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.

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April 2024