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Review :: Media
Shite in a top hat is still shite: "The Aristocrats"
17 Sep 2005
"The Aristocrats"
Directed by Paul Provenza
ThinkFilm Inc.
Unrated / UK:18

The comic documentary "The Aristocrats" is a good example of how the Liberal slogans "art for art's sake" and "free speech" serve as covers for pornography and the oppression of children and wimmin. You may appreciate the craft behind the jokes in the film -- you may even laugh at some of the film's vulgarity(1) -- but that does not excuse the fact that two-thirds of "The Aristocrats" is pornography -- and not just lurid sex tales, but detailed descriptions of sexualized violence against animals, children, and wimmin.
The idea behind "The Aristocrats" is relatively harmless. Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza filmed dozens of professional comedians telling the same joke. This provides some insight into comedy as a technical craft, but mostly it gives the predominately male comics a platform to compete for the title of most obscene. There is nothing about the joke that requires obscenity; it simply depends on the discrepancy between a shabby vaudeville skit and its snobby title (alternately "The Aristocrats" or "The Sophisticates"). But it says something about these comics (or the filmmakers' expectations of their audience) that most versions of the joke go well beyond the "mere" scatological into the criminal -- including murder and necrophilia.

A minority of comics interviewed understand that in the name of a good joke a serious line has been crossed. One explains that anybody who actually performed the acts described in the joke should be thrown in prison. Sara Silverman turns the joke around, ridiculing those who find the idea of child rape funny.

"The Aristocrats" received good reviews. Many praised it as a brave defense of "free speech," much as Penn Jillette did in his open letter to audiences. "['The Aristocrats'] is political because it's not political at all. The Aristocrats take for granted that they can say anything they want [do they ever]. Fighting for freedom is a losing battle. Taking liberty is what real Americans do. [I]t's patriotic."(2) Comics in the film briefly discuss the rebellious role comedy can play "speaking truth to power" and so forth.

While in principle the latter point is valid(3), there is nothing daring or progressive about graphic tales of child rape told for the enjoyment of telling them. The Aristocrats do not represent a repressed minority view bursting into the open through laughter; they represent sordid mainstream pornography from the oppressor's point of view. The mantra that sexuality in Amerika must be "de-repressed" is partly clever marketing by pornographers and partly a component of patriarchal sexuality -- people get off on the idea that they are breaking some taboo.(4)

The centerpiece of "The Aristocrats" is Gilbert Godfrey's version of the joke at a celebrity roast of Hugh Hefner, a few weeks after September 11. Godfrey started his set with some jokes about the World Trade Center. The audience booed him. He then switched to an improvised version of "The Aristocrats" and brought down the house. Jillette and Provenza argue (without irony) that Godfrey's act symbolized a turning point in Amerika's response to September 11, that the supposed Amerikan ideals of irreverence and democracy had won out in response to terror, blah blah blah. This moment is indeed symbolic, though of something else. Rather than deal with anything close to political reality, Amerikans once again retreated into self-indulgence and pornography, at the same time patting themselves on the back for their allegedly high-minded ideals and "liberated" mores.



1. "Subjectivism is the philosophical approach putting the individual's opinions first and foremost, regardless of scientific truth or the possibility that the individual might learn and change. People who oppose subjectivism realize that their own persynal feelings may come from dishonorable sources. People can scientifically recognize that they like something that is not good for society or the future. For example, millions of parents like smoking, but they know that it is no good for their children. These smoking parents have conquered subjectivism." "Subjectivism,"


3. See MIM's (non-professional attempt at a) humor page:

4. "Men have eroticized the idea that their sexuality has been denied, but their sexuality has been nothing but expressed and expressed and expressed." Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 144. See also MIM Theory no. 2/3.

5. "The Aristocrats (2005),"
See also:

This work is in the public domain
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Re: Shite in a top hat is still shite: "The Aristocrats"
18 Sep 2005
so free speech is a "liberal slogan?" Yay Maoism!!!
Re: Shite in a top hat is still shite: "The Aristocrats"
19 Sep 2005
oh MIM.
Re: Shite in a top hat is still shite: "The Aristocrats"
19 Sep 2005
Good points and well written, but dude, lighten up.