Why Have a Night Like This In times Like These?’

Just weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Friars Club warily proceeded with its planned roast of Hugh Hefner, which included a classic telling of ‘The Aristocrats’ joke. The result? As Frank DiGiacomo reported, the laughter humanized an inhuman time.

On Saturday, Sept. 29, Freddie Roman, the dean of New York’s Friars Club, stood before audience members in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton and asked them to familiarize themselves with the fire exits.

Then, because he’d said that “these are very different times for us all,” he attempted to answer a question that people had been asking him. Mr. Roman’s Vulcanesque eyes and brows scanned the audience before him. The question sounded a little like something that would be asked at Passover. “Why have a night like this in times like these?”

Mr. Roman was referring to the Friars Roast, the club’s yearly ritual of profane humor and insult that was about to get underway with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner in the hot seat.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on New York, the Friars organization and Comedy Central, the cable network that, for the last three years, has taped and televised an expurgated version of the roast (this one will debut on Nov. 4), had, after some debate, decided to go ahead with the event. “It’s time we get back to normal, like Mayor Giuliani and President Bush have asked,” Mr. Roman said. “And for the Friars, this is normal. Telling dirty jokes, making fun of people. That’s what we do, and we’re proud to do it for you,” he said. “So you can get some laughter back in your life and into your hearts.”

While the crowd waited for the cameras to start rolling, Mr. Roman eased into the task at hand.

“A couple married 48 years. Wife takes sick and passes away. Funeral at the Riverside, 78th and Broadway,” Mr. Roman said. “After the service, the pallbearers pick up the coffin. As they’re leaving the building, the coffin hits the wall.” From inside the coffin, he said, the woman’s voice could be heard.

“They open the coffin–it’s a miracle,” he said. “She stays married for another two years. Gets sick, passes away again. After the service, the pallbearers lift the coffin. As they start to leave, the husband yells, ‘Watch out for the wall!’”

The laughter sounded grateful. Mr. Roman got the high sign to introduce Mr. Hefner. A small group of Playmates led the flesh magnate–who looked frighteningly robust and wrinkle-free for a man in his 70’s–to the big red swivel chair on the stage.

Behind Mr. Hefner, stretching out like the wings of a B-52 bomber, was the event’s dais, a roster that only the Friars could put together: actors Danny Aiello, Keith David, Vincent Pastore and The Sopranos’ Joe Pantoliano in a newsboy’s cap; MTV personality Carson Daly, looking lost; mentalist the Amazing Kreskin, artist LeRoy Neiman, developer Donald Trump; actress Diane Farr and Dr. Joyce Brothers; comedian Dick Capri, former kidnap victim Patricia Hearst, onetime Playboy pictorial subject Kylie Bax and makeup-less Kiss member Ace Frehley.

Friar Club’s Abbot Alan King’s eyes shone in the spotlight.

“The Friars have an age-old motto,” Mr. King said. “‘We only roast the ones we love.’ Tonight, we give lie to that bullshit.”

His gaze shifted to Mr. Hefner, in mid-chuckle. “Not only don’t I love him, I never met this putz before in my life: Hugh Hefner, who likes to be called Hef–but in Hebrew, spelled backwards, it’s Feh!”

Our “leaders kept telling us,” Mr. King said, “we must get on with our lives, and laughter is a very important part of our lives. And who better to laugh at than our guest of honor,” a man “who made jacking off a national pastime.” A guy who “has smelt more beaver than a furrier. A man who makes Donald Trump look like Elie Wiesel. A man who thinks the early-bird special is eating pussy before 6 o’clock.”

Mr. King stared down the crowd. “Who better?” he said.

Yes, who better to ease this crowd back to its favorite blood sport than Mr. Hefner, a man whose soul had escaped his body decades ago via his vas deferens? The Friars weren’t roasting a man, they were roasting an abstraction: a square-jawed, silk-robed symbol of American priapism, who, at 75, wanted us to believe that he was bedding down nightly with more than a half-dozen human equivalents of Jessica Rabbit.

For a city that had crossed its pain threshold weeks ago, Mr. Hefner was a fortunate choice. It’s hard to eviscerate a man whose only innards are a hyperdeveloped reproductive system, and who, up there onstage, looked as burnished and ageless as a publicity still, emitting his affectless, Teflon chuckle.

The table of Mr. Hefner’s alleged paramours and Playboy Playmates seemed to have been placed strategically in front of the podium as a symbol of what was at stake should any joker go too far. At the Comedy Central after-party at Beacon restaurant, comedian Jeffrey Ross agreed that some comedians had pulled their punch lines when it came to Mr. Hefner. “I’ll tell you why,” said Mr. Ross, who was wearing a bow tie that Buddy Hackett had given to him. “Because they’re afraid they won’t get invited to the mansion. They were all backstage going, ‘I know it’s funny, but do you think this will piss him off?’”

