In a summer where audiences were charmed by the mating habits of penguins and swooned over quadriplegic athletes, it shouldn’t seem odd that many are excited for a film about Vaudevillian humor. As one of the more unique offerings from Hollywood’s recent nonfiction boom, “The Aristocrats” offers an interesting focus: Dozens of comedians tell the exact same joke over and over, each adding their own spin — the more offensive, the better. But thanks to its reliance on improvisation, this joke is no ordinary bit.

Film Reviews
“Two guys walk into a bar. The third one ducked.” (Courtesy of ThinkFilm)

Even though the setup is always the same — a man walks into a talent agent’s office and says, “Do I have an act for you! My family goes on stage and …” — as is the punch line (which is the film’s title), no two versions of the joke are exactly alike. The body of the joke varies, and that’s why it’s worth repeating: A skilled comedian can improvise the family’s “act” to his heart’s content.

While the concept for “The Aristocrats” showed promise, the movie quickly becomes monotonous. The problem is that quite often, the content of each retelling is very similar, as the “family act” typically involves plenty of graphic sex, incest and feces.

What’s worse, the sloppy editing style director Paul Provenza uses hinders the film’s potential. He seems quite content to constantly cut away when an artist is speaking. Typically, somebody will begin telling the infamous joke, and then partway through, another comic will start in with his or her version. Many of the performers are able to finish the joke, but sometimes, you don’t see them again until much later in the movie. If Provenza had created a more coherent, easier-to-follow structure, the documentary would have flowed much better.

An additional problem is that the movie builds with commentary from one talking head after another, and although individual moments are funny, viewers ultimately arrive at an unfortunate conclusion: “The Aristocrats” never really says anything. The improvisational nature of the joke would seem an easily exploitable device, as would the joke’s historical relevance within comedic lore. But whenever the film seems as if it’s stumbled onto something meaningful, the movie again cuts away without giving these deeper ideas further thought. Perhaps more commentary would have only weighed it down more, but the product we’re presented with just seems lazy.

That said, “The Aristocrats” is not a total waste. Some of the featured performances ­— which can be considered the comedic equivalent of improvisational jazz — are very inspired, if not always hilarious. A mime physically performs a colorful version in public, a magician uses cards to emphasize some of the raunchier moments in his version and Bill Maher puts a contemporary spin on the punch line. Even Cartman from “South Park” gets in on the act, arguably providing the movie’s most politically incorrect telling.

Other highlights include a wry testimonial from Sarah Silverman; Gilbert Gottfried giving his “legendary” performance of the “Aristocrats” bit at Hugh Hefner’s Friar’s Club roast right after the Sept. 11 attacks; and Bob Saget, seeking to shed his Danny Tanner persona, is quite eager to sound off an extremely explicit version of the joke.

To his credit, Provenza tries to offer a little depth when the film delves into the more sociological aspects of the joke. Assorted performers give their thoughts on this classic — covering its origins, why the joke has endured for so long, its overall appeal. However, many of these detailed insights — like the assorted variations of the family act — are too similar, hence boring.

Like a joke you’ve heard one time too many, “The Aristocrats” wears out its welcome quickly. Even at 80 minutes, the movie drags. How much one enjoys seeing renowned comedic performers give it their all will also largely depend on whether he’s offended by what’s coming out of their mouths. Those who can withstand all the talk of bestiality and bodily fluids will be entertained; those who can’t will walk out after 15 minutes.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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