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In the long and turbulent history of human affairs, in the anguished annals of suffering and despair, untold numbers of dates and family outings have been ruined by disastrous decisions about what movie to see. How many well-meaning young men have planned a first date and thought to themselves, "She'll love this - it's European and artistic," only to find themselves squirming pitifully during a film that has more nudity than a Paris Hilton home video? How many pure-hearted men and women have organized family trips to the movies - some involving elderly relatives - only to discover that they've inadvertently chosen a film dirtier than the bathrooms at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station?
Well, here's an early head's up about The Aristocrats, the American documentary airing at 10 p.m. Saturday on HOT Prime: its first five minutes alone have the power to destroy any burgeoning love affair. It is, in short, really not a family film.
For The Aristocrats's producers and performers, however, such a description represents the highest possible praise. Featuring dozens of comedians ranging from George Carlin and Eric Idle to Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams, The Aristocrats's conceit is perversely simple. Each of the comic performs the same joke - the film's title is the punchline - about a family trying to sell its vaudeville act to a talent agent. The punchline, as viewers will quickly see, is almost beside the point - it's the set-up that can make you cry with laughter or cringe in disbelief. Along the way, the comedians analyze the joke and opine about what, exactly, makes the story and punchline so funny.
While not all the performers are equally skilled, the joke itself remains surprisingly fresh over the course of the 89-minute film, with each participant adding his or her personal inflection or narrative twist to the run-down of the family members or the elements of their unconventional act in the joke. For those who approach The Aristocrats in the right frame of mind, there's just enough time to wipe their eyes after one stream of obscenities before someone else will bring you back to tears.
But what's more unusual about The Aristocrats' sense of humor is the perceptiveness of performers' insights about the infamous joke and its various permutations over time. Drew Carey, generally one of TV's most grating comedians, redeems himself quite effectively by demonstrating how a simple physical gesture can make the joke, in his telling, infinitely funnier. A lesser-known performer scores one of the film's biggest laughs by inverting the set-up and punchline and keeping the joke as funny, if not funnier, than the version normally told. Even a member of that most despicable class of performers - a street mime - manages to make the joke hilarious, much to the bewilderment of unwitting passersby.
At the core of The Aristocrats, however, is the issue that drives much of human comedy: people's discomfort with their own bigotry and other baser instincts. Lisa Lampanelli, who made a name for herself at last summer's Comedy Central roast of Pamela Anderson, pokes fun at the racial sensitivities that make a story offensive in one context and uproarious in another, while Chris Rock offers a fairly plausible theory about why black comedians historically pushed the boundaries of taste more aggressively than their white counterparts. In their own vastly different ways, Phyllis Diller and Sarah Silverman suggest how sexual politics affect a woman's ability to sell a joke. (Silverman's version caused a stir - and threats of a lawsuit - when The Aristocrats opened in American movie theaters last summer.)
This being a movie about comedians, of course, the focus returns to scatology and sex jokes before anyone gets too stuffed up with the profundity of his or her own insights. The cartoon stars of South Park take the prize in a very competitive field for the best traditional telling of the joke, while another performer earns top honors for his use of props in telling "the Aristocrats" to a baby. His additional bit about the talent agent is pretty funny, too.