The Aristocrats

(Paul Provenza, USA, 2005)


My first thought, about a minute into The Aristocrats, was optimistic: how terrific that a non-fiction film, so unfussily shot on digital video that it resembles a home movie, can get a theatrical release in our arthouse cinemas. For if this movie can make it to the big screen, any movie can.

My second thought, another minute later, turned dark: in reality, the fact that The Aristocrats is taking up space in the arthouse means that there are at least five hundred superior recent films from all over the world that we will never see.

This movie is based on a conceit worthy of the avant-garde: it offers the "archaeology of a joke", from its most basic to its most elaborate form. Just one joke, about a family theatrical act, which we hear told a hundred times or so. It gets no funnier by the fifth telling, but it certainly gets dirtier.

This film is a piece of garbage – and not because of its obscene verbal content (a shock value which quickly becomes tiresome). It is a woeful excuse for a movie, amateurishly conceived and executed by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Both of them, unsurprisingly, are comedians, and they seem narcissistically in love with the world of American stand-up comedy.

We hear some "subverted" versions of the joke (Sarah Silverman’s take is particularly intriguing), and some semi-interesting reflections on the art of comedy from George Carlin. Most of these comedians, however, are palpably ill at ease having to make a serious comment about anything, and hence fall instantly into some lame shtick. It is like being forced to watch an endless loop of episodes of the ABC arts program Vulture.

For those enamoured of the local Comedy Festival, The Aristocrats may offer a few moments of shambling entertainment. But for those who monitor the infiltration of bad stand-up comedy into every nook and cranny of our public and cultural life with dread, it is truly a nightmare.

© Adrian Martin January 2006

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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