A guy goes into a movie theater, the lights go down, the movie starts, and it's one comedian after another telling the dirtiest joke of all time. Each brings his own unique style to the joke. Richard Lewis kvells and kvetches. Mario Cantone screams up a storm. Rip Taylor adjusts his toupee. The joke itself varies according to the comedian's talent and ambition, not to mention the time allotted. It can go on for hours. Or it could all be over in a matter of seconds. The point, in the precious moments between setup and punchline, is to riff on bodies and the various things that can be done to them in such a way that your fellow comedians both reel in disgust and stand in awe. This may involve matters fecal or fetal, wastes solid or liquid, or a little parlor trick known as a rusty trombone. The name of the movie (rim-shot, please): The Aristocrats.
That also happens to be the punch line to the joke, which goes back at least a century and has long served as a kind of secret handshake among comedians. They pull it out after hours, once all the civilians are safely tucked in their beds. But now the secret's out, courtesy of Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, who spent over four years getting over a hundred comedians to tell the joke and '- just as enjoyable ' tell about the joke. The result is both a pig wallow in filth and a strangely informative examination of what's going on in the minds of professional funny people. Yes, they'll do anything for a laugh, but what are their personal visions of 'anything'? Among the potty-mouths (everybody from Don Rickles to Andy Dick), perhaps nobody goes further than Bob Saget, who puts all thoughts of 'Full House' and 'America's Funniest Home Videos' far behind him ' well, not all thoughts. Can you say 'Olsen twins'?
Saget isn't the only one who provides a Rorschach inkblot into his inner comedian, however. Whoopi Goldberg does things with foreskins that would have baffled Freud. And Judy Gold, pregnant at the time, makes her baby part of the act. What's fascinating about The Aristocrats, long after the dirty words and dirty deeds have lost their shock value, is to watch these comedians apply their singular talents to the same task. Content drifts away, and we're left with only style. 'In all of art, it's the singer, not the song,' Jillette says at one point, and the sense of jazz musicians riffing variations on a theme is present throughout the movie. Provenza, who co-edited in addition to directing, has done a superb job of arranging all these individual snippets into one hell of a night at the Improv. And for once, we're in on the joke.