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Gross-Out Humour

August 29, 2014

As a person who wholly enjoys judging other people’s opinions in order to attain a top level of mockery, I must first attempt to understand the reasoning behind said people’s preferences. I’m going to pass over the old “opinions are like arseholes” quip for a moment and just say that I believe some opinions to be wrong. If, in your opinion, Hitler was a right top bloke, you are simply and undeniably wrong. Sorry about that.

More confusingly than opinions that have no grounding in reason (or indeed reality) are phantom opinions. Phantom opinions – a term which I am inventing off the top of my head right now – are opinions which are not actually held, but are believed to be held. A bit like “Jersey Shore is the greatest show in the world” or “Men think that women think that men think women do X”. For that, there are are surprising number of examples.

The phantom opinion I will be addressing goes thus: gross-out humour is funny and enjoyable to somebody somewhere. There are no people who think this; only deluded individuals who think they think so. In actuality, they are laughing at other people’s reactions to it, which is a different type of humour entirely, catered for by prank shows and the like. Further to this, another phantom is the idea that some faceless committee responsible for spotting trends in public preferences once formed the opinion that there is a target demographic for gross-out humour; personally, I become steadily more convinced with every passing day that no creative power or managing position has ever put any thought into the popularity of gross-out humour at all – except possibly to consider that someone else has put thought into it and leave it at that. Perhaps it’s just one of those questions no one likes asking, in case the answer blocks off too many avenues.

It wouldn’t be the first time I have thought something of the sort. In the past I’ve had trouble believing that people genuinely enjoy horror movies, because it is by its nature designed to be horrible. I can’t help but feel that if you aren’t horrified by it, it’s not doing its job properly. Surely, if you’re finding it entertaining, you can’t be finding it horrifying, mutually exclusive as these two states are.

However, I now liken horror to roller coasters. If they aren’t intense in some way, then they aren’t really interesting – particularly as you become desensitised to them and crave higher and higher thrills, until one day you find yourself jumping out of a helicopter attached to someone you just met. Being scared gives you an adrenaline rush which can become an addiction. Even at the cinema, which costs as much as a new kidney nowadays, watching horror films is cheaper than spending a day trying to fool your body into thinking that you’re about to commit suicide from a great height. The drawback is that Halloween doesn’t make you feel like you’re flying. At least, not as far as I know.

In television, there are trends – particularly in comedy – that it’s hard to imagine anyone wants to see. Repetition, for one; The Catherine Tate Show and Little Britain are particularly guilty of this. They will have the same characters deliver several of the same lines in a variety of scenarios that only differ as much as a beige backdrop differs from an off-white backdrop. Yet, again, I can see the attraction in this. Familiarity is a sweet little cherry ripe for picking from any comedic writer regardless of skill; the reason American sitcoms have such longevity despite changing writers more often than I change clothes is due to their ability to create a set of characters for you to love and want to stand by through thick and thin. This is a skill in its own right, as it requires consistent characters that look three dimensional and still develop in some way so that the series can age realistically.

Another decrepit and senile comic trend is joke sign-posting. Joke sign-posting is when the characters on the show make a joke and then give some kind of additional explanation or unnecessary elaboration that’s a real punchline-killer. This will occur more than once in any series that lacks confidence due to a leave of absence (the newest Red Dwarf) or thinks its audience are all vacant, square-eyed teens. The most objectionable thing about it is the steady and persistent knock-knock-knocking on the fourth wall, eventually shattering any illusion you might have had that you were watching something real, or conceivable, or even just something that was crafted by somebody who could do better than a pair of bonobos mating on a typewriter.

But by far the most malodorous of all is gross-out humour. As the name suggests, this encompasses anything that makes you squirm and cringe uncomfortably. Now, I have my qualms about all kinds of cringeworthy humour, but I’ll admit that if done well, it can create a hugely entertaining mirror of human nature and the awkward situations in which we all find ourselves now and again. Gross-out humour, however, is not well crafted. It’s not really even crafted at all – more sort of slapped on. It has “cheap laugh” written all over it and it has no place in what are otherwise thoughtful and careful sitcoms and comedy dramas.

That said, it’s fair enough if you’re watching Not Another Teen Movie. If you ever so much as get passed the title, you have no right to expect anything but shitty gross-out comedy. Particularly if you were naïve enough to think it being a “parody” would improve it in any way; at its worst, a parody is after all little more than an excuse to regurgitate old clichés. Any genre like gross-out, which survives because it is exaggerated to an absurd degree, is self-parodying. So contrived parodies of them look exactly the same, bar the the odd knowing wink which makes you want to throw expensive vases out of open windows.

The uncomfortable thing is, even though I feel sure that gross-out must be a freak accident similar to an fatal ice-skating crash into an man-eating ant farm, I occasionally get the feeling that someone is purposefully crafting it. The last episode of Fresh Meat I watched involved the character J.D. drinking his own semen. There, now, doesn’t that make you want to hurry and watch it? With jokes, they say it’s the way you tell ’em that counts. Well, I knew that someone was going to drink that semen the moment one of the characters came into the kitchen holding an ice cube tray filled with it. They still made me wait 15 minutes for that punchline.

This brings me to my first criticism, which is that gross-out is painfully laboured in its delivery. We know it’s coming and we all want to flinch quickly to spare ourselves the key agonising moment, but we can’t, because our director impishly keeps us waiting. Waiting for something we don’t want to see. I remember a particularly sorry example on a TV show – a faux-low-budget affair – where the shaky cam spent about 20 seconds just focusing on a urine-tainted container, about to come into contact with food. Count it out – 20 seconds is a painfully long time when it takes only two to take stock of the situation and process it with our clever little brains. I had time to say aloud to myself “I GET IT” about a dozen times, each time with increasing irritation.

