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Comedy Goes Down The Toilet

I enjoyed The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and The Hangover more than I expected to, given my wariness about raunchy comedy. But there’s been a dramatic tilt toward toilet humor in this summer’s movie fare—and I mean that literally.

In the opening scene of The Change-Up, a baby actually covers Jason Bateman’s face in feces. Later, his wife (Leslie Mann) unburdens herself in the bathroom, with vivid sounds accompanying the moment. In Bridesmaids, the title characters get food poisoning, which leads to a bout of vomiting and, for Maya Rudolph, an urgent need to defecate in a wedding dress. In Bad Teacher, Cameron Diaz’s principal is pursued by a pushy female teacher while he’s sitting on the toilet in the school lavatory—with a loud sound effect capping off the scene. And in Friends With Benefits there is a fair amount of conversation about—

—bodily functions—including a recurring reference to Justin Timberlake not “fouling the bed” in his new job. Only they don’t say “fouling.” In this coming weekend’s comedy 30 Minutes or Less, two low-lifes come to kidnap Jesse Eisenberg’s girlfriend while she’s sitting—where else?—on the loo.

Some critics and pundits are applauding the success of Bridesmaids because it has empowered women to behave just as badly as men onscreen. I’m not sure how much of a victory that is. (A recent Los Angeles Times story on this very subject, by Rebecca Keegan, is headlined Equal Opportunity to behave like a Slob: women in summer comedies are belching, swearing, and bed-hopping. Is this progress?)

When Mel Brooks staged his infamous campfire sequence in Blazing Saddles in 1973, it caused hilarity because it was so utterly outrageous—and so perfectly timed. No one had done anything remotely like it before. The scene remains uproarious, but Brooks never felt the need to revisit the gag. That has been left to others of lesser talent who have mined it endlessly ever since.

Perhaps because Hollywood shied away from R-rated comedies for such a long time—until a few box-office hits turned the tide—producers, directors and writers are now acting like children who have suddenly been given permission to curse. And since every film wants to top the previous one in its genre, all bets are off when it comes to that elusive quality known as good taste.

Comedy has always confronted this issue. Charlie Chaplin’s earliest films feature a Little Tramp who was much cruder than the endearing character people love and remember. Yet it was precisely those comedies that made him a sensation—not just with critics but with the hoi polloi, including immigrants and working-class people who rooted for the often-uncouth comic figure who dared to kick a cop in the seat of the pants and openly flirt with women in the park.

When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait for the new Jerry Lewis movie to arrive at my local theater; I loved his overgrown-child persona and the gags he created. Jerry was never considered polite or proper—and that was part of his appeal. I eagerly devoured a daily dose of The Three Stooges on TV. They, too, were considered coarse, but I (and millions of others) enjoyed them because they were the ultimate outsiders who didn’t fit in—and expressed themselves through outlandish slapstick.

Yet because of conventions of the period, neither Jerry nor the Stooges could cross certain lines. They were subject to the same standards as dramatic films of the period where nudity, sex, graphic violence, and swearing were absolutely verboten. Everything in a script was subject to inspection by the industry’s censors, who dictated matters of propriety until the Production Code was dismantled in the late 1960s.

With no one left to arbitrarily determine what’s appropriate, it’s up to the filmmakers to gauge what people will accept and find funny. But how does anyone really know?

Ricky Gervais does a guest turn on an episode of Louis C.K.'s Louie seen on FX.

I don’t believe that everybody embraces The New Vulgarity, but no one wants to be the naysayer—or prude—who voices objections when friends find something funny. The box-office success of movies like The Hangover changed the playing field for what is widely considered “the norm,” and that’s what worries me. We’re expected to accept a much higher level of raunchiness than moviegoers did just a few years ago…and I don’t think there’s any turning back.

As a late-blooming fan of Louis C.K., whose weekly series Louie on FX is pushing the envelope for television comedy, I find myself being persuaded that breaking taboos can be a healthy thing. But Louis C.K. is a very smart guy who doesn’t use shock value just for its own sake. His show is great because he’s thoughtful and sharply observant, as well as funny.

