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— Jodie Foster, Contact

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Creed II

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Cinematically, there’s not much going on in The Aristocrats, a talking-heads documentary co-produced by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame). Nevertheless, it’s one of the funniest, most entertaining movies you’re likely to see this year.

Who’s Who in American Comedy

Willard waxes philosophical about the dirty joke
Willard waxes philosophical about the dirty joke

Penn hangs out with the likes of George Carlin, Fred Willard, Stephen Wright, and the kids from South Park. With interviews from about 90 comedians, The Aristocrats is a veritable who’s who in American comedy (with a few Brits and Canadians thrown in for good measure). Each of them tells his own version of a joke known as The Aristocrats.

I won’t tell the joke here. I couldn’t do it justice. Suffice it to say that it’s an open-ended affair that allows each comedian to give it his own particular spin. The one requirement, aside from the setup and the punchline, is that the joke be as filthy, disgusting, and offensive as possible.

To Each His Own

Different personalities tell the joke in very different ways. Some go for the scatological humor, some try for the surreal or absurd; still others try to drag the joke out to superhuman lengths — 2 1/2 hours seems to be the current record .

Still others try to be as morally repugnant as possible. The writers of The Onion brainstorm in front of a whiteboard, trying to find the perfect, most offensive ingredients (one suggests that the joke needs to include the word “Republican” somewhere).

When asked for her take, Whoopi Goldberg first demurs, insisting that her version has probably already been told multiple times, but then she launches into a completely original description of a Busby Berkeley number done by nude male dancers who use their foreskins as props.

Getting Philosophical

For some of the comics, like Fred Willard and Sarah Silverman, the philosophy around the joke is the joke. Willard, in his inimitably gullible way finds great sadness in The Aristocrats, while Silverman naively recalls her own experiences in the original Aristocrats act that spawned the joke.

Of course, not every comic is as funny as the rest, and no two people will think the same comeidans are funny. My own favorites were Bob Saget (to my surprise), who has such an innocent, nice-guy demeanor and who tells the joke with sort of a naive disbelief; Larry Storch, who takes an aristocratic approach to the joke; and Silverman and Willard.

Greater Meaning?

The movie tries to have something of a shape. The first “act” introduces us to the joke and the second explores its various forms. The third act is where producer-director Paul Provenza and Jillette try in vain to find some greater meaning. But The Aristocrats just isn’t very cinematic.

In the end, all that matters is that The Aristocrats is a hilarious movie featuring some of the funniest people alive hanging around and amusing themselves in front of a camera.