'There's Something About Mary': Gross encounters of the cinema kind
"There's Something About Mary" is part of a retch Hollywood comedy tradition
The end is near. You can taste it. Smell it. See it in the way a pruny old woman in There’s Something About Mary French-kisses her Border terrier, then lets the pooch snack on Ben Stiller’s crotch. In the way a grown man in the upcoming BASEketball lactates projectile streams of milk from his nipples. In the way breast jokes and gay jokes are suddenly back. In the way the mentally and physically and dermatologically challenged are getting laughs. And in the way goopy bodily substances and odors are the happiest of happy topics among moviegoing adults again, enjoying a popularity unparalleled since the eras of Moliere, Swift, and the Zucker brothers.
Yea, these are ill-mannered times in the darkened movie houses of America. The Farrelly brothers, those class clowns who made kid-friendly Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin (PG-13), are suddenly skewing older and way raunchier in There’s Something About Mary with R-rated gags about vibrators, semen-infused hair products, and a guy who gets his manhood totally snagged in the pants zipper of his prom tux. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the demented dudes who gave voice to fecal matter in their animated Comedy Central s–tcom South Park, make their feature-film debut July 31 in BASEketball, a film full of the sort of adults-only sight gags and infantile sex jokes not seen since the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies (the same director, David Zucker, helped orchestrate them all). The guys’ next movie, Orgazmo, a raucous comedy about porno movies, has already earned an NC-17 rating. And lest we forget, there’s Hal Hartley’s latest black satire, Henry Fool, in which Parker Posey accepts a wedding proposal after witnessing her beloved’s bowel movement. Uh…mazel tov!
Think of it as the return of the grown-up gross-out. You’d have to go back to the time when the cast members of Saturday Night Live first farted around on screen in National Lampoon’s Animal House, Caddyshack, and Stripes to find such a postadolescent appetite for the unappetizing. Sure, horror movies, gangster movies, and war movies have always featured gross-out scenes—from Linda Blair’s pea-soup hurl in The Exorcist and The Godfather‘s famous horse-head scene to the gut-wrenching portrait of war in this summer’s Saving Private Ryan. But for a while it looked like political correctness—or was it an unexpected flowering of maturity in Hollywood? (nah!)—had put the kibosh on outlandish comedy. The Brady Bunch movies were as wild as wild got. As for a ’90s remake of, say, Porky’s? You’d have had an easier time getting a greenlight on Springtime for Hitler. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s,” says Peter Farrelly, “everybody was doing a lot of safe movie comedy. A comedy moment then was, A guy’s naked in a bathtub, a rabbi walks in with scissors, walks over and cuts…a lock of the guy’s hair! That’s funny, but today, he’d have to circumcise the guy. And then, you’d have to make the guy limp around for days after. You can’t pull back.”
In other words, the lid’s open again on Hollywood’s toilet tank, and the water’s looking…well, don’t even ask. But before blaming the brothers Farrelly or anyone else for the death of culture, remember that the cinematic cesspool runs deep. A semen joke today couldn’t have happened had, say, Woody Allen not dressed up like a giant sperm in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. And where would fart jokes be now without Mel Brooks? To understand why a zippered-over testicle is funny in Mary, you need to look back at the earlier gags that made us gag. So take a deep breath, hold your nose, and, if you can bear it, plunge with us into the abominable history of bad taste.
GONE WITH THE WIND
Let’s face facts: Truman Show or no Truman Show, Jim Carrey owes his career to fart jokes (In Living Color, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar) and talking butt cheeks (Ace Ventura again).
To figure out what got into him, go back almost 25 years. There, you’ll find nine cowpokes sitting around a campfire, plates dripping with baked beans, harmonica music playing in the distance. Then—pffffft! flshssht! frhonk!—an explosive new use for Dolby sound is born.
The fart scene in Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western spoof Blazing Saddles reacted like a giant veggie burrito in Hollywood’s gastrointestinal tract, which went on to produce Dumb and Dumber, and The Nutty Professor, to name two odorific examples. “Farting is the great common thread in mankind,” says Andrew Bergman, who cowrote Blazing Saddles with Brooks and Richard Pryor. “Yet it was so outside the bounds of manners that no one had ever put it on screen before. It was kind of historic.”
The mere sight of it was enough to clear the pool in Caddyshack (even though it was really just a floating Baby Ruth bar). When it hit the fan in Airplane!, Robert Stack almost didn’t do the scene (“He thought it was so gross,” Zucker says). And people ran from midnight screenings when a character crawled through it in John Waters’ Mondo Trasho.
Now, though, with Mr. Hankey (a talking piece of it) cracking wise on South Park, doodie’s got to work overtime in movies to get any attention at all. It has to be flung onto the walls (see Trainspotting) or else accompanied by symphonic toilet-bowl thunder (maybe you shouldn’t see Henry Fool).
Still, nothing—and we mean nothing—touches the gross-out horror of the final scene of John Waters’ 1973 syrup-of-ipecac classic, Pink Flamingos, when Divine makes a snack out of the real deal—fresh from a doggie’s derriere.
