The Aristocrats (film)

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The Aristocrats
Directed by
Produced by
  • Peter Adam Golden[1]
  • Paul Provenza
Starringsee below
CinematographyPaul Provenza
Edited by
Music byGary Stockdale
Mighty Cheese Productions
Distributed byTHINKFilm
Release date
  • August 12, 2005 (2005-08-12)
Running time
89 minutes[2]
CountryUnited States
Box office$6.4 million

The Aristocrats is a 2005 American documentary comedy film about the famous eponymous dirty joke. The film was conceived and produced by comedians Penn Jillette, Paul Provenza and Peter Adam Golden, and it was edited by Emery Emery. Distributed by THINKFilm, it is dedicated to Johnny Carson, as "The Aristocrats" was said to be his favorite joke.[3]

The joke[edit]

"The Aristocrats" is a longstanding transgressive joke amongst comedians, in which the setup and punchline are almost always the same (or similar). It is the joke's midsection – which may be as long as the one telling it prefers and is often completely improvised – that makes or breaks a particular rendition.

The joke involves a person pitching an act to a talent agent. Typically the first line is, "A man walks into a talent agent's office." The man then describes the act. From this point, up to (but not including) the punchline, the teller of the joke is expected to ad-lib the most shocking act they can possibly imagine. This often involves elements of incest, group sex, graphic violence, defecation, coprophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, rape, child sexual abuse, and various other taboo behaviors.

The joke, as first delivered in the film, contains the set-up line "What the heck do you call an act like that?" followed by the punchline "I call it 'The Aristocrats'." In subsequent renditions of the joke, the agent asks, "What do you call your act?", which is the traditional set-up line.

The film itself consists of interviews with various comedians and actors, usually in candid settings. The interviewees engage both in telling their own versions of the joke, and in reminiscing about their experiences with it, the joke's place in comedy history, and even dissecting the logic behind the joke's appeal. A key aspect of the Aristocrats joke is that it was never told to audiences as part of the comedian's stand-up routine. Instead, it was an inside joke among comedians themselves, who used it as a tool to challenge each other as to who could tell the funniest and most outrageous rendition.

While most of the filmed versions of the joke follow the standard format of a raunchy description followed by the punchline of "the Aristocrats", some versions do vary the joke. Two tellings of it, including that of comedian Wendy Liebman, invert the joke by describing an elegant and beautiful performance act which has been given a lewd and transgressive name. Actor Taylor Negron told his joke as a mixture of salacious sex acts and calmly delivered observations on life. Actor Steven Banks, as Billy the Mime, performs the joke on the street as a mime performance. Most infamously, Sarah Silverman's rendition, where she tells the joke in an anecdotal manner from the perspective of the daughter in the family, went on to garner controversy for its punchline involving radio and TV personality Joe Franklin.

Featured celebrities[edit]

The following celebrities are featured in the film, telling the joke themselves and/or providing substantial commentary on its history:

Many other comedians were filmed but not included due to time constraints. According to a letter from Penn Jillette to critic Roger Ebert, Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield were intended to be included, but they died before they could be filmed. Jillette also indicated that, this being Johnny Carson's favorite joke, Carson was also invited to appear, but he declined.[4]

Trey Parker and Matt Stone animated a segment of the film where Eric Cartman tells a version of the joke.


Joe Franklin[edit]

In the film, Sarah Silverman tells a version of the joke as if it were autobiographical and she had been one of the "Aristocrats" performers as a child. Silverman builds the story to include her family being booked on veteran talk show host Joe Franklin's show, and ends with her punch line: a deadpan allegation that Franklin had raped her during a phony rehearsal for the show. The New Yorker reported that Silverman's telling of the joke led Franklin, who is also featured in the film, to consider filing a defamation lawsuit against the comedian.[5]

On the April 20, 2011, episode of the WFMU show Seven Second Delay, Franklin jokes that he had been so successful lately because he sued Silverman.[6]

AMC ban[edit]

The theatre chain AMC refused to show The Aristocrats on any of its 3,500+ screens. Although AMC claimed the decision was due to the film's limited appeal,[7] co-producer Penn Jillette commented to MSNBC: "It's the kind of thing that makes you go 'Come on, play fair.' It's not like we're trying to slide this by anybody by calling it Love Bug 2: Herbie Takes It Up the Ass."[8][9]

Friars Club roast footage[edit]

