The Aristocrats (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. Throughout its long history, it has evolved from a clichÃ©d staple of vaudevillian humor into a postmodern anti-joke.
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 thought of as a badge of honor among expert comedians and is notoriously hard to perform successfully.
It is rarely told the same way twice, often improvised, and was the subject of a 2005 documentary film of the same name.
This joke almost always has these elementsâ€”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 violence, incest, rape, pedophilia, coprophilia, bestiality, and murder are common themes.
- The punchline may be modified in some variants, but generally such variants are told only in a context in which 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".
- The humor of the punch line is in the contrast between the abject horror of the scene described with the unexpectedly noble title "The Aristocrats".
- Some versions of the punchline contain the set-up line "What the heck do you call an act like that?" followed by the punchline "I call it 'The Aristocrats'." The added set-up value of this version of the joke, in which the pitchman misunderstands the meaning of the phrase "What the heck do you call [that]?" as a request for information, when it is in fact meant to be an expression of incredulity or bewilderment, is lost in other tellings of the joke, with the simpler but less sensible question asked by the agent: "What do you call your act?"