Breaking Down Taboos

Submitted by Anon on 25 September, 2005 - 4:11

Alan porter Reviews The Aristocrats

Analysing why a joke is funny is rarely an interesting experience — deep analysis of comedy generally kills the humour. However, this 90 minute documentary, which offers countless renditions of the same joke (known as “The Aristocrats”) by comedians such as Robin Williams, Billy Connolly and Chris Rock, offers an exceptional insight into the world of stand-up.

The joke “The Aristocrats” dates from the age of vaudeville, yet has always been told among comedians rather than to the public. That’s because the aim of the joke is to be as offensive as it is possible to be, in order to outdo others telling the same joke. It features a man and his family walking into a theatrical agent’s office, introducing an act full of elaborate scenes of incest, paedophilia, bestiality, and so on. When asked what the act is called, the man says “The Aristocrats!”. Since the punchline of the joke isn’t funny, it is the shocking and offensive material that is supposed to be funny.

So what we see in the film is a discussion of taboos — for example, the creators of satirical newspaper The Onion arguing about how to make the joke as offensive as possible. The interest in the film therefore comes from seeing how some of the world’s most renowned comedians approach the same challenge — particularly given that it is far more difficult to shock, or break taboos, than when “The Aristocrats” was first told.

Surprisingly, given the length of the film, and evident lack of variation in the joke, the mix of analysis and renditions of the joke does not grow tired. The racism, sexism and sexual perversion of different versions of “The Aristocrats” is often cringeworthy rather than genuinely shocking — but what the film does demonstrate is the craft of the comedian in tackling a real problem: how do you make breaking taboos funny when so many of your peers are doing the same?

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