If ever a film could be said to boast a one-joke premise, it's The Aristocrats, a surprisingly fresh and funny feature-length look at an unrelentingly filthy vaudeville gag that's been passed down from comic to comic like an urban legend, often changing with every telling. The joke has far more appeal to comedians than to regular civilians, in that its effectiveness relies heavily (or maybe exclusively) on its teller's ability to improvise apocalyptically scatological, obscene scenarios straight out of the most deranged fantasies of William S. Burroughs or Robert Crumb. Unsurprisingly, George Carlin excels in this capacity, as does Bob Saget, who at this point is nearly as famous for being a surprisingly raunchy comedian as he is for being a wholesome TV personality. Yet as the film's filthy, funny commentators note, there's also an element of sweetness to the central joke, a gentle nostalgia for show business' colorful past that contrasts with its over-the-top raunchiness.
A slew of comedians from every corner of the comic universe—from Steven Wright to Carrot Top and pretty much everyone in between—deliver their takes and interpretations in The Aristocrats. In addition, the joke is told in seemingly every conceivable form: a card trick, a surprisingly amusing bit of mime, a ventriloquist act, spastic physical comedy, and even animation, courtesy of the game boys over at South Park.
If The Aristocrats were just about a single joke, it would quickly wear out its welcome, but director and veteran stand-up comedian Paul Provenza uses it as a springboard to examine the nature of comedy, its philosophy and psychology, and the mechanics of making people laugh. This becomes especially apparent late in the film, when comedians describe, in reverent, almost fawning terms, a post-9/11 Friar's Club roast where Gilbert Gottfried—a walking punchline to most, but a fearless anti-hero to many in the film—used his nasal bullhorn of a voice to make a poorly received 9/11 gag, then launched into an epic version of the titular joke. Folks who witnessed Gottfried's performance make it seem nearly as epochal as 9/11 itself, which seems perverse outside the context of the film. Within The Aristocrats, however, that seminal bit of dirty-joke-telling takes on enormous symbolic significance, implicitly illustrating filthy humor's almost life-affirming ability to challenge tragedy by robbing it of its power. Within a single joke, The Aristocrats unlocks an entire universe of comedy.