One of these days you may be browsing through a DVD or video rental shop looking for a film to keep the kids quiet for a couple of hours. You may find a copy of a film called The Aristocrats. Do not show this film to your children. It is not a cute little Disney film about animals. That would be the AristoCATS. Rent that. The Aristocrats will corrupt your children forever.
The film is the documentary of a single joke that is told, shared and expanded upon by generations of American comedians. The joke itself will be explored in greater detail later in the Entry. The documentary was made by comedians Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette1 and features some of the best-known performers in American comedy, albeit none of the ones who have current Guide Entries. They include George Carlin, Wendy Leibeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Harry Shearer2. The documentary also features English comedian Eddie Izzard, ex-Python Eric Idle and veteran Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.
How can you possibly explain a joke that would never make it past the Guide's censors? Well, a man enters a talent agent's office. 'I've got an act, I'm looking for representation, I wonder if you've got a minute to talk to me?' 'Sure' says the agent 'tell me about your act'. The man describes the act. This is the tricky bit.
The description of the act is the bit where the teller of the joke has freedom to describe more or less whatever they want. The only rule is that it must be as offensive as possible. The joke is generally told with repeated references to bodily fluids going into and out of every possible orifice, sexual acts including rape, incest3 and bestiality4 and is often counterpointed by the inclusion of song and dance numbers, to make the exteme violence seem totally out of place. The act is generally a family act, with members of the family performing a sort of twisted Von Trapp-style5 performance, doing vile things to each other.
Having heard all this, the agent, whose reaction is decided by the teller, says 'what's this act called?' The man replies 'We call ourselves The Aristocrats.'
The point of the joke is that it contrasts the violence and crudeness of the act with what, to Americans, is a rather cute and quaint-sounding name for the act. Variants of the name will be discussed further along in the Entry. However it cannot be denied that another key aspect of the joke revolves around the fact that it is a comedian's joke. It is not generally told on stage, but expanded and elaborated between comics. It is their opportunity, offstage, to be as vulgar as possible and to outdo each other in a contest to make the joke as imaginative and as lengthy as possible, with one comic claiming to have dragged the joke out for two hours before messing up the punchline.
Variants of the Joke
As already explained, there are variations of the punchline. Eric Idle for one is baffled by the use of the word 'aristocrats' when 'Americans don't even have aristocrats', although it is perhaps precisely for that reason that the word is associated with austerity and properness in America whereas, Idle claims 'in England, there isn't anything an artistocrat won't do.' An old friend of Eric Idle, the late George Harrison was one person whose version of the joke supposedly ended with The Sophisticates. Another alternative, suggested by Billy Conolly, is The Debonairs, a name which seems to suggest some sort of Motown vocal group.
It is, of course, entirely possible to vary the build-up of the joke, in that it could be the mother talking to the agent, or the agent talking to the club owner. It merely has to be someone trying to sell the act to a person who hasn't seen it before. Another variation is to describe a warm, fuzzy, friendly family act and, when asked the name, explain that it is called... well, something vile, rude and disgusting that couldn't possibly be printed here.
If there is one major flaw in the film as a documentary, it is that it takes a somewhat one-sided look at its subject matter. The joke is found funny by more or less all the participants6 and the question of why it can be considered acceptable, much less funny, to tell a joke about things such as children being sexually assaulted by their own parents is not seriously addressed. The joke is celebrated in this film but, for a joke with such obvious potential to offend so many, the film-makers might have served themselves better with a more balanced view. Still, on the plus side, the joke has redeemed itself once.
On 11 September, 2001 two planes were hijacked and flown into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, causing huge devastation and loss of life. Two weeks later, a benefit concert was held in New York for the victims. Performing comedy on such an evening was never going to be easy. Enter American comic Gilbert Gottfried. He tried to open with a joke about having a flight to Los Angeles 'via the Empire State Building'. It didn't work. One member of the audience shouted 'too soon'. 'Okay' responded Gottfried. Instead, he tried something else. Something less controversial, less offensive. He told The Aristocrats.
Whether the joke had ever been told to a paying audience by a performer before is uncertain, although it seems unlikely. Quite why Gottfried chose this evening, in this place and this time, to tell his version of The Aristocrats and quite why the audience laughed as long and as loud as they did is something that can only be speculated on. Whatever the reasons, this most controversial of jokes had succeeded in doing surely the most important job any joke can aspire to do.
That's the Joke? That's Sick!
Yes, perhaps it is. Well all right then, it definitely, unashamedly is. So why is it such a cult success among comedians? Some have suggested that it is purely the chance to be more offensive than they could ever possibly be in front of an audience. There seems, though, to be more to it than that. It is, as several of its apologists observe, the comedic equivalent of improvisational jazz. It has a theme and a melody, but it is a joke made distinctly different by each performer. Perhaps it could be argued that, in the best tradition of the comedy 'monster'7, the person describing the act is the real source of the joke, amusing and appalling us at the same time by trying to entertain with such a debased show. Perhaps it is, one way or another, the best possible answer to the question 'Can anything be funny?'