(also known as The Debonaires
or The Sophisticates
in some tellings) is an exceptionally transgressive dirty joke
that has been told by numerous stand-up comedians
since the vaudeville
era. 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 to top each other in terms of shock value
. It is rarely told the same way twice, often improvised, and was the subject of a 2005 documentary film of the same name
. It is thought of as a badge of honor among expert comedians and is notoriously hard to perform successfully. Throughout its long history, it has evolved from a clichéd
staple of vaudevillian
humor into a postmodern anti-joke
This joke almost always has these elements—alternative versions may change this form, but such versions tend to assume that the audience is already familiar with the joke:
- The setup: The joke always begins with a family act going in to see a talent agent.
The act: It is described in as much detail as the teller prefers.
- Those who meet the agent can include the whole family, or just one family member (usually the father).
- The agent asks (sometimes after saying that he is not interested, and a plea from the father) what they do.
- If the whole family is present, the act may be performed for the agent, rather than described.
- There is also the possibility of a neutral observer telling the tale of seeing the performance to the talent agent.
The 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!"
- 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 crude, tasteless, and ribald. The goal is to cross social boundaries, and acts such as incest, pedophilia, coprophilia, zoophilia, and murder are common themes.
- The punchline may be modified in some variants, but generally such variants are told only in a context where the original joke is known.
- Because the sense of what an aristocrat is has faded in many countries, the final line may simply be seen as the end of a rather bawdy joke rather than a punchline. In some regions the name of the act is "The Sophisticates" or "The Debonaires".
Rumors cited in a film about the telling of this joke suggest that Chevy Chase used to hold parties at which the goal was to tell the joke for half an hour (without repeating any of the acts contained in its performance).
History in print
'He has a very nice face and style, really,' said Mrs Kenwigs.
'He certainly has,' added Miss Petowker. 'There's something in his appearance quite—dear, dear, what's that word again?'
'What word?' inquired Mr. Lillyvick.
'Why—dear me, how stupid I am,' replied Miss Petowker, hesitating. 'What do you call it when Lords break off door-knockers and beat policemen, and play at coaches with other people's money, and all that sort of thing?'
'Aristocratic?' suggested the collector.
- 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, though 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.
- In a 2005 interview, UK comic Barry Cryer claims to have heard the joke "fifty years ago.
A film called The Aristocrats premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Co-produced by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza, directed by Provenza and edited by Emery Emery, the film is based on hours of digital video taken over several years, featuring comedians talking about and telling their versions of the joke. Because The Aristocrats was Johnny Carson's favorite joke, the film is dedicated to his memory.