It’s kind of good and fun, or at least strangely comforting, to have this positivist attitude about comedy and comedy writing, that if you just apply the magical alchemy you can turn any subject matter into a clever, witty bon mot. This idea that, like, “Hey, sometimes it’s tough, but if you you’re good enough, you can make smart jokes about any topic. That’s what makes comedy so great!” It always kind of reminds me of that thing in sales culture, where they’re like, “Hey buddy, if you’re a good enough salesman, you can sell anything to anyone.”
Well I’m here to tell you that you can’t sell anything to anyone. For instance, I will never buy a pair of jeans that costs more than $30. Another thing I will never buy is the premise that it is possible to make a smart fart joke. No matter how much I want to believe – and trust me, I do – I simply cannot. Fart jokes, much like the universe, are made up of gas, but unfortunately… there is no intelligent design.
The design thing is actually a pretty apt framework to think about fart jokes. There’s a well-known adage in engineering that it’s impossible to design a product quickly, cheaply, and well. That is, that if you manufacture a car really quickly and cheaply, it’s going to fall apart. You can make a high-quality car in a short amount of time, but that’s going to be really expensive. Etc.
My grand theory about jokes is: it’s impossible to make one that’s smart, funny, and about farts. (Or, I suppose, any other scatological/base subject, but I’m talking about farts right now because, well, they’re funny.) By dialing up the fart factor, you’re taking away from the smartness factor, and vice-versa. And when you dial up the fart factor and the smartness factor all the way, then what do you have? A medical textbook about asses or something. And, although asses are funny, textbooks are the opposite of funny, so it cancels out. Funny level: 0.
But wait, you’re saying. What about that Adam Sandler audio sketch about getting hypnotized and the doctor keeps farting? I’ll admit, I still laugh at that, and I probably always will. But don’t turn around and try to tell me it’s smart. It’s dumb as hell, and everyone knows it.
But what about that Mr. Show sketch where the news is reporting on a breaking presidential scandal and the scandal is that the president farted? That show is one of the smartest, most clever comedy shows ever, and they talk about farts a ton in that sketch. First of all, yes, it’s pretty funny. And it is smart, yes – it’s kind of referencing the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal and how we like to treat politicians’ personal lives like they’re actual news, and it’s also an evergreen idea that would be funny if you don’t get the reference. Such a funny, smart comment on the media and the public’s appetite for scandal.
But that’s the thing: it’s not a fart joke. It’s a media joke. It uses farts, sure, but it would be the same thing if you switched out the fart specific for “the president stepped in gum” or something. (And I would say it leans more on dumb silliness [the best kind] as it goes on, what with the names and all.)
But hold on, what about the most critically respected genius comedian ever, on every level, Richard Pryor? His 1968 debut album has a bit about Jackie O. farting that included an extended act out of her farting uncontrollably. Surely if anyone could crack the code, it’s him! Look, nobody loves and respects Richard Pryor more than me. He’s my favorite comedian of all time. But that shit just isn’t funny. I know, I know, settle down. Even The Beatles had bad songs. (Or at least songs that don’t hold up 50 years later.)
If you’re saying it’s hard to make an argument like this with just 3 examples, you’re right. But those are, I think, pretty strong examples. And they’re meant to illustrate something that I think is true, and that does kind of have deeper implications for thinking about jokes. Most of them fall into that first category of being just unabashedly dumb. I mean, the Farrelly Brothers weren’t trying to win any awards when they had Jim Carrey light his fart on fire in Dumb & Dumber. In retrospect that movie is some kind of anti-genius, but the fucking title is Dumb and Dumber.
And then there’s that other, kind of more interesting, category of jokes that seem like fart jokes, but are actually at their core about something else. Like the scene in Beavis and Butthead Do America where they meet two old metal guys in the desert and it becomes more and more thuddingly obvious that they are Beavis & Butthead’s dads. They were roadies in the same town, “scored with two chicks” the year Beavis & Butthead were born, etc. Throughout the scene they keep doing more and more dumb stuff, driving home the point more and more that they’re related, culminating in Beavis’s dad going “uhh watch this” and ripping a gigantic bean fart that makes the camp fire blow up like a mushroom cloud. While on the surface this seems like a fart joke, it’s actually about family, fatherhood, our innate need for acceptance, the tragic failure to recognize when you cross paths with someone special, this obsessive need to seek out some kind of meaning, and the unshakable certainty that you will never find it, the essential helplessness of human nature itself. That’s not a fart joke…it’s a life joke.
I mean that’s all bullshit, but it’s kinda true, right? I guess what I mean to say is, what is it about farts that makes us laugh? It’s that they’re really funny. But admitting that means admitting that you’re kind of a dumbass. Which we all are. But you can’t go through life admitting you have no fucking idea what you’re doing, or we’d all be homeless.
You can’t pretend to be smart and admit you’re a dumbass at the same time. And that’s why there’s no such thing as a smart fart joke.
Eddie Brawley is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn