How Gilbert Gottfried's Take On The World's Dirtiest Joke United Comedians After 9/11
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There's a time and a place to make dirty jokes. Although upon first glance, it may seem as though “the wake of a national tragedy” is not one of these aforementioned settings, Gilbert Gottfried singlehandedly proved that such couldn't be further from the truth, uniting the comedy world in laughter with the world's dirtiest joke less than three weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks.
On September 29, 2001, members of The Friars Club – a.k.a the comedy world's most exclusive gang -- gathered together in the ballroom at New York City's Hilton hotel for the roast of Hugh Hefner, Playboy's late founder. Sans a warning from Freddie Roman, the club's then dean, warning attendees to familiarize themselves with the venue's emergency exits just in case, the night seemed like a momentary return to normalcy. Sarah Silverman dubbed the Playboy bunnies – many of whom were sitting in the front row – as role models for daring to wax where the sun don't shine. Civil rights activist Dick Gregory decided to nearly forgo the roast part, praising Hefner for hiring Black Playboy bunnies in the early days of the Playboy Club – a move that earned him a standing ovation. Rob Schneider made a crack about how Hefner “personifies why these terrorists hate us,” a one which garnered “hesitant and restrained” laughter, as reporter Frank DiGiacomo put it. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Ross went for the obvious gags, ripping on Hefner for, well, being old and having a lot of sex. Then Gottfried, the last performer of the evening, took the stage.
At first, the beloved comic seemingly knocked it out of the park. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, the audience was in stitches as he detailed Hefner using erm, popsicle stick splints instead of Viagra pills, referred to the crowd as ‘white mother f—kers,' taking inspiration from Ice-T, who performed earlier that night, and “basically doing old f—king jokes and putting the person’s name in it." But roughly five minutes into the roast, Gottfried's set took a turn for the weird, the seasoned performer spectacularly losing the audience after boldly addressing the elephant in the room – cracking the night's most visceral 9/11 joke.
“I have to catch a flight to California,” Gottfried said. "I can’t get a direct flight, they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” Not even a month out from the attacks, the audience's laughter quickly soured into a chorus of boos and hisses as one member of the crowd allegedly even yelled “too soon." Almost immediately, Gottfried (an empath) seemingly realized he was in deep, deep trouble.
“I lost an audience bigger than anybody has ever lost an audience," he recalled in a 2019 interview with Vulture. Although the comic later joked that he took the aforementioned ‘too soon' heckle to mean that he “didn’t take a long enough pause between the setup and the punch line,” he says that alienating the crowd so abruptly with his 9/11 joke was akin to “floating through outer space.”
“I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio when he loses grip of that door at the end, and he’s going into the bottom of the frozen ocean,” he continued, referencing Titanic, everyone's favorite movie long enough to require two VHS tapes. “When I was up there, it was like, Well, I’m at the bottom level of hell, and this show seems pretty much over. And then that popped into my head, because I figured, Why not go to an even lower level of hell?”
The only thing lower than making an improperly timed joke about a national tragedy and the depths of hell? The Aristocrats.
Widely dubbed the dirtiest joke of all time, The Aristocrats is best described as an extremely depraved game of Mad Libs, an improv-ed bit centering around a family who makes their way in front of a talent agent and puts on, erm, the performance of a lifetime. Although what, exactly this performance entails varies from comic to comic, their act is always so vile and perverted, that even describing it in vague terms would plummet Cracked.com's rating from a sensible PG-13-ish to well, whatever the hell porn is rated. After watching this extremely graphic – and very, very illegal -- series of events, the talent agent has one question.
“What do you call yourselves?" he asks.
“The Aristocrats,” replies a family member, who may or may not be covered in several gross substances and/or have many newly-missing teeth.
With the entire Friars Club essentially at his throat, it seems at that moment Gottfried knew exactly what he needed to do. Although the comic says he was not planning on performing The Aristocrats that night – a joke he says he doesn't recall tellling in public before that point – he dove right in.
“Okay," Gottfried said in what has since become the iconic prelude to his take on the joke. "A talent agent is sitting in his office. A family walks in, man, woman, their two kids, and their little dog. The talent agent goes ‘what kind of an act do you do?’” he continued before delving into a graphic description of every disgusting thing you can possibly imagine. With his signature voice, his retelling ultimately left the crowd of comedy legends laughing, crying, and falling out of their seats – literally in the case of Rob Schneider.
"It was probably one of the best single tellings of a joke I've ever heard," said Jeff Ross.
"I was laughing because he was going so big with it, which I can't imagine Gilbert Gottfried doing,” Drew Carey joked.
"I'm sitting at a table and the comics were on the floor," remembered Lisa Lampanelli.
But even with this uproarious laughter, Gottfried's take on the bit seemingly ran deeper than just another funny joke.
“The laugh was so deep and cathartic that people were coughing up pieces of lung.” recalled reporter Frank DiGiacomo. “It was amazing. A lot of people watching him, or up on the dais, are all in comedy and it was as if he had united everybody in that one moment," he continued adding that "there was a sound in the audience that you really knew something was ‘happening,"
To this day, Gottfried maintains he doesn't know what compelled him to give that iconic, unifying, and apparently off-the-cuff performance that night. “Maybe I’m self-destructive, maybe I’m just plain stupid,” he recalled. “But if someone tells me don’t do something, then I want to do it.”
But it seems the answer spans beyond Gottfried's signature, squawking defiance, seemingly touching on his philosophy behind coping with tragedy. “I’ve always said tragedy and comedy are roommates," Gottfried explained. "Wherever tragedy’s around, comedy’s a few feet behind them sticking his tongue out and making obscene gestures. When you go to a funeral, the guy at the podium will say embarrassing stories about the guy in the box, and people will laugh. People lean over to the person sitting next to them with a smirk on their face, and the other person will hold their hands over their face like, Oh, I shouldn’t be laughing at this.”
With this high praise, Gottfried's take on The Aristocrats has morphed into one of comedy's most pervasive urban legends, one Gottfried says makes him glad the entire sketch has been largely kept under wraps.
"The funny part about it is, they’ve never shown the whole roast,” Gottfried told The Laugh Button while promoting his 2017 documentary, Gilbert. “And in a way, I’m kind of happy that they’ve never shown the whole roast, because I’m afraid of that ruining the legend. Because nothing could live up to it.”
But even if the entire joke was published for the world to see, we're sure it'd more than live up to its hype – if his rendition of The Aristocrats was funny enough to make Adam Sandler's right hand man literally tumble from his seat less than a month after 9/11, we're sure it'd strike a chord in our current hellhole.
Top Image: Comedy Central