joke for a comedy documentary. It probes the darkest, sickest places of the comedian’s mind. “When you hear someone tell The Aristocrats,” Penn Jillette observes, “very clearly it’s the singer, not the song.”
The obvious challenge in focusing on any one gag for 90 minutes is that the joke will get old. There are spins that liven it up a bit (my favorite is Eric Mead’s card trick version, but you will definitely be sick of this joke by the end of the movie.
The film also suffers from a lack of organization. There are themes vaguely lumped together, but it bounces around so much that by the time you get a grasp on the topic at hand, you’ve skipped on to the next one. And the lack of chyrons is frustrating – there are more than 100 people featured in the film, none of them identified until the closing credits. (Be prepared for a game of “ohhhh, that guy, he’s from…that thing.”)
The film wraps up by talking about the most famous telling of the joke, Gilbert Gottfried’s version at the roast of Hugh Hefner. Only weeks after 9/11, his telling of the joke was both a unifying moment for comedians, and the first time that many non-comics had heard the old standard.
Because the joke existed only between comics for so long – it’s described as “a secret handshake” and “a friend of every comedian in the world” – I almost feel bad that it’s now so famous and accessible to nerds like me. But the filmmakers (Jillette and Paul Provenza) feel differently, closing the doc by encouraging the audience to “keep it alive, spread it around.” So, a guy goes into a talent agent’s office…
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? Overall, yes. It ignores the argument that humor shouldn’t be dissected, breaking the joke down almost word-by-word. And it is an appealing joke to inspect. “Horrified yet drawn to it,” is how Jon Stewart describes his feelings. “Like a dog with three legs. You don’t want to look but…”
What does it have to say about comedy? An absolutely enormous amount – it shows some of the greatest ever comedic minds analyzing one tiny morsel of comedy. For instance, the joke dates from vaudevillian times, when comics were not allowed to be dirty on stage at all. Yet still manages to be risqué in the modern climate, which leads to a discussion the ever-evolving taboos in comedy.
Is it funny? Yes! This is that rare comedy documentary that asks its featured comedians to be funny.
Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She’s never told a dirty joke in her life.