TV Party is a Friday feature in which Film Editors Dominick Mayer and Justin Gerber alongside Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman suggest one movie apiece to enjoy over the weekend. Joining them each week will be two rotating film staff writers to help round out the selections. Seek out any of the films via Netflix, Amazon, Redbox, Hulu, OnDemand, or abandoned Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores — however you crazy kids watch movies these days! Enjoy ’em for the first time, a second, or maybe a redemptive third.
The Aristocrats is really less a movie, or a documentary, or even a comedy, than a detailed investigation of the comic process at work. Basically, “The Aristocrats” is a framework for a joke passed around between comedians for generations, and in 2005 Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza chronicled its lineage and its many uses. And they are disgusting, to say the absolute least.
The setup: A man walks into a talent agency, promising a hot new act. He then describes the act, and it’s then up to the comedian to offer the most grotesquely funny (or just grotesque) imagery imaginable, for as long as they so choose. When finished, the horrified talent agent inquires as to what the name of this act could possibly be, and the teller brings it home with the punchline: “The aristocrats!”
It’s an exercise in comedy in the purest sense, because the joke isn’t really a joke, nor the punchline a true punchline in the traditional sense. The framework is the thing, and it’s an excuse for comedians to unleash some of their darkest, dirtiest material for the sake of shocked guffaws, or really just for the hell of it. And The Aristocrats chronicles the joke’s lineage and tradition, while also noting that it was never for audiences, at least until the documentary.
It was a challenge among comedians, and Jillette and Provenza get a number of renowned names to offer their best stabs at it, from Joan Rivers to Whoopi Goldberg to Carrot Top to Sarah Silverman and a staggering host of others. Perhaps most notably, the film featured Bob Saget’s jaw-droppingly filthy routine, in one of the first public realizations that the dad from Full House works impossibly blue on the low. For a documentary offering only one joke, The Aristocrats is a literal master class in comedy.
The King of Comedy
Martin Scorsese followed up 1980’s Raging Bull by re-teaming with Robert De Niro for The King of Comedy, a film that is light years away from the bleak tone of that boxing classic. De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin is a wannabe stand-up who is obsessed with talk-show host Jerry Langford (played by a reserved Jerry Lewis). After several attempts to land a spot on Langford’s show are rebuffed, desperation kicks in, and before too long Pupkin kidnaps Langford with help from fellow Langford-obsessive Masha (Sandra Bernhard). The ransom: a spot on Jerry’s show.
There are similarities between this and Taxi Driver in a few ways. One is obvious (same lead). Another is that our protagonist Pupkin is as delusional as Travis Bickle; only fortunately for Langford he’s not nearly as dangerous. The ending of both films are also up for debate as to what is real and what is fantasized. Scorsese, being the brilliant filmmaker he is, leaves it up to us to decide as the end credits role.
The King of Comedy wasn’t a huge success upon release, but has since developed a deserved cult following. Its dark comic tones would set the stage for Scorsese’s following film that was also misunderstood upon its release: 1985’s After Hours.
“I remember seeing a condom; I just don’t know exactly what it did.” There goes twentysomething Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), an up-and-coming Brooklyn comic totally blindsided by pregnancy following a one-night stand with nice guy Max (Jake Lacy). Now, before you go and scream Juno, know that Gillian Robespierre’s brilliant romantic comedy, Obvious Child, is a far more cynical, sobering, and remarkably enjoyable affair. It’s also just a totally different film.
Robespierre’s picture never tries to be too complex. Instead, it gets caught up in the mind of its central lead, Donna, whose life is a mess of claustrophobic proportions. She’s nurtured by her family, her friends, and even her peers, but she can’t figure out exactly where she’s going, which is a crisis that’s quite palpable to most twentysomethings. That struggle, compounded by her indecision about the child, makes the film an emotional trainwreck that’s at times hilarious, endearing, and depressing.
But it’s also real. Absent are any hamburger phones, Moldy Peaches tracks, or fluff that feels remotely contrived. It’s a scathingly honest portrait of a troubled young New Yorker and Slate eats up the scenery minute by minute, shattering the minds of anyone who knows her simply for being Jean Ralphio’s sister, Mona Lisa Saperstein, on Parks and Recreation. What’s astounding, however, is that Obvious Child is actually a collection of firsts. It’s Robespierre’s directorial debut, as it’s Slate’s first starring role, and together, they go the distance.
Aspiring comics should also find solace in Slate’s various stand up routines, specifically one emotional meltdown that’s worth watching on A-B repeating. There’s also a lewd appearance by David Cross and a hilarious bit by Cyrus McQueen. And really, you can’t find a better father than Richard Kind. The guy sticks to his namesake.
We could re-hash and talk about Woody Allen’s most loved and free-form Best Picture Academy Award-winning dramedy. We could talk about how Annie Hall depicts Alvy Singer, a stand-up comedian in an emotional, perpetual tailspin, trying to recapture the best moments of his life and loves by over-analyzing the bad parts. We could totally talk about how this was a logical and wonderful next step for Allen, the gifted comic and then flourishing director. We could even talk about Diane Keaton’s hip, iconic performance as the original “manic pixie girl” of our dreams. Plus, there’s lots to say about Annie Hall’s status as a quintessential New York film, relationship story, and masterful comedy. Oh, and let’s not forget the embarrassment of riches when it comes to Allen’s writing and joke crafting (the Marshall McLuhan cameo to validate Alvy is this writer’s personal favorite).
Yet, maybe it’s best to just let Allen, or, his proxy Alvy, set the stage himself. From the opening monologue:
“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s ‘Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,’ and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.”
One More Outta The Gerber Grab Bag!
Man on the Moon
Earlier this year, Blake Goble covered the anniversary of Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, about an unconventional, but brilliant composer who died at the age of 35 in the latter-half of the 18th century. Fifteen years later, Forman directed a film that covered the life of an unconventional, but brilliant comedian who died at the age of 35. This film (Man on the Moon, in case the heading wasn’t a dead giveaway) was set in the latter-half of the 20th century and explored the career of Andy Kaufman.
The movie’s title is based on the song by R.E.M., whose song was based on their love of the comic to begin with. They return here to provide the soundtrack, underscoring Kaufman’s relationship with his friend Bob Zmuda (Paul Giamatti), manager George Shapiro (Danny DeVito), and his girlfriend Lynne Marguilies (Courtney Love, who had been nominated for her work in Forman’s previous film, The People vs. Larry Flynt). For those who grew up aware of the comic’s unique stylings, it’s a love letter. For those unfamiliar, it’s an invitation. Check out this film and the work of Kaufman on YouTube. You won’t regret either.
“Here I come to save the day…”