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  • The Aristocrats
  • Elliott Oring
The Aristocrats. 2005. By Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza. 90 min. plus special features. DVD format, color. (ThinkFilm/Mighty Cheese Productions, New York.)

The Aristocrats surveys the performance of a single joke by almost a hundred professional comedians and comedy writers. Jason Alexander, Drew Carey, George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Whoopi Goldberg, Gilbert Gottfried, Eric Idle, Paul Reiser, Bob Saget, the Smothers Brothers, Sarah Silverman, and Robin Williams are just some of the performers who tell a version of the joke, a portion of the joke, or an inversion of the joke or who comment on the joke and its performance. The joke is the last one included in the second series of Gershon Legman's Rationale of the Dirty Joke (Breaking Point Press, 1975): "A vaudeville performer is describing his act to a skeptical booking-agent: 'It's very simple. My wife and I shit on the stage, and the kids come out and wallow in it.' Agent, thunderstruck: 'What kind of act do you call that?' Vaudevillian, polishing his nails on his lapel: 'We call it—the Aristocrats'" (p. 987).

Much of the artistry of the performances depends upon the ability to pile obscenity upon obscenity in graphic, detailed, yet elegant description. Scatology, incest, brutality, bestiality, child abuse, and retardation are the major themes—depending on the teller's preferences—that are developed in relating the joke. (Only one "clean" version of the joke is told, which involves hitting someone in the head with a hammer.) The variety of deliveries is extraordinary, and the joke is also performed as a card trick, a magic trick, in mime, a South Park animation, a juggling act, a personal experience story, a ventriloquism act, in verse, and as a music hall number (these last two in the DVD's supplemental special features). As journalist Frank DiGiacomo observed, "'The Aristocrats' is so much about the signature that the comedian puts on it."

The commentaries on the joke are as important as the comic performances. Comedians discuss how the joke should develop ("You have to save the scatological for the end. If you put it in the middle, you have nothing left to close"), the gestures appropriate to the delivery of the punch line, and possible alternatives for the punch line ("The Sophisticates," "The Debonairs"). In one case, we see a somewhat contextualized performance. Gilbert Gottfried told the joke at the Friar's Club roast of Hugh Hefner. The roast occurred only a few weeks after September 11, 2001, and when Gottfried tried to make a joke about how he was a little nervous because his plane had to "make a connection on the way home with the Empire State Building," members of the audience booed and shouted him down. He responded with an extended telling of "The Aristocrats," which conveyed the point that comedy is largely about transgression and that everything is grist for the comedian's mill: incest, child abuse, scatology, and even horrific tragedy. In a sense, the joke is about the traffic of images between the world of the real and consequential and the world of the fictive and inconsequential. It was a risky move, but comedians who were present reported that Gottfried's performance proved a hilarious and even cathartic experience.

"The Aristocrats" is an insider joke. It is a performance about performance for performers. It is not a joke used in stand-up routines. Comedians do not tell the jokes in their routines, but they do tell them to one another. In the oral literary criticism of the joke, comedians referred to "the sweet old days of show business," what people won't do to be in show business, how even the shabbiest acts invariably call themselves by the most grandiose names, and how performers regard their own performances—whatever they are—as reflections of their creative genius [End Page 500] (as suggested by the matter-of-factness or even enthusiasm with which the obscene act is described to the agent). Other jokes that play off "The Aristocrats" base extend this sense of the joke as a commentary on the nature of the entertainment industry.

The film was made with off-the...


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