The New York Times’ Frank Rich writes about “The Greatest Dirty Joke Ever Told,” an absolute must-read column on so many levels. Rich recounts a Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner, just two-and-a-half weeks after 9/11.
The ensuing avalanche of Viagra jokes did not pull off the miracle of making everyone in the room forget the recent events. Restlessness had long since set in when the last comic on the bill, Gilbert Gottfried, took the stage. Mr. Gottfried, decked out in preposterously ill-fitting formal wear, has a manic voice so shrill he makes Jerry Lewis sound like Morgan Freeman. He grabbed the podium for dear life and started rocking back and forth like a hyperactive teenager trapped onstage in a school assembly. Soon he delivered what may have been the first public 9/11 gag: He couldn’t get a direct flight to California, he said, because “they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”
There were boos, but Mr. Gottfried moved right along to his act’s crowning joke. “A talent agent is sitting in his office,” he began. “A family walks in – a man, woman, two kids, and their little dog. And the talent agent goes, ‘What kind of an act do you do?’ ” What followed was a marathon description of a vaudeville routine featuring incest, bestiality and almost every conceivable bodily function. The agent asks the couple the name of their unusual act, and their answer is the punch line: “The Aristocrats.”
As the mass exodus began, some people were laughing, others were appalled, and perhaps a majority of us were in the middle. We knew we had seen something remarkable, not because the joke was so funny but because it had served as shock therapy, harmless shock therapy for an adult audience, that at least temporarily relieved us of our burdens and jolted us back into the land of the living again. Some weeks later Comedy Central would cut the bit entirely from its cable recycling of the roast. But in the more than three years since, I have often reflected upon Mr. Gottfried’s mesmerizing performance. At a terrible time it was an incongruous but welcome gift. He was inviting us to once again let loose.
Read the whole thing.