Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Aristocrats

There’s an old vaudevillian joke known as The Aristocrats. You might have heard of it; it’s the subject of a documentary by the same name that’s currently showing in theatres. It was an infamous in-joke that generations of comedians swapped backstage to entertain each other; it wasn’t performed for the general public. The set-up and punchline are always the same, but the middle is a shaggy dog story whose details differ with every telling. The premise is that a family walks into a talent agency’s office. “Have we got the act for you,” they say. “What do you do?” asks the talent scout. The family describes their act, which consists of the most shocking, disgusting acts the teller of the joke can imagine, almost always involving lengthy, graphic descriptions of incest, bestiality, scatology, abortions, and so on, an extemporaneous free jazz session of the obscene and profane. Performances of The Aristocrats are like snowflakes in that no two are identical, but like slush in that they’re invariably filthy, disgusting, and fit for the gutter. Eventually, the talent scout gasps, “That’s some act! What do you call it?” The answer: “The Aristocrats!”

What brought The Aristocrats into the public consciousness was Gilbert Gottfried. To most of us, he’s just that squinty guy with the irritating voice. To fellow comedians, he’s a legend. Here’s why: Gottfried was performing at a Friar’s Roast for Hugh Hefner and forgot to carry a number in the old equation that states that comedy equals tragedy plus time. That is, he made a 9/11 joke way too soon after the fact, and it crashed and burned worse than … well, you know. A lesser man would have evaporated in a shower burst of flop sweat. Gottfried went another way. He switched gears and, before an already-offended audience, launched into an epic telling of The Aristocrats to top all others, the public debut of the world’s dirtiest joke, and the dirtiest version of it ever told. Mouths dropped open in shock. Jesus, thought the other comics, agog with amazement. He’s going for it!

He brought the house down.

This is seen by other professional comedians as a stroke of genius, a feat of legend that prompted the making of a documentary chronicling a hundred comedians’ hundred different versions of the same joke. I see it as a potentially very useful tactic to be emulated. I’m sure we’ve all been in the situation where you find yourself telling a story and suddenly realizing in the middle that it is entirely inappropriate to the audience at hand. Most times, you’d probably just break off awkwardly and mumble that it wasn’t a really good story anyway. The way I see it, you might as well just plough on to the end, pull out all the stops, and really go for broke. Spare no detail. Make it as offensive as possible. Then suddenly leap down upon one knee, arms outstretched in an Al Jolson flourish, and exclaim with a broad, hammy grin, “And what was the name of this act? The Aristocrats!” With luck, your audience will just appreciate it as your particular version of the age-old vaudevillian joke.

It might have worked in one situation I had recently: I was recently telling a nice young lady via e-mail about an old friend of mine from university who is, as they say, quite a character. By way of explanation of what a character this friend is, I mentioned that she and her best friend, my ex-girlfriend, were the perpetrators of a practical joke that was indirectly responsible for my being banned from my friend’s wedding party years later. Well, naturally, her curiosity was piqued. And I realized then that I just absolutely could not tell her that story. Not, at least, until we knew each other much better, and even then, it would have to be told in person so I could have the ejection seat option of aborting the narrative the instant I realized it wasn’t going over well. You just can’t do that in an e-mail. So I demurred. “No fair!” she protested. “You can’t just drop that kind of reference and not follow through.”

And of course she’s right, so here’s the story.

Let’s go back about, oh, eight years ago, it must have been. My friend was dating this girl, and while she’s a fine, upstanding person, at that time, I really had no reason to believe they were going to make a go of it. Certainly, there was no way you could have convinced me they’d get married. So I didn’t really censor myself around her, and lo, when it came to pass that they did in fact make preparations to get married about three years ago, it then came out that, although I’d long forgotten the incident myself, I’d told her a story that offended her so greatly that she still nursed a quiet, burning hatred for me five years later.

And here’s that story.

One night, about ten years ago, I was sitting around in my apartment when I heard a knock on the door. I answered, but no one was there. From the stairwell, I heard scampering footsteps and giggling. I looked down to see a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, with a message written on its belly in magic marker. Rape Me, it read, with a scrawled arrow pointing down to its vagina.

I should clarify here that this was a baby doll I’m talking about. Over the years, I have occasionally told this story and just said, “So I opened the door and there was a baby there with Rape Me written on it in magic marker,” without making this clarification, and people were aghast. “You did this to a baby?!” they would gasp in horror as the story progressed and got gradually more terrible. So yes, it was in fact a baby doll, which makes a huge difference, not that it exonerates anyone involved of very tasteless behaviour.

Instantly, I realized who the culprits were. This was a horrible, tasteless prank, the product of a truly sick sense of humour, and this was exactly what I loved about my ex-girlfriend and her best friend. Let it not be said that I do not rise to a challenge. I couldn’t let this one go. So I brought the babe inside. And with the help of my two housemates, I whipped up a frothy batch of a mayonnaise/egg white concoction. I wiped the ersatz semen all over the child, attached a note that read “All done”, and then dropped it off on the girls’ doorstep, knocking, giggling, and scampering away. Some time later, I got a phone call from the girls, who conceded in awe to having been one-upped, and much merriment ensued.

I should point out that I do not actually find the idea of babies – or anyone – being raped to be funny. Yes, I did in fact used to participate in online chat rooms under the pseudonym “I Rape Babies” (which was based, incidentally, on the very first thing a very drunken classmate at Queen’s University said to me after being elected AMS President with the understanding that it was on the record to be published in the school newspaper), but the hilarity therein was derived from the sheer number of outraged people online who immediately jumped to the conclusion that anyone who posted under that handle surely did in fact rape babies. After all, who would lie on the Internet? In a similar vein, I would also attempt to have polite, reasonable conversations under the name “Ultragay”. No matter how inoffensive I was, people would immediately start hurling abuse like OMG UR A FAG!!!!1!!! I like to think the joke was on them.

But on the other hand, I was obviously a little immature back then myself. Let’s face it: I participated in a practical joke based upon the idea of sexually abusing an infant. Moreover, I had the bad taste to tell someone about it whom I didn’t know very well. And if I had known my friend’s future wife better, I would probably have known that this kind of story just would not have been perceived as very amusing by someone who worked in a rape crisis centre. How could this possibly have gone over any worse? Well, I suppose I could have told her, a devout Catholic, what my ex-girlfriend (a lapsed Catholic herself) recently revealed to me: that the doll was actually intended to represent the Christ child. So I, in fact, symbolically raped the baby Jesus.

And what was the name of this act? The Aristocrats!

3 Comments:

Blogger TinaPoPo said...

That may be the funniest story I've ever heard. Offensive or not.

8/24/2005 03:11:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

Thanks. Of course, that means it's all downhill from here.

8/25/2005 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger SamuraiFrog said...

You. Are. A. God.

My hat off to you, sir. In my 29 years of life I have yet to offend so many in such a cavalier way. Oh, I have tried, yes, but to have something this good in the antisocial arsenal...

You magnificent bastard!

8/27/2005 04:20:00 PM  

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