The Aristocrats

Sharon February 5th, 2006

And now for something completely different….

If you haven’t seen The Aristocrats, do. Or rather, do so if you are not easily horrified. The movie is gross, obscene, grotesque and vile in many ways. It contains descriptions of acts that go beyond horrible. And it is immensely funny. I really do hate movies. But I loved this one.

I loved it because it is a perfect piece of art, as perfect as the Chaucer’s gloriously obscene Miller’s Tale, or Rabelais. In fact, watching the movie for the first time was a little like reading “The Miller’s Tale” was for me in high school. I was so overjoyed to realize that it was not the subject that mattered, but the execution, that the ordinary things of human life, gross and funny as they are, can be transformed into art - and funny art at that.

For those of you who have not seen it, it simply consists of comedian after comedian telling a truly vile joke, and meditating on its significance. Some of the performances are sublime - and the sublime performances are often the ones by people you wouldn’t expect to be good. Billy the Mime proves that Mime can be very funny indeed. Gilbert Gottfried, who I’ve never liked, proves himself to have nerves of steel and inestimable comic timing. Bob Saggett, who I was barely aware of, tops them all.

The movie illustrates the distinction, also, between great standup and great comic acting. Most of the really wonderful comic actors can’t deliver the joke to save their lives - Eric Idle, for example, literally can’t get the words out. And whether intentionally or not, it also seems to illustrate that comedy is still, in many ways, segregated. This is a joke that originated in the white Jewish culture of vaudeville, and the film has only two black comedians telling the joke. Whoopie Goldberg does an admirable job, perhaps in part because of her gender, but Chris Rock is less memorable. One could only wish that Richard Pryor (who died so soon after its release) had taken a stab at the joke, both as a joke and to place race and the culture of comedy in its particular context.

I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder at a movie, and in part, I think the laughter is because there is an odd poignance to the whole thing, a poignance that the movie is aware of but does not belabor (and recognize how intensely rare that last is - that a film should ever fail to belabor an emotion) - because the joke simply isn’t that good. What is funny is the imagination involved, and the energy required to keep the joke in the air like so many juggling balls. There’s a nostalgia for old vaudeville culture, and for actors long gone (Martin Mull, for example, tells the joke exactly as Groucho Marx might have - the only pity is that he’s still Martin Mull while doing it). But the poignance, buried inside the layers of orifices and fluids, is the determination to be funny, to create funny, out of such thin cloth.

Go see it. The world needs funny.


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