Shit-eating grins

In defense of Adam Sandler, "South Park" and the proud tradition of poop humor.

By Stephanie Zacharek
July 12, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Said Absalon, all set to make a launch,

"Speak, pretty bird, I know not where thou art!"

This Nicholas at once let fly a fart

As loud as if it were a thunder-clap.

He was near blinded by the blast, poor chap ...

-- Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Miller's Tale"

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Much of my family were shocked two Christmases ago when my then
15-year-old nephew presented me and my husband with a tree ornament of
Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo, which he'd made -- beautifully -- out of
polymer clay. Mr. Hankey, one of the most infamous characters of "South Park," is, to put it plainly, a talking turd
in a Santa hat. The Mr. Hankey episode of "South Park" had aired a few
weeks before the presentation of this illustrious and well-loved gift, and my
nephew knew that my husband and I had laughed ourselves silly at the
episode. It was scheduled to air again that night, Christmas Eve (oh holy
night!), and so my husband and a gaggle of assorted nieces and nephews,
ages 11 to 20, scrambled off to the family room to catch it.

Almost everyone had a comfy spot in front of the set when my husband was
apprehended by one of my sisters -- busted! -- who informed him, with
schoolmarm sobriety, that he was supposed to be setting a good example. The
implication was that he should be sitting quietly with the other grownups,
not leading the youth of America down the road to ruin, a highway to hell
littered with fart jokes and talking turds.

"Audiences hiss the sight of blood now, as if they didn't have it in their
own bodies," Pauline Kael wrote in her essay "Fear of Movies." These days,
you could say the same thing about poop. Toilet humor -- the kind you get in current movies like
"South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"
and "Big
Daddy,"
and earlier pictures like "Dumb &
Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary"
-- has become the enemy of cultural standard bearers everywhere.

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But as any 5-year-old can tell you, bodily functions are funny. They
surprise you at inconvenient times. They can embarrass you. The fact that
we're all subject to them is a great leveller -- which is one reason,
maybe, that moviegoers who fancy themselves enlightened don't want to take
the bait: They want every joke hung on an intelligent reference, something
that will reaffirm their slightly more elevated place in the cosmos.

Yet one of the great pleasures of the movies is that they can affect us on
so many different levels, no matter how many graduate degrees we have (or
haven't) earned. Toilet humor is usually pegged as
lowest-common-denominator humor, but part of the reason it may make people
uncomfortable is that it speaks to all kinds of strange feelings about
ourselves and our bodies that we've buried deep.

Any parent who's potty-trained a child can probably understand this:
Suddenly, all those things you learned long ago not to talk about in polite
company become things you have to discuss openly with your child, without
making a big deal out of them. Toilet humor -- when it's done well -- is a kind of punk act
that frees us now and then from the constraints we've all faced since the
day we abandoned training pants. It's just another way to make a big deal
out of things -- everyday things -- that society tells us we shouldn't.
That notion of nose-thumbing at "polite company" is what gives good toilet
humor its kick.

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The distinction that has to be made, though, is that not all toilet humor
is created equal. There's something distressing about people who make
judgments about a specific genre -- any genre -- without exercising
their own critical sensibilities. Dismissing all toilet humor means making
the assumption that all fart, poo and pee jokes are created equal -- that
there can never be any skill or inventiveness behind them, and that
intelligent people can never, or should never, enjoy them. No one has to
find all toilet humor funny -- there are plenty of times when it's simply
inane -- but sharp directors and writers can make all the difference. When
the Farrelly brothers' "Dumb & Dumber" was released, in 1994, the name
alone became a lightning rod for all that was allegedly wrong with
contemporary culture. Intelligent, educated adults, in print, on
television and at dinner-party conversations everywhere, waved the title
around like a flag, an example of how far we'd fallen, of how "quality"
movies no longer mattered to a mass audience. Western civilization was
about to end, and not with a bang or a whimper but a slow, deadly
pffffffft.

What struck me at the time was not that people were excoriating "Dumb & Dumber,"
but that very few of those who did so had actually seen it. (Since then, it
seems to have found its proper, appreciative audience on video.) The title,
they thought, told them just about everything. They'd heard it was a jumble
of fart, piss and poop jokes, the province of 8-year-olds and frat boys
-- in other words, the hoi polloi -- not thinking adults.