The roastmaster of the evening was Jimmy Kimmel, co-star of Comedy Central’s The Man Show. “I could go on and on,” said Mr. Kimmel, “but what could you say about Hef that hasn’t already been mumbled incoherently by a thousand young women with his cock in their mouths? I’ve read just about every issue of Playboy since I was 15 years old,” Mr. Kimmel continued. “Not once did I ever see a Playmate say one of her turn-ons was fucking a 75-year-old man.”

Rob Schneider, whom Mr. Kimmel said “is so short he doesn’t even have to bend over to kiss Adam Sandler’s ass,” was the first roaster on the podium. Mr. Schneider told the crowd, “We’re here tonight to honor a man who personifies why these terrorists hate us. If it were up to them, women couldn’t read, couldn’t work, get fake tits, go to school, pose nude to help their career. Hugh Hefner believes that women should be able to do all those things–except read.”

Mr. Schneider was the first comic of the night to approach the topic that was foremost in everyone’s thoughts. The laughter seemed hesitant and restrained. Jeffrey Ross went up to the podium. “Hasn’t there been enough bombing in this city?” he said into the microphone. “Ooooooooooooh!” the crowd erupted.

Mr. Ross was up next. The Buddy Hackett bow tie seemed to be working. “My good friend Abe Vigoda’s here,” Mr. Ross said. “Last week, Abe tried to enlist in Old Navy.” Mr. Ross looked over at Mr. Vigoda. “Abe, enough getting old. Just fuckin’ die already, all right?”

Eventually, Mr. Ross got around to Mr. Hefner.

“Hef has fondled more playmates than Michael Jackson,” Mr. Ross said, which got him a big laugh. “Personally, I think it’s awesome, awesome that you sleep with seven women,” he told Mr. Hefner, “because eight would be ostentatious.” And then the comic explained the real reason that so many women were required: “You know, one to put it in, and the other six to move you around.”

Sarah Silverman, in a stylish black number, replaced Mr. Ross at the podium. “Jimmy Kimmel, everyone,” she said to the crowd after Mr. Kimmel introduced her. “He’s fat and has no charisma. Watch your back, Danny Aiello!”

The crowd loved that one, and Ms. Silverman, who was the only woman to roast Mr. Hefner, proceeded to lay waste to a few more of the men on the dais. She told Mr. King that a nursing home in Florida had just called. “The last person who thinks you’re funny just died.” And gazing at the gray-bearded face of Dick Gregory, she said: “Is he the guy from the rice or the cookies?

“Well, let’s talk about the whores–the Bunnies,” she continued.

“I think they should be role models in society–if only for the fact that they wax their assholes.” Later, The Transom asked Playmate Michelle Winchester what her fellow Playmates had thought of that particular joke. She replied with a smile: “Actually, that’s true!”

Ice-T made his second speaking appearance at a Friars Roast. “I just wanna rob all you white motherfuckers. And for some reason I don’t, and it fascinates you,” he told the crowd, which gave him a healthy laugh just in case he was serious. But there seemed to be some confusion in the crowd over whether his line that Mr. Hefner’s “dick is busier than an orthodontist in fucking Japan right now” was actually funny.

The civil-rights activist and nutritionist Dick Gregory told a couple of jokes. “Black folks,” he said, “know this is a great nation” because of the success of Michael Jackson. “Where else can a poor black boy be born in utter poverty in Gary, Ind., and end up being a rich white man?” Mr. Gregory said.

But Mr. Gregory had come to praise Mr. Hefner, not roast him. He cited Mr. Hefner’s courage for hiring black entertainers to work the Playboy Club when no one else would. And then he delivered an inspirational speech about New York and the United States.

“Fear and God do not occupy the same space,” Mr. Gregory told the crowd. “If you stop and think about what makes America great, it’s not soldiers–it’s the firemen that left home this morning and intended to come back tonight and ran into a building when everybody else was running out.”

The crowd gave Mr. Gregory a standing ovation, but the quick-thinking Mr. Kimmel steered the event back to its profane moorings. “So anyway,” he said, “I was reading your magazine the other day,” and he described what he was doing while he was reading. The crowd exploded with laughter. “Someone forgot to tell Dick this was a roast,” Mr. Kimmel said, adding: “Boy, does that make me feel like a piece of shit.”

Gilbert Gottfried was the last man up to the podium. In his $11 gray shawl-collar tuxedo jacket with tails, black bow tie and Caesar haircut, Mr. Gottfried looked like he had just come from band practice.

