'The Aristocrats': Who 'Won' The Movie?
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You've likely heard the term “writer’s writer,” write? (badum tss) It's when a writer's work rises above its intended audience and resonates hard with other writers. There's just something in the sauce that's appreciated above and beyond by those scribes in the trenches.
And there's a similar phenomenon in comedy: the comedian's comedian. Well, today we’re not talking about a comedian’s comedian, exactly - but rather a comedian’s joke.
“The Aristocrats” is basically an inside, transgressive joke comedians tell each other. The barebones structure looks something like this:
Set up: A man walks into an agent’s office and says he has a new act. The agent says to describe it for him.
Main part: The man says we’re a family act. He then goes on to describe in horrific detail the most taboo and disgusting things imaginable.
Punchline: The agent says “And what do you call this act?” and the man says “The Aristocrats.”
The humor of the punchline derives from juxtaposing the nobility & highbrow class associated with the word “aristocrat” with the absolute filth described in the setup.
It is transgressive because the teller fills the main part of the joke with the worst things they can imagine that would never, ever be talked about in polite company, impolite company, company boardrooms, or even company bathrooms - from incest and poo play to racism, rough rough BDSM, and whatever else comes to filthy mind.
So, when we posed the question “who won?," in the title of this little ditty - that's referencing the 2005 documentary made about the joke, also titled The Aristocrats. It features over 100 comedians discussing the joke and telling different versions.
We can’t run through 100 versions of the joke, (that comes in 2025 with the advent of Cracked VR) so we decided to choose between these five: Jay Marshall, George Carlin, Wendy Liebman, Sarah Silverman, and Taylor Negron (honorable mentions to Gilbert Gottfried and Bob Saget).
Jay Marshall was more a magician than a comedian, and his version of the joke makes the top five for his magically-concise telling of it.
How about that? In just around five sentences, he nails every single part of the joke.
The problem some non-comedians (or non-ComedyNerds) probably have with The Aristocrats is that they don’t “get it." That's understandable. The focus of most jokes is the punchline.
But in the case of The Aristocrats, the punchline in of itself isn’t very funny at all. That can lead to the whole mess sailing over people's heads. The humor of the joke is often contained in how repulsively creative the teller can get in the setup. It is not always dependent on the punchline.
Beside economy, Marshall’s telling also lands a top five spot because in his version, the punchline actually is funny. The act described is sufficiently filthy, but the setup isn't so long or labored that the punchline gets lost. It is, by our account, a perfectly structured joke. But of course, “The Aristocrats” isn’t one-telling-fits-all, so we move on to Comedy Hall of Famer George Carlin's rendition.
Carlin is one of the funniest people of all time, and he unsurprisingly makes the top five for specificity.
One way to find success with the joke is to stretch out the setup. That means turning on the firehose during the act description, letting that part of the brain that is somehow both the most depraved and the most creative run rampant for as long as possible. However, as Carlin demonstrates, the devil (in this case probably pretty literally—some versions of The Aristocrats make us question whether the teller is possessed or not) is not in length - it's in the details.
His take covers all of the usual ground: a tiny bit of kinky sexiness, but mostly excrement, bodily fluids, things going in and things coming out of nearly every bodily orifice. It resembles Amazon Prime - in that it really has it all. Carlin cranks out a full minute of pure unadulterated filth.
But during all that there are tons of very specific details. Here’s a quick list: “Medicine, gargling, it’s mostly liquid, eaten a lot of cabbages, corn, diuretic thing, hit her mouth pretty well, polyp.” All of those things make his version much funnier than just a general “yeah my family comes out on stage and we take a dump everywhere.” An apex-level comedian like George Carlin tells you specifically where on stage they take a dump, and that where is funny.
Liebman makes this list because she, quite ingeniously, flips the joke around and makes the punchline funny again.
Like any comedian worth their stripes and jangly, clinky comedy medals, Liebman makes The Aristocrats totally hers.
At her point point in the documentary, the audience is quite used to the filth, filth, filth setup then “The Aristocrats!” punchline construction of the joke. Liebman dispenses with that. Instead, her version features an unironically family friendly act setup, and the punchline once again juxtaposes against it, but in the opposite way; it is a new punchline, one disgusting and unrefined in comparison to the high-class dinner party described in the act.
Really, it’s the exact right, rebooted version of the joke needed after multitudes of the same thing, and in addition, her delivery is spectacular.
Here we have perhaps the most controversial and famous version of the joke from the documentary:
Silverman’s take is fantastic for two reasons: first, like Liebman, she re-spins the premise of the joke. But In her telling, Siverman was one of The Aristocrats as a kid, and second, her deadpan, nonchalant delivery is a windmill dunk.
Switching The Aristocrats' POV (in a clever and competent first person way) reworks a tired premise into something funny again = hearing the joke from the of one of the kid's perspective years later adds a completely different, creepy-gonzo dimension to the humor.
The idea that this kid was like "yeah, we used to get up on stage and poop this and that and do the sex to each other, NBD" is definitely a different dimension. And her deadpan delivery makes it even funnier, because as we’ve written about before, deadpan is spectacular when done expertly.
Last but not least, is the late Taylor Negron, who, like the previous two tellers, changes the premise slightly.
Negron’s version sort of combines many elements that made previous versions of the joke so great: he’s got details like Carlin, the nonchalance of Silverman, and Liebman's different angle. Depraved sex is very standard issue for this joke, but he keeps his segment fresh by making sex observations about society and himself, writ-large.
This part isn't so much a telling of the joke as it is a pre-telling of the joke, foaming the runway for the plane crash, which inevitably comes when he tells the actual joke. So, within the confines of the documentary, he’s transgressing on the already transgressive nature of the joke by using an approach none of the other featured comedians used, exactly. Very meta, Taylor!
This question is pretty subjective, right? By what standard are we deciding who won? Best traditional take on the joke? Probably Carlin. Most meta take? Negron. Most unique? Probably Silverman.
There just will not be consensus. In fact, most of you would probably have picked a different top five. But I am writing this and personally, Liebman is up there. My editor might pick Carlin, (Actually, it'd be The Onion's segment in the doc. -Ed) or the honorable mention of either Saget or Gottfried. You, dear reader, might like George the Mime’s take the best.
Regardless, I posed the question, so here's my answer. The winner of “The Aristocrats” is … Sarah Silverman, for most unique take. Well done, Sarah.
Some final thoughts about how this joke fits into the 2020s landscape: Throughout the documentary, many of the interview subjects noted that the content of the joke changes with time. Sure, most versions are still disgusting, but quite honestly, it's nothing most of us haven’t heard before. In fact, to any fan of darker humor or gross out humor, it’s probably pretty run of the mill.
Put another way: a bawdy telling of The Aristocrats doesn't shock anyone other than grandparents these days. So, dear readers, our final question for you to ponder is: has this joke become obsolete? Or are there yet more boundaries for the filthiest of us to cross?
Top image: Mighty Cheese Productions