Gross hits Hollywood in 1998 -- ''There's Something About Mary'' and ''Pecker'' can thank Monica Lewinsky for pushing acceptance of yuck

Is it any wonder that Saving Private Ryan was such a hit this year? It had the perfect recipe: severed limbs and barfing soldiers. Sure, there was also drama and emotion, but in 1998 the goal was to make audiences not just oooh and ahhh but ewww and ugghh.

Filmmakers took the studios’ pleas for ”big grosses” literally. There’s Something About Mary, starring Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz, made semen fun (while Happiness doubled Mary‘s money shots), and Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool had a fecal scene. The movies weren’t alone at the gutter ball: Howard Stern brought his aural sex to network TV, shaving a stripper’s pubic hair on CBS. South Park‘s flatulent delinquents became ’98’s poster boys for outrageousness. And Marilyn Manson’s best-selling autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, told tales of cow-brain-filled pinatas and his keyboardist spraying Easy Cheese on his private parts.

Apparently, when Jerry Seinfeld bid farewell this year, the ”master of his domain” took with him his subtle way of talking dirty without actually using dirty words. Even shock pioneers are amazed by how far down the low road we’ve gone. Saturday Night Live‘s recent commercial parody about the Mercury Mistress, a car so luxurious you could have sex with a hole in its trunk, dismayed Matty Simmons, founding publisher of The National Lampoon. ”When SNL first came out,” says Simmons, ”[Lampoon-turned-SNL writer] Michael O’Donoghue had furious battles over things he could or couldn’t do on TV. But in his wildest moments he’d never suggest a scene where a guy would drop his pants and screw a car. I was shocked, of all people!”

This trend hit just as America was overwhelmed by the most salacious White House scandal ever. After months of pundits analyzing the presidential Rorschach blot on Monica Lewinsky’s dress, is it any wonder audiences don’t wince at a little hair gel? ”This humor is more easily accepted than ever,” says self-proclaimed filth elder John Waters, whose Pecker demonstrated the testicular dance move ”tea bagging.” ”Because of the news, I heard my mother say semen for the first time.”

Besides uniting families, Monicagate helped make PC-ness obsolete — welcome news in the funny business. ”I think there’s been a real [cry] for creative people, not just comedians, to backlash this whole uptight PC thing,” says Comedy Central’s Eileen Katz. ”Fart jokes aren’t my favorite, but what they speak to in the larger sense I truly support.”

Now that everything’s fair game, how do you avoid simply being foul? The box office cumes of BASEketball and Orgazmo taught South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone that America’s taste for pure crudity isn’t bottomless. Maybe the buzz on HBO’s Mr. Show and Comedy Central’s Upright Citizens Brigade, which pull off lowbrow humor with highbrow wit, points to where gross needs to go. ”Just being disgusting is easy,” advises Waters, ”and it never works.”