The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Monday, April 17, 2006

The Aristocrats

Oh, I have been looking forward to this since I first heard the concept, before it was ever released in theaters. It is a film made by comedians about the art of comedy.

It uses as a basis a single “insiders joke” told between comedians as a part of some mythical brotherhood after hours in smoky comedy clubs, but almost never to paying audiences. The joke is simplicity itself and not terribly funny as jokes go. It’s no spoiler to give it away, as the surprise factor is not important for the movie... A guy walks into a talent agent’s office and says “I’ve got a great act.” He then describes a series of completely disgusting activities. Shocked, the agent says, “What do you call that?”

“The Aristocrats!”

The art of the joke, and why it is beloved by comedians, is the art of telling the disgusting part in a way that builds through shock to disbelief to absurdist humor. When you go far enough over the top in the sheer horror of the described actions, you reach laughter as the only way of releasing the tension. As the filmmakers and various interviewed people say, “It’s the singer, not the song.”

I have laughed heartily at several such setups on screen. The recent “Team America” has a couple of scenes like that (as a matter of fact, many of South Park’s best episodes rely on this methodology). Monty Python’s “The Meaning Of Life” has the famous restaurant scene, which is nothing more than such a setup and weak payoff line.

But the movie is ruined and the point is lost through the filmmakers’ ineptitude with the mechanics of movie making. They film all interviews with two or three cameras, editing the footage between angles every couple of seconds, in the middle of sentences. Your distance to the subject changes as well as your point of reference. Sometimes they use the audio from one shot with the video from another shot so that the mouth doesn’t match the words for a moment. You are constantly pulled away from the story of the joke. It’s cinema as epileptic seizure.

Then almost nobody is allowed to tell the joke from start to finish. They jump cut to others commenting on the recitation in the middle of the joke. As a result, you are forced to take their word that it is possible to build a sustained sense of momentum and involvement in the action from a skilled teller, since they don’t demonstrate it. I laughed a couple of times, but that’s not enough for a 90 minute comedy film.

There were really only a few points where they let the joke be told straight through. One didn’t count, because it was done as a sleight of hand card trick (and a VERY good one, I might add... I was impressed, but not amused). Another was Wendy Liebman doing a reversal on it. This was an example of someone who knows how to deliver comedy in exactly the way that works for her. I always love listening to Liebman’s delivery and recommend her highly as a comedienne who has never received the recognition she deserves. She runs RINGS around boring Rita Rudner (also featured in the film and completely clueless).

The one segment where you can see the joke delivered complete and uncut, with full buildup and perfect timing is in a South Park animation segment that the editors of this movie couldn’t get their paws on to destroy. It single-handedly defined the point they were all trying to make.

Comedy is like the Heisenberg Principle... the act of analyzing it alters the thing you are analyzing. And honestly, there’s not much to analyze here. “You see... it’s shocking and then there’s a twist at the end that doesn’t match the context of what’s come before.” That’s all there is to say about why the joke is funny. Everything else should be one-camera archives of comedians delivering it so you can watch the build and flow.

Even the segment that gave impetus to creating the film - the much-lauded Gilbert Gottfried delivery at the Hugh Hefner Friar’s Club Roast - is chopped up with cutaway shots and analysis in the middle of it so that we have to “take their word” for the fact that it was hilarious and magical... Even though they have the whole thing available on film! Arrgggghhhh.

Penn Jillette (as co-creator) and especially Paul Provenza (as director and co-editor) deserve to be pilloried for their massacre and mutilation of humor. Oh, this makes me so angry. NOT NOT NOT recommended.

PS: Do I really need to give you a parents advisory for this movie? Don’t let your kids anywhere within a city block of this film.

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