Mr. Gottfried grasped the podium with both hands and, squinting out at the audience, he began the screeching parrot-like delivery that is his trademark.

“Ice-T did my whole act,” he said. “So I’ll do it anyway: I’m going to follow you white motherfuckers home and rape you fucking white bitches.” Mr. Gottfried paused while the crowd convulsed. “You see, it’s such a strong bit it still works,” he said.

“Dick Gregory did the rest of my act,” he continued. “I want to say–a lot of you young people don’t know, but years ago, Jews were not allowed in comedy!”

Then Mr. Gottfried started in on Mr. Hefner. “Hugh Hefner doesn’t need Viagra. He needs cement! He needs to take ice-cream sticks and tape it around his dick and use it as a splint!” Mr. Gottfried screamed. “But in all fairness to Hefner, he really had to fight for free speech, so we could say things we couldn’t say before. Like: ‘Die, you senile old bastard! Die!’”

Mr. Gottfried was killing. It was time to push the envelope.

“Tonight I’ll be using my Muslim name, Hasn’t Been Laid,” he said. This got a big laugh. Then Mr. Gottfried began a routine that had worked extremely well for him at the Richard Belzer roast.

“A woman is on her deathbed,” Mr. Gottfried said. “The husband is sitting at the corner of the bed. Her hair’s all dried out. Her skin’s all white. All of a sudden, she goes, ‘Please, honey …. ’” Mr. Gottfried described the woman’s verboten sexual request.

The comedian paused. Some of the audience members were looking around.

“This is a clean one,” he said. The husband complies and, Mr. Gottfried said, “the color returns to her skin; her hair looks healthy. She jumps up in bed. She’s sexier and healthier than she ever was before. She looks down. Her husband’s sitting at the corner of the bed, crying. She goes, ‘What’s the matter?’”

Mr. Gottfried waited a millisecond. “He goes, ‘I could have saved my father!’”

The laughter came in gasps. There were gurgling sounds in the air and people hung doubled over, sucking air through hoarse throats.

The man in the gray tuxedo jacket looked out over the crowd. “I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight,” Mr. Gottfried said. “They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”

There was a silence. Then hissing and hooting flooded forward.

“Too soon,” a man could be heard saying in the back of the ballroom.

When the booing started, Mr. Gottfried responded: “Awwwwwww, what the fuck do you care?” Silence fell once more.

Mr. Gottfried had his answer. Up on the podium, he began making strange movements with his arms, as if he was working some sort of invisible machine that could take him back in time to the moment right before he had pushed too far. Seconds passed.

“O.K.,” he continued. His voice was not so loud.

“A talent agent is sitting in his office. A family walks in. A man, woman, two kids, their little dog, and the talent agent goes, ‘What kind of an act do you do?’”

At the father’s signal, Mr. Gottfried said, the family disrobes en masse. “The father starts fucking his wife,” he said. “The wife starts jerking off the son. The son starts going down on the sister. The sister starts fingering the dog’s asshole.” Mr. Gottfried’s voice was growing stronger. “Then the son starts blowing his father.”

The Hilton’s ballroom filled with the sounds of sudden exhalations. The comedians on the dais were bug-eyed with laughter and recognition. Some of the men had dropped to all fours. Mr. Gottfried was beaming.

“Want me to start at the beginning?” he asked.

He kept going, turning the joke into an extended bacchanal of bodily fluids, excrement, bestiality and sexual deviance. Mr. Gottfried plumbed the darkest crevices he could find. He riffed and riffed until people in the audience were coughing and sputtering and sucking in great big gulps of air.

Tears ran throughout the Hilton ballroom, as if Mr. Gottfried had performed a collective tracheotomy on the audience, delivering oxygen and laughter past the grief and ash that had blocked their passageways.

Then he brought it home.

“The talent agent says, ‘Well, that’s an interesting act. What do you call yourselves?’“

Mr. Gottfried threw up his hands. “And they go, ‘The Aristocrats!’”

There was a sound in the room that went beyond laughter.

Mr. Gottfried had gone to “The Aristocrats,” the comedy equivalent of the B-flat below high C that Leontyne Price had sung at Carnegie Hall on Sunday. “The Aristocrats” is one of the definitive inside jokes among comedians. It is so definitive that comic Paul Provenza and performance artist Penn Jillette are making a digital documentary about the joke. “Every comic makes it their own,” Mr. Provenza said. “The set-up is the same and the punch line is the same,” but the comic puts his or her “own stamp” on the material in between.

Mr. Gottfried had used it to save himself, but also to lift the crowd to another place.

A few minutes later, Alan King paid him a high compliment.

“Forgive me,” he said. “I’m just still a little touched by that asshole Gottfried.”