And that’s what it all boils down to, for me. I was raised in a different time, with different values than the ones that prevail today, in real life as well as in the movies. But I’m still learning and growing as a person, and I’m ready to laugh at anything that strikes me funny: Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, The Three Stooges, Mel Brooks, or The Hangover. Just don’t tell me that poop jokes are the height of screen comedy.

14 comments

  1. EDS says:

    Go watch a Kate Hudon movie then (becuse THEY'RE so hilarious!), you fairy…

  2. by phil august 8 2011 says:

    just a quick note to james [august 8,2011.] why dont you lighten up and climb off your high horse and give an average guy like dan a break who’s trying to express an opinion just like a lot of us out here asshole! if we want a grammar policeman we’ll watch reruns of mr. rodgers,you jerkoff!!

  3. by phil on august 29, 2011 says:

    Could’nt agree more about the toilet humor overuse, any overuse of a comedy gag is somewhere betwen the three stooges and some really bad abott and costello!itt to bad enough i have to listen to myself let alone my 90year old uncle fred, do i really need to listen to of all people leslie mann.good god i can only hope she finds herself stranded one day without a roll. the real shocker for me was Anderson Cooper ,one of my favorites gigling like a 12 year old at summer camp recently,over a string of neverending urination .jokes on a airline flight. i’ll let it go only because i’m a fan of andersons ,however it knocked him down a peg in my eyes.dont quite think i’ll getover that one for some time.it never ceases to amaze!!!

  4. Jim Reinecke says:

    Many moons ago, the celebrated iconoclast from Baltimore, H.L. Mencken made the statement that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public”. If Mr. Mencken were alive today (and wouldn’t that be a break?), he would doubtlessly realize how guilty he was of understating his case. Perhaps I can also quote from Don Henley who stated “We all know that crap is king/Give us dirty laundry”. Pretty sorry state of affairs.

  5. Allison says:

    Hollywood has an infantile obsession with bodily functions and fluids. There is no such thing as actual wit anymore.

    But it’s not just R-rated movies. The Backup Plan, rated PG-13, has a number of poop jokes. And Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a supposed family film, has many jokes about penguin crap. Yuck.

    I also agree with Leonard about Bridesmaids. There were some feminist blogs urging women to see it because it was supposedly “empowering.” So women do poop and vomit jokes, too, huh? Gee, now I feel like a equal because women are now as gross as men.

    I passed on Bridesmaids, just like I passed on The Change-Up and Hall Pass. I’ve outgrown potty humor and don’t want to see it from either men or women. I have better things to spend my money on.

  6. Keith Scott says:

    I must agree with Leonard – I too come from a different era. However I am still working successfully in the comedy field and am willing to laugh at anything that’s funny, whether raunchy or “clean.” As long as there’s wit involved. But all the bodily function humor discussed here leaves me cold, and I’m far from a prude. No, I’m just someone who appreciates such sparkling practitioners of the comic muse as W. C. Fields, Fawlty Towers, Bullwinkle, Tom Lehrer and a hundred other examples of classic comedy that required imagination, wit and TALENT.

    Today’s world, with its mass acceptance of mediocrity (reality shows and the like) is simply too depressing for me to contemplate. The world has been dumbed down to accept this offal as comedy, and it’s high time we went backwards. Can the world now be smartened up?

  7. Nat Segaloff says:

    At times like this I quote Chris Miller, one of the screenwriters of “Animal House,” who said that, at the National Lampoon, the rule was that it wasn’t enough for a joke to be in bad taste, it also had to be funny. I don’t have a problem with bodily function humor per se. There is much to be derived from strategic use of Number 1 and Number 2, and “There’s Something About Mary” even scored with Number 3. I am still waiting, however, for appropriate uses of Numbers 4 and 5. But, as Roger Rabbit declared, “Only when it’th funny”!

  8. Mark A. Vieira says:

    I guess the filmmakers assume that the audience isn’t smart enough to laugh at witty dialogue or nuanced situations.

