Sequels to surprise hits are always tricky. Recapturing that slow burning magic of word-of-mouth is nearly impossible against new expectations. Such difficulties awaited any follow-up to the first season of American Vandal, Netflix’s vigorous parody of NPR-style investigative journalism. To make matters trickier, the second season involves a lot of defecation. Really a lot.
When a mysterious high school terrorist known as the “Turdburglar” poisons the lemonade in the cafeteria at St. Bernadine’s High School, mass evacuation ensues — not of the school, but of the bowels. The bathrooms won’t suffice, so the entire school becomes a bathroom. “People were just trying to find a place where they could put their shit,” one witness says. They call this disaster the “brownout.”
And the brownout is supposed to be funny.
At least I think it’s supposed to be funny — because brown piles and disgusted faces are supposedly funny. At the very least, the brownout isn’t supposed to be unfunny. The joke didn’t land for me, and instead I stopped watching and wondered why poop jokes have never landed.
To clarify, this is not about Victorian propriety or some uppity aversion to “low” humor; it’s about certain types of low humor. The first season of American Vandal works precisely because the vulgarity is so pitch-perfect. Those investigations involved the lewd vandalism of twenty-seven cars in the faculty parking lot of Hanover High School. Who drew the dicks? The case against Dylan Maxwell seems airtight. Motive: check (he bears a grudge against his Spanish teacher). Precedent: check (he has a history of drawing dicks). General suspiciousness: check (he is a known dumbass).
But when the teenage investigators look closely at the evidence, they discover “one glaring discrepancy no one was looking at, something so huge it could blow the case wide open.” They discover that Maxwell’s “style” doesn’t match that of the vandal; his drawings and the members tagged on the twenty-seven cars look nothing alike. So our case turns on a mock-serious forensic examination of penis renderings. To further complicate matters, the star witness against Maxwell also claims to have gotten very friendly with the hottest girl in the school. But, wait — there’s no way that a dork like Alex Tremboli really got an Old Fashioned from Sarah Pearson, right? These rumors being key to the case (since the eyewitness is either credible or not), the investigators must examine the evidence closely, including a text sent from Pearson to Trimboli saying “heyy.” That second Y is key to the controversy. “Everybody in history has known that if you text someone heyy with two Ys, you want to fuck. Or give a hand job,” Trimboli says, with a completely straight face. He really wants us to believe him.
The first season of American Vandal is 100X more fun than the second, and the only hot-take to draw is that sex jokes are funnier than poop jokes.
A person just knows certain truths in the blood, long before articulating any reasons. When the digging for reasons begins, we are in Jonathan Haidt’s neighborhood. Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is a 300-page refutation of our claims to be rational animals who calmly assess the merits of arguments and phenomenon before us. Reason only follows intuition, serving as its lawyer. “[D]on’t take people’s moral arguments at face value,” Haidt writes. “They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly.” And so: I intuit that poop jokes aren’t as funny, and what follows is my best song & dance to justify what I already know to be true.
Because sex involves choices, important choices, a complex system of proprieties accumulate around the act. There is good advice, and bad advice — but most importantly there is advice. Against this structure of guidelines all kinds of interesting tensions are possible. Evelyn Waugh, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, once suggested that good old-fashioned repression is healthy for artists because they must exercise against that resistance and become more creative in their nuance. Evacuating one’s bowels involves much less choice. With bodily function that happens mostly outside of our choosing, the guidelines are much less interesting and the conflicts less colorful.
A good moralist would suggest that the potential for creative humor reflects the creativity of each act: sex brings new life into the world; defecation creates the need for plumbing.
The term “poop joke” probably misleads, too — because 99.99% of the poop humor of the last twenty years is really more gag than joke. Jeff Daniels’ bathroom scene in Dumb and Dumber relies on an abundance of absurd sounds, and then more absurd sounds follow, and then comes the kicker when the toilet won’t flush. Or there’s Stifler spiking Finch’s mochachino with x-lax in American Pie. Or there’s Austin Powers mistaking Fat Bastard’s boiled feces for coffee. “It’s a bit nutty,” he says, at which point we are supposed to be grossed out and rolling on the floor with laughter.
But if I’m being intellectually responsible — if I am trying to rise above Haidt’s skepticism about human reasoning — I ought to face the possibility that mine is a completely arbitrary dislike. Perhaps scatological humor has virtues that I can’t see; perhaps the grossness is truth. I must acknowledge my investment in this issue; whenever our heels dig in without noticing, we should check ourselves. (Also, as I look back on my post hoc explanation, I find them less compelling than the instincts on which they are based.)
So here is one challenge to my gut knowledge: some illustrious people peddled poop imagery.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for one. In letters to his family, he sounds more like a writer for South Park than a titan of high-brow art:
Well, I wish you good night
But first shit in your bed and make it burst.