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Things haven't changed much since. A recent GQ article by Andrew
Corsello, lamenting the popularity of "moronic" humor (and written in a
pompously mannered style that strains to keep the "gentleman" in the
quarterly) even gives the genre a suitably highfalutin name: "la
commedia della moronica." Another article, in Entertainment Weekly,
before giving evidence of what it saw as a Hollywood toilet-humor trend,
warned readers meekly that "Much of it is in the form of bodily fluids, so
read no further if you're weak of stomach."

Being "weak of stomach" is a good enough reason for an individual to decide not to see a
movie. But you can't base an argument that the culture's going to hell in a handbasket on mere queasiness, or even on vague feelings of being "offended." I found "Dumb & Dumber" to be one of the
funniest movies of that year, and not because I unequivocally love any
movie that's loaded with gross-outs. It takes a certain amount of ingenuity
to come up with the number of fart, poo and pee jokes that keep "Dumb &
Dumber" rolling, and to keep them coming, paced properly, so that the
audience gets carried away with the nuttiness of them instead of just
numbed by them.

You can't defend "Dumb & Dumber" as a subtle movie -- it isn't. But the
Farrellys make most of their jokes with sound effects and lingering,
unbroken shots that underscore the silliness of certain situations, or the
embarrassment the characters feel -- as when Jeff Daniels, after downing a
massive dose of laxative, finds relief on his love interest's (broken)
toilet. He sits there for an uncommonly long time; the symphony of sounds
around him are a report on his progress. It's a nightmare vision that makes
you groan at least partly out of empathy -- who ever wants to be the
one to mess up the guest bathroom?

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Some of the best toilet-humor jokes are actually implied sight gags -- for
example, the sight of Mike Myers in "Austin Powers: International Man of
Mystery"
taking a never-ending pee or the way, in "Austin Powers: The Spy
Who Shagged Me," Heather Graham's Felicity Shagwell appears to be pulling a
strange array of items (a frying pan, a flashlight, a live rat) out of
Austin's behind. The scene takes place in a camping tent, backlit so you
see only silhouettes; the effect reminds me of some "naughty" 18th century
European silhouettes I once saw reproduced on a series of postcards -- a
reminder that the tradition of toilet humor goes back further, even, than
Mel Brooks. (Chaucer was getting a charge out of it in the 14th century.)

When Entertainment Weekly asked Myers "if there was anything too stupid
or gross to include" in "The Spy Who Shagged Me," he replied, "No. The
notion of intelligent vs. unintelligent comedy is irrelevant to me. It's
not too stupid as long as it's funny." Of course, that's easy for
him to say. Toilet humor, like every other kind of humor, is
subjective: Even among people with a high tolerance for toilet gags, the
same ones aren't going to get all of us all the time. Every moviegoer, even
those who claim they just want to pay their $9 and be entertained,
has a critical sensibility. Most of the "Fat Bastard" toilet jokes in "The
Spy Who Shagged Me" did nothing for me. Although it didn't make me want to
flee the theater, Myers' mistaking a beakerful of liquid stool sample for
coffee seemed to me the jerkiest kind of ca-ca joke. But the sequence did
make me think about what separates a good doo-doo joke from a bad one. I
realized that when it comes to toilet humor, even I have my particular
brand of snobbery: just showing the stuff sometimes seems too cheap,
too easy. There are so many opportunities for goofy sex and time-warp jokes
in "The Spy Who Shagged Me" that I found myself more critical than usual of
the throwaway toilet humor.

And I found myself completely unmoved by the toilet humor in Adam Sandler's
"Big Daddy." I don't have the aversion to Adam Sandler that so many people
do -- I found him rather appealing, if innocuous, in "The Wedding Singer,"
and I've howled at the ludicrous simplicity of some of his "Saturday Night
Live" sketches. But I think Sandler is headed in too many wrong directions
at once: He wants to keep the frat-boy audience sewn up, but he also wants
their girlfriends to see him as a lovable, caring guy. That kind of
eagerness to please is death for a comic; you have to be willing to
alienate at least some of the people some of the time. I had no problem
with Sandler teaching his 5-year-old buddy to pee against a wall in "Big
Daddy" (it was a fancy restaurant whose maitre d' refused to let the
little guy use the bathroom, earning "Big Daddy" a bonus of half a point
for social commentary, however lame). And I felt a little weary after I saw
the same routine the third time, but still not offended. What did
offend me was the loutish grab that "Big Daddy" made for my heartstrings --
it culminates in a soppy courtroom custody hearing that involves a father
and son pouring out their previously pent-up feelings. And the emotional
cheapness of that I absolutely could not abide.

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It may sound strange, but I think there's almost a delicacy to the best
kind of toilet humor: The most obvious joke is less likely to work its
nasty magic than a slightly more subtle one (Jim Carrey, in "Dumb &
Dumber," trapped in a van and desperately peeing into a succession of empty
beer bottles -- a dozen, it looked like -- because there's nowhere else for
him to go). There's a language that goes along with toilet humor in the
movies, just as there's a language that goes with love stories or action
pictures. Some of it will speak to you, and some of it, no matter how hard
it tries -- or maybe precisely because it tries so hard -- just
won't.

But then, what do you do with a movie like Trey Parker and Matt Stone's
"South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," a movie designed to push every
possible button? "Bigger, Longer & Uncut" is one of the most unsubtle
movies I've seen in years -- and yet I laughed almost the whole way
through, from the film-within-the-film featuring the feeble fart jokes of
Terrance and Philip (whose very crudeness and shamelessness were exactly
what made them so funny) to the absurdity of Saddam Hussein waving his
penis around, like a madman relic of the old Times Square. And it contains
more foul language than Saddam can shake his stick at (including a big
musical number called "Uncle Fucka").

From start to finish, "Bigger, Longer & Uncut" was designed to offend, to
leave jaws hanging open in awe ("Did I really just see that?"), and it
succeeds. That alone is testament to Parker and Stone's ingenuity,
considering that the "South Park" TV show (starting with its legendary
precursor, a crudely made videotape that showed Santa and Jesus Christ
duking it out, literally, for the spirit of Christmas, insulting nearly
every religious group on the planet along the way) seemed to have gone as
far as possible into the wild, wild West of fart, poo and
projectile-vomiting jokes.

In an early sequence, South Park kids Cartman, Kyle, Kenny and Stan sneak
into an R-rated movie and emerge with fountains of obscenities, all picked
up from the film, streaming from their mouths -- a hymn to freedom coming
straight from the id. When they go back to meet the rest of their
schoolmates, the stream of obscenities rushes even more freely, and their
friends, duly impressed, run off to see the movie for themselves.
Reprimanded by a shocked teacher, Cartman exclaims, "I can't help myself,
that movie has warped my fragile little mind."

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"South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" has its flaws -- all that nonstop
visual stimulation and naughtiness-for-the-sake-of-being-naughty becomes a
bit wearisome in the last third -- but the more I think about it after the
fact, the more fondness I feel toward it. I saw it with a preview audience,
and I happened to be sitting right next to a New York intellectual dad and
his son, who looked to be about 10. ("Bigger, Longer & Uncut" is rated R,
which means that children under 17 can't get in unless accompanied by an
adult. That was a conscious choice on the part of filmmakers Parker and
Stone, who refused to water down their movie -- and thus, it's important to
note, ensure bigger revenues -- by cutting it down enough to get a PG-13
rating.)

I could tell from eavesdropping on their conversation before the movie that
this dad was anxious to raise his kid as a responsible, thinking
individual: He talked to him as if he were an adult, asking him questions
about commercials he'd seen on television and answering -- with a degree of
honesty and real thought -- his son's parrying questions on the same
subject. When the lights went down, and the movie started, I heard both
father and son laughing at the jokes (though they didn't laugh at all the
same ones). From those two seats next to me, I felt a sense of familial
well-being that I've yet to feel at any Disney movie -- at any of those
"family" movies where grown-ups and children are supposed to bond. Not only
did Dad trust that his son would know what to make of that movie; he knew
what to make of it himself. It was the kind of thing that gives you faith
in the intelligence and open-mindedness of adult moviegoers -- an
acknowledgment that the mere threat of toilet humor shouldn't be enough to
keep any thinking person away from the movies.

Even if they've shown up on the pretense of having to take their kids.


Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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