There’s an old saw about funny bones: ”The Englishman’s sense of humor is in the drawing room, the Frenchman’s sense of humor is in the bedroom, and the German’s sense of humor is in the bathroom.” This is unfair to Germans: No one culture is to blame for bathroom humor. Bodily functions are things that, unlike breaches of etiquette or amatory activities, everybody at least understands. And making light of them goes back a long way — there’s a fart joke in Dante’s Inferno, for heaven’s sake. The substantial theatrical box office, um, gross of Dumb and Dumber provided the latest occasion for pundits to decry vulgarity; even Jerry Lewis, star Jim Carrey’s spiritual father, bemoaned Young Rubberface’s penchant for toilet humor. Frankly, though, we’ve seen worse — and in such smarter, funnier movies as Blazing Saddles, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, National Lam poon’s Animal House, and Polyester.
Take the beans-around-the-campfire sojourn in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, the film that broke the sound barrier for flatulent humor. Saddles delights in foulness — while many of its gags are more original, the ones everyone remembers are the most third-grade-ish (such as a schoolmarm calling the governor ”the leading a–hole in the state”). At one point the highest-grossing comedy ever, it set a new standard for frankness.
Animal House, based on the college reminiscences of rowdy Lampoon writers, took full advantage of that standard. Public urination, belching, heavy drinking, and more unsavory topics were all played for laughs, but the outrageous high jinks were tempered by the movie’s affection for the misfits of Delta House — just as Blazing Saddles gets downright sentimental about its main character, a black sheriff who is first despised and then embraced by racist townfolk.
Affection for outcasts also animates John Waters’ Polyester. Though it’s far from the grossest of Waters’ movies — Divine’s doggie-doo stunt in Pink Flamingos hit screens a year before the tamer blats of Blazing Saddles — Polyester was Waters’ first attempt to attract a larger audience, and even at that it contains a lot of offensive material. When this story of a put-upon housewife (Divine) with a keen sense of smell played theatrically, viewers were given scratch-and-sniff cards so they could share her olfactory sensations — and yes, there is a fart in there. (The only way you can experience them at home is by getting the laserdisc, which comes with a card.) But even without the gimmick, Polyester is a liberatingly crude satire of suburban mores. Waters’ suburbia is a peculiar hell where future lovers meet cute at the scene of an auto wreck, and where a pregnant teen gleefully announces to her mom that she ”can’t wait” to get an abortion.
While even Polyester camouflages a heart of gold with surfaces of — well, never mind, The Meaning of Life arrives at its offenses through a steely rage against the hypocrisies of society. From the gory organ donation bit to the piggishness of wealthy ”gourmand” Mr. Creosote (who fills buckets with vomit before literally exploding), Life is Python at its most relentlessly tasteless and uncompromisingly Swiftian.
In fact, the Oxford- and Cambridge-educated smarty pants of Python pack more unsavory humor into any 15 minutes of Life than there is in the whole of Dumb and Dumber, which plays its big laxative set piece more for empathy than repulsion. And aside from that sequence and a few snot and urine gags, the gross-out stuff is just one facet of the movie’s idiot humor. Carrey and costar Jeff Daniels play luckless morons who drive cross-country, and the biggest laughs derive from the duo’s idiocy — thinking they’ve outsmarted menacing rednecks, driving a mobster crazy with their rendition of ”Mockingbird,” and bickering in garbled clichés (Carrey suggests that they migrate to a place ”where the beer flows like wine”). They mine such a rich lode of dim-wittedness that the toilet humor of which Jerry Lewis despairs seems like a sop to a certain demographic — not readers of Dante, that’s for sure.
Dumb and Dumber: B
Blazing Saddles: A
Animal House: B+
The Meaning of Life: A