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July 30, 2005

South Park Republicans, meet Dem-isto-crats

I'm looking forward to seeing The Aristocrats, the new documentary by Paul Provenza an Penn Jillette. The premise is intriguing. The movie consists entirely of comedians telling their versions of a very old joke known as The Aristocrats (Wikipedia).

I'll let you know what I think. A.O. Scott raves about the movie. [NYT permalink]

Dead Frog has an Aristocrats Joke Database--post your own version of the joke and rate other people's submissions.

Click here to see Eric Cartman tell The Aristocrats. (WARNING: not safe for work, sound comes on immediately.)


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OK, so Bush, Frist, Cheney, Schwarzenegger, their families, and a goat meet a political boss' and say they have an idea for a political party. The boss says, no, he doesn't have time. But Cheney pleads with him to let them do a little presentation. The boss agrees, if they make it quick.

The presentation starts with the sound of an explosion. Bush craps his pants and sticks his head up the goat's ass. Meanwhile his wife hops into a car and starts running over guys on the street. Jenna has gotten drunk and is blowing a guy in the street while her sister Barbara reaches into her father's pants, pulls out the shit and starts smearing it on the guy. Lynne Cheney starts loudly reciting some porn she has written while her daughter, Mary, lifts her skirt and starts to lick her pussy. In the nearby alley, Frist has trapped some cats and has removed their livers which he slowly eats, while in the street, Schwarzenegger injects himself with testosterone, and starts grabbing and raping women passers-by. By now, Bush has pulled his head out of the goat's ass and is lobbing handgrenades at any non-whites who pass by, yelling "9/11" at the top of his voice. Cheney is picking up the body parts and offering to sell them back to the victims at a big profit.

The boss stands with mouth agape and asks: what the hell do you call this party? Bush replies: The Republicans.

Leaving aside epi's riff on the joke, any explanation of why the joke (in any form) is funny would be welcome. I generally understand why things are funny, even if they don't line up with my sense of humor, but 'The Aristocrats' I just don't get.

I don't get the joke, either. I'll let you know if the the movie offers any insights.

We may be too far removed from our aristocratic beginnings as a nation to appreciate the punchline, but, let's be honest, the principal appeal of the joke is the scatological license it affords the enterprising comedian. Try it, it's fun.

Of course a movie is not a joke, and while I haven't seen it, The Aristocrats no doubt contextualizes the joke in a way that invites us to question humor, scatology, and class differences.

It's not really a joke to "get". The punchline is anticlimactic, and exists only to let down the listener. The joke itself just doesn't work on paper, since a high level of storytelling skill is required in order to captivate an audience with such an over the top series of events.

4 things to understand about the humor of the joke, with the caveat, of course, that you can't explain a joke:
1) the punchline is so anticlimactic that the let-down itself is funny. Oddly, one of the few people in the movie who really understood that (I think) was Drew Carey, who puts an extra little flourish on the punchline, to underline how lame it is (at least I think he was doing it ironically--hard to tell)
2) I don't find blue material inherently funny; most comedians who work that way bore me, because they're just transparently trying to shock the audience, and I don't find terribly much terribly shocking. With The Aristocrats, it's different--the comedians are trying to shock themselves. Somehow there's an innocence in that; it's engaging, and in an odd way humorous.
3) Notwithstanding the above, two comedians in the movie did manage to shock me (Whoopi Goldberg, of all people, was one of 'em; don't remember the other), and there is that thrill of hearing something so vile you can't imagine how anyone could conceive of it. In other words, I've maybe heard four or five dirty jokes in my life that I found funny, but there's no denying that a genuinely funny dirty joke has a special power.
4) the movie is really more about humor criticism than the joke per se; one of the great small debates they address is whether the joke is funnier if it's told straight, as opposed to just flat-out insane. A couple people argued both sides. Personally, to me the former is much, much funnier; just hearing a list of strange things isn't that funny, but hearing the comedians explain the physics involved, the necessary preparations the Aristocrats go through, the complications in their act and how they handle them, etc., is (to me) hilarious. Check out George Carlin talking about the difficulty of aiming at certain key moments in the act, or Bob Saget talking about how one performer has to pause to clip her nails, for what turn out to be very compelling reasons.

