In the wake of 9/11, the entertainment community – and realistically the entire world as a whole – was starting the process of piecing itself back together to figure out how to recover from such a horrible tragedy. Much like the situation we’ve found ourselves in within the last year, there is no blueprint for how to go about doing so. It’s all about trial and error.
Around two weeks after the attacks, one of the first big comedy events held in New York City was the Friar’s Club Roast of Hugh Hefner. Throughout the night, as funny as it was, there was also an air of hesitation. There was still a massive white elephant in the room that hadn’t yet been addressed. That all changed when Gilbert Gottfried got up to the stand to begin what has been described by many as a career defining moment.
Upon taking his spot at the mic, he announces to the crowd that he wants to go by his Muslim name, “Hasn’t-Been-Laid.” A funny joke to break the ice, followed by some more jokes far too dirty to be aired on TV. About a few minutes into his set, Gilbert took the plunge and risked it all by addressing the situation.
“I have to catch a flight to California,” he told the crowd. “I can’t get a direct flight. They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”
There were gasps mixed in with scattered laughter. Gottfried has stated in interviews that one person even yelled out “Too soon,” which at the time, he took to meant that he didn’t take a long enough pause before delivering the punchline. With nowhere else to go and nothing planned, he grabbed hold of the podium and started telling an old anti-joke that was traded among comics at the time called The Aristrocrats.
The joke’s conceit is basically to be as foul and profane as humanly possibly. It starts with a family walking into a talent agency and pitching a new kind of an act. When the talent agent asks “What kind of an act do you do,” that’s when the joke starts to take shape. The next 2-5 minutes (depending on who is telling the joke) features just about every curse word and sexual act under the sun, with the dad having sex with the daughter, the son having sex with the mom, a dog thrown in there for comedic effect, and so forth. At the end, the talent agent says “That’s an interesting act. What do you call it?” And the family throws their hands in the air and proclaims “The Aristrocrats!”
By the time Gottfried got to the punchline, the crowd was his. He took an uncomfortable moment and topped it with something almost equally as uncomfortable. Gottfried’s set was a hit, and a few years later, the joke even became the subject of an entire documentary, titled The Aristrocrats.
But the funny thing is, up until the release of Gottfried’s documentary in 2017, nobody had seen the joke as it was never broadcast on TV when the roast eventually aired on Comedy Central.
“The funny part about it is, they’ve never shown the whole roast,” Gottfried told us over the phone back in 2017 when he was promoting the documentary. “And in a way, I’m kind of happy that they’ve never shown the whole roast, because I’m afraid of that ruining the legend. Because nothing could live up to it.”
“It’s like when something hasn’t been seen, it does become big. When it’s kept away from people, it drives them a little crazy,” he said with a laugh.
He continues, “At first I was kind of hoping they’d see it, but then more and more people talked about it and I always bring it up, now I think ‘Let’s just keep it in legendary world.’”
And now, here we are 20 years later, and we’re still talking about that singular joke that not only helped define Gottfried’s career as a comic who takes things to the edge, but also became one of the first 9/11 jokes that got people talking. Since then, the word “too soon” has been tossed around so many times that it’s now apart of our lexicon. So who’s to say what the next 20 years are going to look like. Only time will tell.