The World Is Flatulence: The Enduring Appeal of the Tasteless

In a culture that thinks about everything, it's a relief, sometimes, to think about nothing.

In the ruins of Pompeii, among crumbling walls charred, centuries ago, by the heat of Vesuvius, archaeologists found the remnants of ancient graffiti. Here are some of the age-old etches that beckon us, lyrically, from past:

"Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates."


"Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here."


"I screwed the barmaid."

One suspects the messages might have read a tad differently in the original Latin—rare is the graffiti artist who prefaces his commentary with "please"—but you get the idea: The scatological, the stuff of defecation and hairy privates, has an extremely long, if not an extremely proud, history. It's turds all the way down, basically, and that's especially true when it comes to humor. Approximately 65 percent of Shakespeare's poetry features phallic puns. Centuries ago, the Japanese scroll 屁合戦, or He-Gassen—translation: "The Fart War"—concerned itself with, as its name suggests, comically weaponized flatulence. The topic of the world's oldest joke, dating from 1900 BC? Yep: farts.

There's an obvious reason for all this, and only part of it has to do with the fact that farting can be funny. There is also, on top of everything else, a soothing universality to scatological humor. We all have bodies. Those bodies occasionally do weird things. Those things can be surprising and subversive and awkward and delightful in a way that we can all understand, intuitively—regardless of nationality or gender or political leaning or social status or, in every sense, age.

Universal Pictures

Which perhaps helps to explain an otherwise baffling fact: This past weekend, the No. 1 movie in the U.S. was not the magisterial space opera Interstellar or the star-laden biopic Foxcatcher or the critically acclaimed Disney project Big Hero 6 ... it was instead Dumb and Dumber To, the 20-years-in-the-remaking celebration of dimwittery co-starring Rob Riggle, Jeff Daniels, and Jim Carrey's face. The gross-out comedy grossed $38 million at the box office—"bungling," The A.V. Club put it, "its way to the top."

"Bungling" is right: Dumb and Dumber To is, as a cinematic specimen, terrible—even by gross-out comedy's standards. It is not well-written. It is not well-acted. It is not well-produced. The 26 percent approval rating it has earned itself on Rotten Tomatoes has probably been buoyed, to some degree, by critics' ongoing nostalgia for the original Dumb and Dumber. I could show-not-tell you the movie's failings in much more detail, pointing out the latest Farrelly film's reliance on colostomy bags/embalming fluid/the term "grandgina" ... but that would waste both of our time. You don't expect a movie like Dumb and Dumber To, which promises nothing more and nothing less than 109 minutes of tasteless stupidity, to offer anything more or anything less than 109 minutes of tasteless stupidity—including, but not limited to, fart jokes and poop jokes and ponderous pans of pasty posteriors.

More to the point: You would be disappointed, probably, if the film tried to be anything more than tastelessly stupid. If you have paid money to see Dumb and Dumber To—if you have, by your pocketbook vote, justified the film's existence—then unadulterated (e)scatology is probably exactly what you have come for. There is, despite and because of all the literal shittiness, a counterintuitive charm to Dumb and Dumber To—the same kind that turned its predecessor into, some say, a "cult classic." And the same kind, as well, that led an artist in Japan, hundreds of years ago, to put paint to parchment to depict some epic silent-but-deadlies. There is something appealing about humor that is removed, blissfully if not completely, from a cultural context—humor that gets its LOLs by way of its WTFs. It's an appeal that is messy and dirty and transcendently human. Restituta's hairy privates are, basically, all of our hairy privates.

"The Papal Belvedere," by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from the 1545 publication of Martin Luther's Depiction of the Papacy. The engraving features German peasants greeting Pope Paul III, and the Bible he holds, with ... farts. (Wikimedia Commons)

And yet. As ancient as the fart joke may be, there is also something about its appeal that is particular to the 21st century—something about its appeal that is particular, apparently, to the weekend of November 14, 2014. Something that is unique to, you might say, the way we LOL now.

It started, basically, like this: The rise of the Internet led to, among other things, the democratization of culture, which led to, among other things, the flourishing of culture, which led to, among other things, the intellectualization of culture, which led to, among other things ... the journalistic think piece. The think piece—the name hints at the genre's own ambivalence about itself—is essentially an essay that takes a recent event, or recent cultural product, and uses it as an excuse for cultural analysis. (You are currently reading, you have probably guessed, a think piece.)

As a genre, the think piece—much like the well-told fart joke—has a way of being wonderful and terrible in precisely equal measure. Wonderful, because the form is democratic and permissive: Anything—literally, anything—can be thought about in writing. Cosby? Racialized emoji? Jane the Virgin? Kim Kardashian's baby-oiled derriere? These are all nuanced and valuable and urgent things to think about.

