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Gilbert Gottfried’s aristocrats joke was part of a storied stand-up legacy

As news broke that comedian Gilbert Gottfried died following a “long illness,” Gottfried’s famous retelling of The Aristocrats, an infamously filthy joke, started making the rounds in honor of the funnyman.

Gottfried’s version of the joke was told at the Friars Club roast of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. The roast happened on September 29, 2001, nearly three weeks after the attacks of September 11. Gottfried made a joke about the attacks, which was greeted with boos and people shouting “too soon.”

In a 2016 piece for Vulture, Gottfried explained his rationale for the original 9/11 joke.

“I just wanted to be the first person to make a really-poor-taste joke about September 11. It was impromptu; I don’t remember thinking about it beforehand,” Gottfried wrote. “I don’t think anyone’s lost an audience bigger than I did at that point. They were booing and hissing.”

While that would have been nearly impossible to come back from for most comedians, Gottfried won the crowd over with a joke that had been going around in comedy circles for decades, but was rarely actually told on stage.

Though the basic joke is old, its framework allows comedians to just riff and get as in-depth as they want. The joke itself is very simple. In its most-basic form, a family goes to see a talent agent, performs their act—which is comprised of disgusting depravity—and once they finish, they ask the agent what he thought. The agent is shocked and asks what they call themselves. The answer from the proud family: The Aristocrats!

Gottfried’s version is much too dirty to quote here, but the audio of it can be found online. Though the show was filmed, Gottfried’s segment was edited for the telecast. The routine breaks nearly every taboo—particularly of the sexual variety—but the joke is so over-the-top, and given the subject of the roast, dirty jokes were the order of the evening.

Gilbert Gottfried, shown here at the 2017 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, told perhaps the most famous version of “The Aristocrats” at the Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner.
Rick Kern/Getty

The joke dates back to the vaudeville era, though typically only among comedians. Though there were versions of the joke told publicly—as early as 1975 in Rationale of the Dirty Joke by Gershon Legman—Gottfried’s version is the most famous and brought the joke into a wider consciousness.

Comedian Paul Provenza and magician Penn Jillette co-directed a 2005 documentary about the joke, appropriately titled The Aristocrats. In addition to detailing the history of the joke, including Gottfried’s part in making it famous, the film shows a number of different versions from famous names including Bob Saget, Sarah Silverman and even an animated version from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone featuring Eric Cartman telling it.

Though Gottfried hadn’t done the joke on stage prior to the roast, he told Vulture there was one other time he did tell it on stage.

“There was a club in Rochester that by law had to have a deaf interpreter onstage. I don’t do the Aristocrats that much, but I thought, ‘Holy s***, to be able to do the Aristocrats and be that gross, that disgusting, and that perverted, and have this woman act it out? Holy Christ, I have to.’ I immediately walked over to the deaf interpreter and said, ‘This family walks… ‘ By then, the audience went out of their minds, because they knew what was going to happen,” he said. “She acted out all of it, and I’ve got to say, I admired her greatly.”

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