Why, oh, why, did Waters do it? “You had an audience that believed they had seen everything,” he says of the scene many rate as the all-time grossest. “I was trying to make them laugh at their ability to still be shocked.” Ha-ha, ugh.
HURLS, HURLS, HURLS!
The South Park kids do it. A fat kid in the upcoming movie Simon Birch does too. And, of course, there’s buckets of it in Henry Fool and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
In fact, throwing up has been a relief for moviemakers since before The Exorcist (“Ingmar Bergman made vomit chic,” claims Waters). And while the blueberry pie barf-athon in 1986’s Stand by Me is memorable, it is the rotund Mr. Creosote (he of the “weffer thin mint”) in Monty Python’s 1983 comedy epic The Meaning of Life who remains the kecking king. “People puke,” notes Trey Parker, who calls the scene his all-time favorite gross-out, “but not like that.” Vomit also has a surprise factor, so even though chunks have flown in Heathers, Blood Simple, Eating Raoul, Caddyshack, and elsewhere, it still seems, er, fresh. “Vomit hasn’t been done to death in the movies,” says Waters. “It’s also the cheapest special effect ever: a can of creamed corn, and presto! The whole audience is flipping out. No computers needed.”
It’s hard to believe that when Ben Stiller takes a whiz in There’s Something About Mary, he’s connecting with a cinematic tradition that goes back to A Clockwork Orange, not to mention Jerry Lewis’ The Disorderly Orderly. And while everyone from Gene Wilder (The Frisco Kid) to Carrey (the frozen pee scene with Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber is a classic) has let it rip for laughs on screen, the prince of pee is Austin Powers, whose 52-second tee-tee after his long cryogenic nap was the genre’s golden moment. Even Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge thought it got a little out of hand. “You don’t really want to see anybody peeing,” he says. “It’s a private thing. You do it alone. And that’s probably why there’s something really funny about the scene. I think there’s something primal in peeing that gets to people. My kids went to the zoo for the first time, and the thing they remember more than anything was that the elephant went pee-pee for a really, really long time.”
Oh, the pains moviemakers bear for a few laughs!
The Three Stooges bonked one another on the head. So did Abbott and Costello. The Naked Gun movies had more hits than the Gambino family.
So when Stiller gets a fish hook snagged in his cheek (or, worse, his manhood snagged in his pants), and when the BASEketball players nail fans with fastballs, there’s a rich history behind it.
Nobody got bigger laughs from comedic cutups, though, than Monty Python. The famous “just a flesh wound” scene in 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail—in which a brave knight keeps battling even after losing one arm, then the other, then both legs—is as sharp today as a bonus set of Ginsu knives: “What’s funny about it,” says Matt Stone, “is that it starts off not being funny at all, then goes past it to the point where it’s so not funny it’s funny again.”
Zits happen. And until they find some fancy-schmancy dermatologist out there in Hollywood, bad-skin jokes will keep breaking out all over. Thanks to a nervous condition, Chris Elliott gets a pizza face with hives in Mary that’s so gross even he couldn’t bear to watch it. “I knew what [the blemishes] looked like when we put them on,” he says, “but seeing them that big on screen was pretty disgusting. My wife was covering her eyes.’
Bad as that is, Elliott’s an OXY poster child compared with the biggest movie zit of all: the one John Belushi made of himself by spraying his costars with cafeteria food 20 years ago in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Gross? Certainly. But also lovable. Belushi’s “sweetness saved him,” says Jim Abrahams, a gross-out specialist who cowrote The Kentucky Fried Movie, and Airplane!, and directed this summer’s Mafia! “His smile lures you in, then he spits up all over you.”
SLIME TO KILL
For years, Sigourney Weaver held all the titles for slimiest gross-outs, with the Alien movies and Ghostbusters. This summer, the Farrelly brothers may just goop their way past her in the slime pantheon, with one of the raunchiest (and funniest) uses of a polymer and K-Y jelly in movie history. In a scene that’s already giving There’s Something About Mary cult status, Ben Stiller gets a particularly personal gooey substance (and one not normally seen outside X-rated movies) stuck on his ear. Mistaking it for hair gel, Cameron Diaz uses it to give her bangs a lift. The MPAA let the scene slip past (sexual comedy seems to get an R; sexual titillation, an NC-17), but even Farrelly knew it might be a risk. “Cameron was nervous about the scene,” he says. “It’s a potential career ender.”
Of course, once you’ve put this particular brand of goo on somebody’s ear, is there really any place left to go with gross-outs? Trey Parker thinks there’s plenty of stretching room, as long as the public stays squeamish. “As soon as we advance into beings evolved enough to speak freely about farts and barf and anuses,” he says, “this stuff won’t be funny anymore and we’ll move on to higher-minded topics. Until then, we’re just capitalizing on America’s immaturity.”—(Additional reporting by Andrew Essex and Tricia Laine)