The Aristocrats (NR) ****

Jason Alexander, Lewis Black, George Carlin, Gilbert Gottfried
Directed by Paul Provenza
9:30 p.m., Monday, June 13

You wouldn’t expect a single joke to be able to carry an 86-minute movie, even if that movie starred Rob Schneider, but that’s exactly what director Paul Provenza gets out of his documentary, The Aristocrats, an oral history of one of the most famous jokes in comedy that also serves as the most effective deconstruction of the art of stand-up since the Jerry Seinfeld documentary, Comedian.

The joke, known as “the Aristocrats,” is a simple gag that’s been around since the vaudeville days, although no one knows its specific origin. The allure of the joke is not in its meager punchline, but rather in the set-up, which affords each teller the chance to improvise the most outrageous, vile, offensive scenarios possible, a challenge handily met by every one of the dozens of comics interviewed by Provenza and partner Penn Jillette.

Shot in a simple, straightforward style on digital video, The Aristocrats allows each of its subjects to riff on the central joke, sometimes telling their own version, sometimes explicating bits of the joke, almost always leading into some sort of insight into the way comedians think and the process by which they create their material. Unlike Comedian, which had great insight into personal angst but not as much actual comedy, The Aristocrats is side-splittingly funny, and such oft-maligned figures as Gilbert Gottfried, Bob Saget and Howie Mandel get in some of the funniest, rawest lines.

Just when you think there’s no possible new angle Provenza can present on the central joke, he has it told by a mime, or as a card trick, or as an animated short by the creators of South Park. Almost everyone featured in the film is hilarious and incredibly enthusiastic about the prospect of dissecting the legendary joke.

Provenza’s filmmaking technique is primitive at best, but the film is most effective when he just plants the camera in one place and lets his subjects talk. The few attempts at flashy visuals fall flat, but the real strength of the craft is in the editing, as Provenza and editor Emery Emery string together footage from scores of interviews into a seamless product that actually tells a coherent story even while recycling that one old joke. It’s funny and it makes you think; isn’t that the definition of a good joke?
Josh Bell


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