Lost & Found – Some Applause for the Aristocrats

Last night I went to see what may very well be the filthiest, most obscene film ever made. Remarkably, there isn’t a single scene of violence or nudity. It is just people talking, very frankly, hilariously and, yes, intelligently about the most taboo subjects in our society. It was one of the most thought-provoking and entertaining evenings I’ve spent at the flicks in a long time.

The Aristocrats is a documentary by filmmakers/comedians Penn Jillette (the speaking half of the Penn and Teller comedy/magic act) and Paul Provenza. The film features over a hundred different comedians–a veritable “who’s who” of comedy, including Robin Williams, Steven Wright, Bill Maher, Phyllis Diller, and Carrot Top–all telling, or commenting on, one extremely sick comedy routine. The routine, called The Aristocrats, is a legend amongst comedians, who reputedly have told it to each other since the earliest days of Vaudeville. I won’t touch on much of what the joke is about, but let’s just say it’s almost unimagineably raunchy and offensive, including references to incest, bestiality, eating feces, anal sex, fisting, etc., etc.

Initially, it may not sound like a whole lot of fun sitting in a darkened movie theatre and hearing the same offensive joke told over and over again. But the thing is, each of the comedians offers her or his own unique take on the routine. The effect is similar to listening to a variety of jazz musicians play the same chestnut, but offering completely unique and creative variations on it. Think of Stardust being performed by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Annie Lennox, Miles Davis, Diana Krall, etc.

More to the point, from my view, is that this film is not afraid to shock its audience, or to make it think. When was the last time that an American film did both of those things for you? In this dark age of political correctness, right-wing censorship lobbies, and sanitized entertainment, this film is going to come in for considerable flack, unless it disappears like a stone. It seems it is no longer acceptable to challenge the values of middle class white fundamentalists. What is acceptable, though, according to the popular media, is to sell everything from toothpaste to heavy equipment by means of subtle and unacknowledged sexual exploitation. It is acceptable to show mangled, mutilated human bodies on the news every night, and then sell consumer electronics during the commercial breaks. It is acceptable to take your children to see grotesquely violent Hollywood blockbusters, as long as the bloodshed is cartoonish and sanitized.

What this film tells us, in its own crude little way, is that it is the right, possibly even the responsibility, of free thinking people amongst us to yell “Fuck” in a crowded movie theatre. As far as I’m concerned, any film that helps us to remember that is well worth my entertainment dollars.