Incidentally, I showed up at the theater at 1:00 to get tickets to the 1:50 show; it was sold out, and apparently I got one of the last tickets to the 2:50 show. Same thing happened last night; at about 5:00 I logged on to try to buy tickets, and they were sold out up to the 11:00 (I think) show. Two notes: a) get tickets early, and b) are the people at AMC, who won't show it because they say it has a limited market, stupid, or are they simply afraid of the Christians?

ah. Your link reminded me. The other "comedian" who shocked me was Cartman, with his baby routine. Pretty compelling argument that AMC isn't stupid, too.

If I hadn't seen the Cartman clip I never would have believed that The Aristocrats could be funny. To me, what's funny about that segment is how Cartman shushes Kyle. I won't even venture a guess about why those parts cracked me up. As you said, earlier, it's impossible to explain a joke.

Regarding the joke, not the movie:
This was a vaudevellian routine. The indecent goings-on described in the joke were doubtless burlesqued to great comic effect. The shock value was always part of dirty jokes, and this is the dirtiest. The open structure of this joke allowing the scatology to match the audience is part of its appeal to comedians through the years. And the punch line was certainly NOT meant in some ironic fashion at the beginning of the last century when the joke was hatched. While the joke has the appeal of a dirty joke that can be tailored to any audience, and wonderful pantomiming possibilities, the punchline, a vicious attempt to smear the overly refined, arrogant, effete, morally suspect aristocrats as the authors of the indecencies just described, was intended literally.

My Republican gloss on the joke above, lame as it was, tried to make the joke modern, which is necessary to enjoy the humor (who hates aristocrats anymore?), instead of enjoying it for its ripe ironic and analytical possibilities.

boy, I thought originalism was odd as a theory of consititutional interpretation, but as a theory of humor? Wow.

Look, a punchline is, and always has been, a juxtaposition of inconsistent ideas. There's nothing postmodern about that interpretation that I can see. The diversionary set-up actually does have a long history in comedy, and in vaudeville; my grandfather used to tell these long, meandering jokes where, as the set-up progressed, you felt like you had to pay close attention to all of the trivial details (I remember one about train times that felt like a math problem--"3 people get on in Wichita at 4:15; 7 get off in Chicago at 8:30," etc). The joke would then suddenly and abruptly end with a lame pun or something--and the joke was that you'd been duped into thinking that the set-up was important. Old story, old structure, and while it does allow for some interesting analysis, it's not dependent upon postmodern analytics. The things I find funny about the joke weren't made funny by Foucault.

Yeah, but do you find aristocrats objects of derision today? Some things are relative to the time, the context.

The movie self-consciously opens up the subjects of what is funny in general, dirty jokes in particular, and, oh yeah, specifically, aristocrats. You don't think this joke was a dig at aristocrats?

Interesting question (I take it we're agreed that the operation of the punch line is the least funny part of the joke). Another of the mini-debates in the movie was whether the joke would be funnier if the punchline was "the sophisticates." I think it would. There are two ways to interpret the punchline--"aristocrats are filthy" or "that's a spectacularly inappropriate name for this act." I prefer the latter, and in fact hadn't really considered the former until I saw the movie. Billy Connelly, a Scots comic, at one point in the movie admits that he doesn't understand why the joke works in America at all, since we don't have, and have never had, an aristocracy, and therefore it's odd to make fun of it. I think that suggests my interpretation pretty strongly; that is, the play is on the word "aristocrat" as a marker of class, rather than as a derogatory reference to aristocrats specifically. That is, to accept your interpretation of the punch line, you have to attribute an extra layer of irony to the joke. Of course, the ultimate question is which interpretation is funnier, and I can't really justify my preference, except to say that it's a simpler, more complete reversal of the premise (and there's a lot to be said for sibilance in comedy writing, too).

Apologies for any drunken incoherence.


I honestly never considered the "that's a spectacularly inappropriate name for the act" interpretation. If the claim that America never had an aristocracy is a condemnation of my interpretation, then why on earth would they use that reference point and not "the clergy" or some such reference that was more "American?"

Americans were very aware of the aristocracy that was very much alive in the world at the beginning of the last century. Vaudeville was a lowbrow humor, and there is an anger in the punchline toward the wealthy, morally effete, Europeans. And using the word aristocrat locates the object of derision firmly in Europe. Today there is just a gossipy nostalgia for the aristocrats in Europe, but there is a BIG interest. Even today, Princess Diana and her boys sell magazines in this country. But I doubt the feeling toward royalty was as warm and fuzzy before WWI as it is now.

