The Aristocrats: It's the singer not the song


Tina Fey was quoted a few years ago in the New Yorker saying “If you want to make an audience laugh, you dress a man up like an old lady and push her down the stairs. If you want to make comedy writers laugh, you push an actual old lady down the stairs.” If you are planning on seeing Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette's documentary The Aristocrats, keep this in mind.

The Aristocrats is a joke that has been with comics since the days of Vaudeville. The joke is never told in public, it's a like a secret handshake for comics and it is, in no uncertain terms, the filthiest joke you'll ever hear.

What is unique about the joke is that while the set-up and punchline remain the same, the mid section, in which an outrageous, filthy stage act is described, is flexible, allowing comics try to out-do one another describing the most vulgar things imaginable. The punchline, where the name of the act is revealed to be “The Aristocrats,” is almost anti-climactic to the joke, making it perhaps the only joke that exists more for its set-up than for its payoff. As Penn Jillette notes, “It’s the singer, not the song.” In fact, more than one of the comics interviewed mentions John Coltrane…the worlds of comedy and jazz intersect once again.

In the film over 100 comics analyze, deconstruct and deliver their own versions of the joke. The first big laugh of the evening for me was when two patrons walked out of the theatre ten minutes into the film, after the first complete telling of the joke, by none other than George Carlin. What exactly were they expecting? Animated cats? One wonders...

The thing I think I enjoyed the most about The Aristocrats was watching the sheer joy that came over the faces of the comics telling the joke. There's a certain freedom that comes with pushing the envelope like that, and anyone who has ever gotten on stage with the intention of making people laugh can tell you - there are times that a groan is more welcome than a giggle.

Everyone will have their favourite telling of the joke. Mine, hands down is Sarah Silverman's. She deconstructs the thing, acts the hell out of it while telling it and takes it places that I don't think anybody else working today could. She's damn smart and damn funny. The animated version from the South Park boys is also great, filthy and innocent at once, like all of their best work. Mario Cantone, doing the bit as Liza Minelli is priceless, he really captures the "show biz" of the thing. Bob Sagat is a revelation, if only for that one move where he measures a certain body part using his face. That's all I'm saying.

Gilbert Gottfried tells the joke in public, a few weeks after 9/11 at roast for Hugh Hefferner. It's not the funniest version of the joke, but it's so inspiring to watch him up there, sacrificing himself and getting back on the horse for everyone. The laughter in that room is a big, cathartic cry. Gibert Gottfried is one brave man and the hero of the piece. An outcome as unexpected as the punchline of the joke itself!

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