The think piece, in other words, gives us opportunities to approach our world not just as a tangled mess of bodies, but also as a set of social structures that give those bodies a form and direction. They let us intellectualize anything and, also, everything. So, under the regime of the think piece, Kim K's slick posterior became not just a victim of exposure, but a conduit of it: It incited much-needed conversations about feminism, about racism, about beauty and fame and the soft bigotry of lowbrow expectations. It gave us a reason—an excuse—to talk about things we wanted, and needed, to talk about.

Which, again, is great. Thinking, obviously, is great! But then there's the terrible aspect of the think piece as a genre—which is also, it turns out, the same as the wonderful aspect: The form can concern itself with, pretty much, anything. So Alex From Target—sorry, #alexfromtarget—isn't just a teenager who became a meme; he's also, in thinkpiecese, a trenchant commentary on the social power of youths and the nihilistic nature of microfame. The term "basic" isn't just an all-purpose burn, but also a cultural appropriation and a racial appropriation and a gendered commentary on the consumption habits of others.

Taylor Swift, Beyonce Knowles, Solange Knowles, Matthew McConaughey, the wearing of flannel, the growing of beards, the watching of The Big Bang Theory, the practice of twerking, the practice of vaping, the hating of The Hunger Games, the sipping of a Pumpkin Spice Latte ... participation in all of these things can become, in an age that insistently correlates morality with taste, extremely fraught. Is your coffee offending someone? Does the emoji you just sent really mean what you think it does? Are you unknowingly #normcore? Is your outfit, underneath it all, racist?

It can be exhausting, this world in which every choice becomes A Choice, in which every pleasure threatens to become—maybe even without your realizing it—"guilty."

Here is the obligatory "to be sure" line in the think piece: To be sure, a critical attitude toward culture is also a net good for culture. It's hard to argue with any system that takes lubricating humilities—empathy, perspectival awareness, the checking of privilege—and insists on their value. The economy of the think piece is the direct result, after all, of our newfound exposure to each other: Through the Internet in general, through Facebook in particular, through Instagram albums and Pinterest boards and Twitter feeds and #alexfromtarget, we are realizing—year by year and also second by second—how different one person's perspective can be from another's. Our impulse to question everything, sometimes in excruciating detail, comes from that realization. And it will help us, in the end, to become better, both among and toward each other.

But the thinking economy has its side effects, too—chief among them being the thin line between thinking and over-thinking. A favored crutch word of the think-piece regime is "problematic": We toss it around like accusatory confetti.  What does "problematic" actually mean? And who decides the definition? No one fully knows, and this is its evil genius. The murkiness doesn't stop us from "problematizing" the products of culture, high and low; on the contrary, it encourages us. Anything, from a Jeopardy! episode to a restaurant menu, can be given a rating of "problematic" by a dutiful Internet think-piecer.

Again: good! But also: In this context, even something as basic as laughter (not "basic" as in #basic, just "basic" as in ... ugh, who even knows anymore) can become fraught. Humor itself can become politicized, to the extent that your LOL may contain ironies you didn't even realize were lurking there. Take, for example, popular shows—and popular think piece fodder—like Arrested Development and Archer and The League and the revealingly named You're the Worst, which often pivot around jokes on taboo topics like alcoholism and fetishism and incest. These jokes are often extremely subtle, which makes them both brilliant and also, for the laugher, a little bit risky. Who, actually, is the butt of their jokes? When you laugh at them ... what, in the end, are you laughing at?

Even when the humor isn't subtle—even when the butt of the joke is as visible as Kim Kardashian's—the whole posture of our ironized age treats the LOL as a kind of intellectual exercise. You're not just laughing; you're laughing at something. There is an object to your laughter, and that has a way of—another crutch word of the think piece regime—objectifying things. The stuff of culture becomes less delightful than droll, less haha than heh. And morally and otherwise, the difference matters.

See what I mean? It's exhausting.

Which brings us back to Dumb and Dumber To—a dumb movie that is indeed so dumb as to be anti-intellectual. Which makes it not just (very, very occasionally) funny, but also something of a rhetorical relief. The fart joke is also a safe space, something that insulates laughter from the threats of politics, of irony, of any kind of meaning or implication. Sure, you can roll your eyes at a fart joke; it is hard, however, to be deeply offended by one. "The Fart War" and its ilk are removed, in a very particular way, from the culture wars.

Which is another way of saying that Dumb and Dumber To, and the wide selection of cultural products that share its poop-jokey-y ethos, are the anti-think piece. They want the fart, and nothing but the fart, so help them OMG. And for that we should probably thank them. In an age of insistent intellectualism, that which is dumb—and, then, that which is dumber, to—offer a respite from the demands of thought itself. They give us something the Internet has made, through its earnestness and its irony, a little rarer than it used to be: the freedom not just to LOL, but to laugh out loud.