This joke was not written in a post modern America where irony was the only proper stance for a comedian. The dirty parts are what make a dirty joke, but this joke allows us to laugh at our "superiors", even blaming them for the disgusting coprolalia that preceded the punchline because, after all, it's their behavior we are describing. Isn't it?

First, I'd like to say that Epistemology's version was incredibly funny. First time I've EVER thought that joke was funny.

I've always hated the jokes that end with a letdown instead of a punchline. I think they're like pranks that the teller pulls on his audience. The effect is usually the same--the prankster winds up splitting his sides, while everyone else winds up annoyed.

"a Scots comic, at one point in the movie admits that he doesn't understand why the joke works in America at all, since we don't have, and have never had, an aristocracy,"

We most certainly did have an aristocracy. While some of it was just financial - the Morgan's, and Rockerfeller's etc., some was not entirely so, like the Astor's. What was probably the most aristocratic family in the country spawned humor in a similar vein - "The Addams Family" movies and TV show were based upon the comic strip lampooning the descendants of John Addams. The material did not get too blue; it had to be pubished or aired.

I'm not saying that lampooning the aristocracy was the point of the joke, it wasn't even the primary point of the punchline, but it was part of it.

Regarding the joke, not the movie:
This was a vaudevellian routine.

No it wasn't. It was a backstage joke only told when just comedians or perhaps, the band was still a round.

It dates from vaudeville, but it was not a routine because it was never suppossed to be told in public. It would have ended your career if you told it in public.
Regarding whether or not the joke is funny depends not only the on the teller's storytelling skills but his or her tone. He should not be trying to gross you out. He should be describing all these horrible acts in a matter of fact tone or, even better, sweetly describing them like an audience would want to see them. In the movie one the better verions is told by Larry Storch in a proper British accent. The joke should have you laughing way before the punchline. The versions that are trying to shock you are less funny. Also a joke that is still being told after nearly a hundred years is probably funny. If, Michael O'Donoghue thinks it's funny, it's probably funny.


This was a vaudevellian routine.
No it wasn't.

I think you are probably right, though a cleaned up version can certainly be told to virtually any audience, and I would be very surprised if it wasn't.

The question was, is the punchline a literal, gratuitous swipe at aristocrats, or meant ironically? Since it works literally, I think that is how it started. We are too removed from the common man's disdain for the effete aristocracy and their louche morals to get the anger in it. And the comedians don't get it, because today, Hollywood and the entertainment industry, of which the comedians are a part, ARE the louche aristocracy of our day that the working man is contemptuous of.

I tried to translate the joke to modern times with a more up to date target. Someone cleverer than I could perhaps make my effort funny with a little work. (PS: need to add something about Bush and Frist digging up bodies and stuffing food down their stomachs. And Bush should have his head up the goat's ass for 7 minutes.)

The question was, is the punchline a literal, gratuitous swipe at aristocrats, or meant ironically?

No. it's not a swipe at actual Aristocrats. The joke is not political satire. It's about self-image. If anything, it satirizes deluded members of the lower class and their pretensions.

I have the advantage of having seen the movie and the movie goes into this question. Eric Idle says the punchline doesn't work in England because they have actual aristocrats and the public DOES believe they are capable of anything. There are versions of the joke that use different words in the punchline.

The punchline is meant ironically. The joke is that these performers, this family, is so downtrodden they will perform any act of degradation, but they still cling to some form of respectability. Why it's so funny for comedians or vaudevillians is that they know show people and know they often have the worst self loathing. They also have no illusions about show folk. They know that guy who comes out on stage in a tuxedo with his wife in a ballgown might be pimping her out for train fare back from Cleveland if the matinees don't sell well. It's also a play on stage names, think of, The Amazing Jonathan for one.

Also if the punchline is a let down, they joke wasn't told well. The punchline should be the last little explosion of the joke. Wendy Liebman tells a wonderfully polite, genteel upper-middle class version of the joke in the movie. Her punchline kills.

W and Rove were walking down the street and passed by a dog who was licking himself. W said to Rove "I wish I could do that." And Rove said "You probably could, but I don't think the dog would like it very much."

For another example of the genre:

the joke is actually a satire of losers who have arguments on message boards consisting largely of a useless pseudointellectual vocabulary made of buzzwords that could easily be replaced with practical words that mean the exact same fucking thing and don't make the speaker look like a stupid arrogant cock

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