"The Aristocrats" (also called "The Debonaires" or "The Sophisticates" in some tellings) is a taboo-defying off-color joke that has been told by numerous stand-up comedians since the vaudeville era. Over time it has evolved from a clichéd staple of vaudevillian humor into a postmodern anti-joke. Steven Wright has likened it to a secret handshake among comedians, and it is seen as something of a game in which those who tell it try this to top each other in terms of shock value. It is thought of as a badge of honor among expert comedians and is notoriously hard to perform successfully. It is rarely told the same way twice, often improvised.
This joke almost always has these elements—alternative versions may change this form.
- Setup: A family act going in to see a talent agent; either the whole family or just one family member (usually the father).
- The agent asks what they do.
- If the whole family is present, the act is performed for the agent; otherwise it is described.
- Act: It is described in as much detail as the teller prefers.
- While most tellings follow one of a few basic forms, the description of the act is meant to be an ad lib.
- Traditionally, the description is tasteless, and ribald. The goal is to significantly transgress social norms. Taboo acts such as incest, rape, coprophilia, coprophagia, bestiality, necrophilia and murder are common themes.
- Punch line: The shocked (or intrigued) agent asks what the act is called, and the proud answer (sometimes delivered with a flourish) is: "The Aristocrats!"
- The humor of the punch line is usually considered to derive either from the extreme discordance between the group's sophisticated name (and the regal "flourish" when stating it) and the vile acts they perform, or as a form of social satire aimed at the decadence of the aristocracy.
History in print
- In 2005, Jackie Martling's website cited "The Aristocrats" as appearing on page 987 of Gershon Legman's Rationale of the Dirty Joke, Vol. 2, published in 1975. Legman retells the joke, complete with its traditional vaudevillian flourishes, although he does not attribute the joke to vaudeville roots. Instead, Legman learned the joke from a young man who grew up in a broken home.
A film called The Aristocrats premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It was co-produced by Penn Jillette, Matthew Maguire, and Paul Provenza; directed by Provenza; and edited by Emery Emery. It's based on hours of digital video taken over several years, featuring comedians and others in the know talking about and telling their versions of the joke. "The Aristocrats" was Johnny Carson's favorite joke. Because of this, and because Carson died days after the film was screened at Sundance, Penn Jillette decided to dedicate this film to his memory. The Aristocrats features performances and commentary from some of Hollywood's biggest power players in comedy, TV and film. Included in the film is a mostly unedited recording of Gottfried's Friar's Club performance from 2001, which had been deleted from the TV broadcast.
Rumors cited in this film suggest that Chevy Chase used to hold parties at which the goal was to tell the joke for an hour, without repeating any of the acts contained in its performance. Jillette states in the movie that no one has ever been able to listen to Chase for an hour.
- Martling, Jackie (2005). ""The Aristocrats" from Rationale Of The Dirty Joke, An Analysis Of Sexual Humor Series Two: No Laughing Matter". Archived from the original on 2005-12-24. Retrieved 2007-03-26.
- Logan, Brian (2005-09-02). "The verdict". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-03-26.
- The Aristocrats (2005) at the Internet Movie Database
- Provenza, Paul (2005). The Aristocrats (film). Mighty Cheese Productions.