The film includes footage of Gottfried's telling of the joke at a Comedy Central/New York Friars' Club roast of Hugh Hefner which had been almost entirely censored when aired on television. Taped not long after the September 11 attacks, the incident occurred at a time when, according to one of the commentators in the Aristocrats film, entertainers were uncertain how much comedy was allowed in the aftermath of the attacks. Gottfried followed Rob Schneider, who had received mixed results with his stand-up comedy performance in Hefner's honor. Gottfried began his performance with a joke in which he claimed to have to catch a late flight out of town but was worried because his flight "had a connection at the Empire State Building." The joke, a reference to 9/11, was poorly received by the audience, who showered Gottfried with boos and cries of "too soon." In response, Gottfried told an obscenity-filled rendition of the Aristocrats joke. According to the film, the telling was as much a cathartic experience for the audience as it was a shocking one, regardless of whether viewers were familiar with the joke or not. During his performance, Gottfried told the audience "They might have to clean this up for TV."


The Aristocrats received a generally positive reception from film critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes reports the film as holding an overall 79% approval rating based on 150 reviews, and an average rating of 7.1 out of 10. The site's general consensus is that the film is hilarious and revealing of the way comedy works. "Can a joke stand up to repeated tellings? The Aristocrats demonstrates that it's possible."[10] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 72 out of 100, based on 39 reviews.[11]

Todd McCarthy of Variety gave a positive review, describing it a "raucous insider documentary that invites the viewer to share a secret held exclusively by comics for untold generations".[12] Ken Tucker of New York magazine called it a "gloriously filthy, ramshackle, endearing documentary".[13]


Year Award Organization Category Result
2005 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Award U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Best Documentary Won[14][15]
Grand Jury Prize Sundance Film Festival Documentary Nominated[16][17]
2006 Golden Trailer Award Golden Trailer Awards Best Documentary Nominated[18][19]
OFCS Award Online Film Critics Society Best Documentary Nominated[14][20]
Satellite Award International Press Academy Best Documentary DVD Nominated[19]


  1. ^ "Aristocrats (2005)". Inbaseline. Retrieved 29 October 2011.
  2. ^ "THE ARISTOCRATS (18)". British Board of Film Classification. August 1, 2005. Retrieved May 15, 2015.
  3. ^ HBO The Aristocrats Synopsis
  4. ^ Penn Jillette (21 August 2005). "Letter to Roger Ebert". Movie Answer Man. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 29 October 2011.
  5. ^ Dana Goodyear (24 October 2005). "Quiet Depravity". The New Yorker. Retrieved 29 October 2011.
  6. ^ "Andy co-hosts with Joe Franklin at the UCB Theater". Seven Second Delay with Ken and Andy (Interview: audio/transcript). WFMU. 20 April 2011. Retrieved 29 October 2011.
  7. ^ "AMC theater patrons won't be getting joke". Chicago Tribune. 2005-07-14. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
  8. ^ "Censored in 2005". 2005-12-30. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
  9. ^ "Censoring Aristocrats". 2005-07-12. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
  10. ^ "The Aristocrats". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. 2013. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  11. ^ "The Aristocrats Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive Inc. 2013. Retrieved April 28, 2013.
  12. ^ McCarthy, Todd (23 February 2005). "The Aristocrats". Variety.
  13. ^ Ken Tucker. "The Aristocats - New York Magazine Movie Review". New York. Archived from the original on 2005-11-07.
  14. ^ a b "The Aristocrats (2005) NYT Critics' Pick". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2013. Archived from the original on November 4, 2013. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  15. ^ "The Aristocrats (2005) Awards". All Movie Guide. Rovi Corp. 2013. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  16. ^ Telegraph Herald staff (July 20, 2005). "More than 107 comedians come together in " The Aristocrats " to tell the ultimate joke in over 107 different ways". Telegraph Herald. Dubuque, Iowa. p. A18.
  17. ^ Vancheri, Barbara (August 21, 2005). "Film offers an insider's look at comedians' dirty little secret -- A joke that Bob Saget admits is 'bad, wrong, ugly'". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. p. E-3.
  18. ^ "7th Annual Golden Trailer Award Winner and Nominees; Best Documentary: Nominees". Golden Trailer Awards. June 1, 2006. Archived from the original on April 16, 2013. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
  19. ^ a b "Awards for The Aristocrats". IMDb., Inc. 2013. Retrieved April 28, 2013.
  20. ^ Weinberg, Scott (January 10, 2006). "Online Film Critics offer their annual nominations". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster, Inc. Retrieved April 29, 2013.

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