Sleep soundly, my love
Into your mouth your arse you’ll shove.
Apparently Margaret Thatcher was deeply unenthused that such a great man had a flair for excrement. To the person who informed her of Mozart’s proclivities, the Iron Lady insisted otherwise. It just couldn’t be. The back and forth concluded when Mrs. Thatcher made her point abundantly clear: “I don’t think you heard what I said. He couldn’t have been like that.”
Aristophanes has to be included in any consideration of “low” humor. The Frogs opens with a conversation that also would have scandalized Mrs. Thatcher:
Xanthias: Well then, should I tell them an excellent joke?
Dionysos: Go ahead, feel free. But avoid that old routine —
Xanthias: Which one?
Dionysos: Where you shift your load and say that you need a shit!
Xanthias: But can’t I say that I’m carrying such a weight that unless it’s removed I’ll release an explosive fart?
Dionysos: Please don’t, I beg you — unless you want me to vomit!
There’s some “metatheatrical” humor here, well beyond the ambitions of most poop jokes. On one level, the playwright is probably questioning his audience’s taste. Either way, it’s poop and great literature combined.
Perhaps the most classic example of a great man of letters dabbling in the scatological arts is Jonathan Swift. In “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Swift dramatizes the heart-breaking disenchantment of a young man’s discovery that his ideal woman has some unseemly needs:
Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits! …
Poor Strephon is indeed puzzled and crushed to learn that beautiful women are just mortals, equipped with standard digestive systems. Swift doesn’t stop at simply mocking Strephon’s plight; he suggests Celia’s bowel movements are good. If Strephon “would but stop his nose…”
He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravished sight to see
Such order from confusion sprung,
Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.
Thanks to Celia’s waste, gaudy things raise from the ground. Defecation is crucial to the cycles of beauty, and the lady’s own beauty is probably inseparable from the efficiency of her digestion.
But just when I was open to the possibility that poop jokes are not necessarily backwards, sophisticated apologists unintentionally save me from the danger. They want to assure me that my prejudice against poop jokes really is just misdirected propriety. Worse than that, it’s a form of hiding, from what we really are. But their arguments only raise more questions. Stephanie Zacharek, for instance:
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.
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.
Notice that Zacharek clarifies “toilet humor — when it’s done well.” Perhaps the problem is not with poop jokes, but with bad poop jokes. There’s just one trouble with that: they’re all bad, at least everything that has made it onto a screen in the past twenty years. So the question for Stephanie Zacharek is, What “kick”? Show me some recent scatological humor with “kick.”
At heart, the problem with so many poop jokes is how easy they are. Any high school freshman can write one, so formulaic is the set-up. 1) Character eats questionable food. 2) Character panics at the rumbling of his/her stomach. 3) In a race against the clock, character runs for the bathroom, usually encountering resistance along the way. 4) Bowels are finally emptied as stupendous sounds ensue. This sequence is all the more embarrassing when 5) the character’s romantic interest sees/hears/smells, and doubly more embarrassing when 6) the plumbing fails.
Polly Evans hits related notes about “breaking taboos” and “exposing the dirty underbelly of society” and “revealing [our] true and disgusting selves.” Well, I guess so. The “brownout” scene in American Vandal shows we are only one poisoned batch of lemonade away from something embarrassing. We are indeed frail, as the bodily waste that we generate every day reminds us. It’s not just memento mori, but also memento excrementi.
This is borderline-wise, I guess. But it’s a leap to get to humor.
Taking a different approach in defense of the scatological, Megan Garber calls the bathroom joke “a safe space, something that insulates laughter from the threat of politics, of irony, of any kind of meaning or implication.” She adds, “Sure, you can roll your eyes at a fart joke; it is hard, however, to be deeply offended by one.” Deeply offended? In that case, sure. But dumb bathroom jokes are at least moderately offensive. The offense is to one’s intelligence; they presume my laughter without taking any trouble to earn it.
The apologists have lost me. As uncompelling as my own post hoc justifications were, their explanations only reaffirm my original stance. At the end of the day, the gut and its instincts reign.
No examination of poop comedy can avoid the larger question: What actually makes comedy work? Essayists and researchers (much smarter than I) have long tried to get at that question with only limited success. Why we laugh is a bit of a mystery, and probably will remain that way. E.B. White wrote that it is to our detriment to investigate too far into the workings of what’s funny. “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”
One thing is certain — it takes talent. To intentionally make another person laugh requires breaking the standard flow of the typical moment. We laugh when we are interrupted by talent, and pleased by the interruption. It might involve a sharp observation or connection drawn, a sense of disproportion or knack for timing, some physical charm or spontaneity, skills in mimicry or any number of other instincts or gifts. You make us laugh by calling something special out of yourself.
The standard poop gag, meanwhile, is all standard. The brownout scene in American Vandal is standard. And standard is just not funny.