    I hope it’s not true, but . . .

  9. James says:

    Dear Dan,

    You’re an idiot. I say that for two reasons–the first being that anyone who says ‘Just remember you’re signing your death certificate if you fail to see any good in these comedies and hone in on the crap’ is taking things WAY too seriously, and second because you really ought to learn how to spell and use grammar correctly before posting your opinions. Leonard is saying that we as an audience are better than shit jokes. We deserve something that is funny because it’s clever, and not only shocking. He has nothing against crude humor when it’s used correctly as it was in The Hangover. They didn’t simply rely on the really dirty jokes, they also gave you character development and well written comedy so that when something ridiculous did happen it was genuinely entertaining.

    Cheap laughs are alright, and sometimes exactly what we need. But clearly you have come to expect nothing of comedy, and I’m glad you can enjoy the crap they’re feeding you. Before you judge Leonard, read the piece again and see that he isn’t just some old guy from another generation–but someone who is hoping that the audience wont just fall for the obvious–maybe they’ll ask for something more.

  10. Dan says:

    It’s like you said, you were raised in a different time. although George Carlin would have told you that fart jokes are an art, along with Louis C.K. who was recently on the Daily Show and told a fart joke that made Jon Stewart cry in laughter. Fart jokes and bathroom jokes are expected in comedies. Babe ruth bar in Caddyshack? Fat Bastard in Austin Powers? Shit palm in Mallrats?
    And yes, Bridesmaids had a part where the women got food poisoning while trying on wedding dresses. And it was the smartest and funniest scene a writer can come up with considering no woman would want that to happen to her. But did one gross scene make the movie the hit that is? No, there was also the airplane scene, Wilson Philips and of course, Kristen Wiig.
    You keep going on about the Hangover like they haven’t pushed the gross factor, even as the credits roll. Did we forget the monkey sucking Wong’s penis at the beginning of the second installment? And since when did “shitting the bed” become known as raunchy comedy. The biggest comedy this year was Horrible Bosses, and they didn’t use any gross comedy to win an audience.
    If anything, these comedies have truth to them. Many parents can tell a story where after changing their baby’s diaper, they proceed to piss or poop on them. But people didn’t want to see it anyway, they went to see the monkey’s who are generally known for throwing their own feces around.
    More times than not, their other factors that make a comedy good, not just because of gross humor. And while the campfire scene in “Blazin’ Saddles” is funny, the Sheriff coming to town is more memorable. Just remember you’re signing your death certificate if you fail to see any good in these comedies and hone in on the crap.

  11. Frank says:

    Rent my sex comedy “FASTBACK” from Netflix.
    Just good sexy fun, no feces, no bad words.

  12. mike schlesinger says:

    Amen, brother, Amen. But let me add this: the problem isn’t just the raunchiness; it’s the absence of comedy. As Jay Leno once said, “Where’s the joke? I can’t find the joke!” The campfire scene in SADDLES was funny because it answered the question of what happens to all those beans. But having a little kid defecate on a man’s hand (JUST GO WITH IT) or a walrus projectile-vomit on a trannie (50 FIRST DATES) or a woman leaving a menstrual blood stain on the jeans of a man she’s just danced with (SUPERBAD) without any sort of plot justification–it sounded funny, so they just went ahead and stuck it in somewhere–is the antithesis of comedy. It’s gross for its own sake without advancing the plot or the characters, or even making us laugh (“us” being defined as anyone who can distinguish between “you’re” and “your”). Not funny, just pathetic.

  13. mike schlesinger says:

    To Tracy: That was the word they used in the movie and I simply requoted it. But you’re right–it IS a pejorative and I should have known better. Sincere apologies.

  14. Tracy Wylie says:

    To “mike schlesinger”: it’s a shame that you should feel it’s OK to use the word “trannie” in your post. You should know this is a pretty offensive way to refer to transgender men and women. I don’t think you’d use the “N” word to refer to African-Americans, or a word that starts with “K” to refer to a Jew.

    Transgender people deserve a little more respect.

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