Credit where credit’s due, Fresh Meat writers played with your expectations enough to make you think someone else had unwittingly picked up the spunk-cubes and used them, but my point is that I don’t care who drinks them. I don’t want them to be drunk at all (or eaten, if you want to get technical with the physics of it). I don’t want them to exist. I don’t wish for the concept of such a thing to be present within my consciousness, thank you very much. Even if they had set it up so that J.D. makes these ice cubes and absolutely nothing comes of it (including no Family Guy style wink-wink-nudge-nudge jokes about the fact that nothing comes of it), they would still have planted the idea in my mind that such a thing could happen and thus put me off my food.

It is a very dangerous thing to put me off my food. Revenge will be sought.

Here’s my problem; I know I’m not the only person who reacts this way. Everyone I know squirms around and complains that they feel sick when they come across gross-out (which is very annoying to witness, quite apart from anything else). Apparently, that’s the point. What kind of a point is that?! How many successful writers do you think sit down at their desk and say: “Today I shall make it so nobody ever wants to see this more than once, and will only ever mention it to their friends to warn them not to go anywhere near it”? That sounds less like a writer and more like the ploy of a canny and insidious marketing department working in the back room, the types who made the unavoidable Go Compare adverts and knew they could make reverse psychology work in their favour.

I see that when watching such a thing with friends, it’s like a student challenge. Rather than seeing who can drink the Jägerbomb in under ten seconds, see who can watch the semen-injestion without turning a pale shade of green. Perhaps before Youtube and the Webby-Award-winning 2 Girls 1 Cup, there was a value in this kind of entertainment, to use the term loosely. These days you are never more than two clicks away from something deeply disturbing that’s come out of a basement somewhere in central Tokyo, so if you do a great line in making your friends / army buddies / cell mates vomit over their own feet, click away. Some of us occasionally watch television on our own so as to avoid other people chatting over the top of it, therefore we don’t get to exercise this questionable form of camaraderie. I did try to point out the sperm-ice to my hamster, but he was too busy eating the sofa to notice.

And once your friends / army buddies / cell mates have emptied their guts completely, all that they will have left for a stomach is a solid lump of rock that won’t budge. Nobody gets a taste for this kind of stuff, but you can get hardened to it so that it doesn’t affect you very much; another favourite series of mine, Getting On – which, bear in mind is a comedy drama and a particularly bleak and lifelike one at that – decided to show a senile woman peeing in a cafetiere and the owner of that cafetiere unwittingly making coffee in it and drinking it. To which I merely raised an intolerant eyebrow and sipped my coffee disapprovingly, with pursed lips that would make Aunt Petunia proud. After sperm-cubes, it’s hard to object to a trace amount of wee.

Films like the Eddie Murphy remake of The Nutty Professor thrive on gross-out, so much so that I got bored and discouraged very quickly and switched off. First figuratively, then literally. The opening to The Nutty Professor was fine up until the point where hamster poo and coffee collided in the worst way. I get enough of that in my own house if I’m not careful. Film is supposed to provide some level of escapism.

Ah, there I go, using gross-out humour myself. Someone else’s gross-out humour no less, since it’s hard to get original with it; you are essentially restricted to poo, wee, farts and all other bodily functions, preferably coming from the Deep South. It’s technically comedy and it literally flows from within! It’s also literally crap. And therefore, figuratively crap. I don’t actually think that writers start out intending to put gross-out in their scripts, only that it comes naturally to them throughout the process of writing, it being literally organic (I’ll stop that now) and let’s face it, easy as pie. Poo pie. Ehehehe!

Speaking of pie, I have never watched American Pie and seems unlikely I will ever bother. It will be interesting to see if I change my mind about it, should I ever write these silly thingamybobs for a living or something, and consequently be required to actively engage with self-professed gross-out films. Until then, I mainly object to it where it is completely incongruous. I mentioned Getting On, which despite being set in an OAP hospital ward, largely (and skilfully) avoids vulgarity and is all the more funny for its emphasis on human trials rather than bodily functions.

I suppose I must conclude that what mainly entertains us is the surprising and the ridiculous. Whatever is extreme or difficult to comprehend, may manage to be amusing – but it will do so in spite of its celebration of projectile vomiting, not because of it. Surprise can be created in other, less lunch-loss-inducing ways, and if as a writer / comedian you can’t tell a joke without falling back on farts (somewhat insubstantial as they are, being a gas mixture), I respectfully suggest you try another line of work.

Though I can well see that there is a draw to the naughty and forbidden, i.e. scatological, and plainly use this myself for the fun of mixing the puerile with least appropriate topics, the problem is that gross-out humour is overused and a lazy direction for writers who are clearly capable of better. Its ubiquitous nature will forever remain a mystery to me – so much so that I have the urge to make a list of all the sitcoms that use it against all the ones that don’t in order to compare numbers. Afterwards, I shall send flowers to the production team of the non-offenders, with a note attached reading: “Thank you for keeping your farts within the privacy of your own home. Or at the very least, a noisy street with an acceptable through-wind.”


From → Media Analysis

  1. I hate the kind of crude humour you describe here, as you well know, but this blog made me laugh so much! Thankyou. By the way, sperm tasted salty to me ( remembering my wild youth here…)and is so thick I wonder – would it actually freeze? Anyone done the science?

  2. A Bum permalink

    This article was funny because you said poo in it.

    If I had to make a theory about why this kind of thing can be funny, it’s because our physical bodies are quite weird, embarrassing and disgusting and it’s cathartic to laugh at the bloody things.

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