The Aristocrats

In his book, Anthology on Black Humor, André Brenton coined the term Black Humor while describing the work of Jonathan Swift. This was used to describe black humor when a victim who’s suffering is trivialized, or who’s situation is made fun of. However, I feel like today’s definition of the word has spun into a darker tone; something along the lines of Louie C.K. pedophilia joke in his SNL monologue. So this had me recall “The Aristocrats.”

Also known sometimes as The Debonaires or The Sophisticates, The Aristocrats is a joke with roots in the vaudevillian era. I personally, do not like this joke, but it is a perfect example of another take on black/dark/gallows humor.

For those who aren’t familiar, The Aristocrats has a simple premise. You generally have to talk about a family of performers (mom, dad, son, daughter, and sometimes dog, additional members are welcome), and describe their performance in any way that you desire though the goal is usually to ad lib and cover as many extreme/taboo situations as possible–preferably without repetition; as wikipedia so eloquently puts it “Taboo acts such as incest, rape, child sexual abuse, coprophilia, coprophagia, bestiality, necrophilia and murder are common themes.” This all leads to the punchline of what this family calls the act. The answer? The Aristocrats.

I haven’t really heard this joke being told by friends in passing, but I think this can be tied into the kind of humor that results in the Dead Baby Jokes (or maybe even some dark anti-jokes) that many of us are probably familiar with.

The thing about this joke is that anything can happen, absolutely anything. And it can go on as long as you want it to. The more vulgar and horrid the acts described, the bigger the juxtaposition of the title is and therefore the bigger are the laughs. There are definitely carnivalesque elements described with some of the scatological humor and so on, but I do think this joke is more of the black comedy genre because it’s goal is to push the envelope and be more and more uncomfortable and difficult to listen to.

Like I said, I don’t care for this joke, even though I am a fan of dark humor (particularly in situational comedy); but it is a joke that has inspired and influenced many of our modern comedians, whether we see it in their work or not.

In case you want to watch 3.5 hours of famous comedians telling their version of the joke:


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