In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
As a former stand-up comedian with more than a few thoughts about the relationship between the comic and their audience, the idea of taboo is very important to me. At a time where we are absurdly policing humor, treating any objectionable material, misapplied label, or poorly structured joke like a miniature Mein Kampf, it’s no wonder that a lot of comedians, in reaction to such an acidic creative landscape, have faulted by becoming what is commonly referred to as an “edgelord.”
If you don’t know what an edgelord is, it’s someone who eschews the process of building their material, instead just blurting out offensive things simply for the sake of being offensive. While I don’t personally believe this to be as apocalyptically harmful as many critics would have us believe, there’s just no craft in this lazy type of humor, and it’s thusly hard to find value in it. At the same time, I understand the impulse. For me, it has been frustrating to watch people my age—people who used to relish in how upset our stuffy parents would get at the crass humor of South Park—slowly become the same stuffy parents who get upset about the crass humor on South Park.
The discussion always takes the form of whether or not the jokester in question is “punching up” (lampooning people in power) or “punching down” (lampooning people who are lower on the power totem pole). The thing is, the idea of a power structure is not monolithic, and in the age of intersectionality, it’s damn near impossible to make a clean distinction as to who is or isn’t the most powerful/least powerful person in the room. Put enough people in a room (or a comedy club) and there are just too many variables. It’s a precarious perch to stand on, and personally, I don’t love that this lens has become the standard, as helpful as the concept may be. Intersectionality is supposed to bring nuance into this sort of thing, but quite often I see it used to opposite effect. In the arena of comedy, nuance is paramount. What I mean is that a comedian will often say shocking, objectionable, or downright inaccurate things…only to retcon perspective into the offending statement, thus resulting in humor. That’s how even the most basic jokes work.
At the same time, a comedian with no audience is just a person talking to a wall. It’s just as much the comedian’s job to read the room as it is the room’s job to recognize that they’re at a comedy show, and that outside of extreme circumstances, whatever is being said is at least intended as humorous, even if the execution is lacking. Unfortunately for both parties, the nature of comedy is that it requires the feedback of an audience, and as such, it needs to be tested in front of an audience before being packaged into an entertainment product. In order to do that, a comic often has to toe the line, sometimes crossing it, in order to build quality material.
It’s a tough venue in which to create, and my above rant really amounts to a wordy, entitled way of saying the following: The rules in comedy are always changing, and while it’s undoubtedly good to see the art form grow, it’s also comes with plenty of growing pains. Pains brought on equally by people who clutch their pearls and have fits of “the vapors” when something is distasteful to them, as well as performers who lean on “Yeah I said it” as if spewing hate is some sort of a badge of artistic honor. In my own experience, the former typically comes in the form of people getting offended on behalf of a demographic that they aren’t part of, and which wasn’t offended to begin with, while the latter takes the form of a comedian who was never that funny in the first place.
I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to say that I really liked Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. It’s a perfect example of how comedy can move in a progressive direction while still remaining transgressive, funny, and original. Anyone who has seen it knows that it’s not even a little bit sanitized.
Anywho, it’s my belief that these overreactive offense takers absolutely need to be shaken out of their stuffy shells, while these “equal opportunity offenders” need to alter their comedic targets. Both need to be shown that while it is indeed tasteless for a comic to punch down (if you can do the math and show your work), the notion of taboo itself will never be above criticism.
And what even is “taboo” anyway? To put it simply, it’s an arbitrary set of rules based entirely in maintaining the status quo and resisting anything, no matter how harmless, that might shake it up.
Enter John Waters, a filmmaker whose brand of cinematic anarchy is aimed squarely at, well, the squares. His satirical barbs are never pointed at anything he doesn’t love in some way or another, and his tonal barbs shoot out in all directions in a typically successful attempt at making the squares uncomfortable. By utilizing taboo material, Waters manages a way to punch upwards while hitting just about everyone in the process. And by employing taboo material with gleeful candidness, he’s been more instrumental in dissolving cultural clench than so many artists who take themselves way more seriously.
In perhaps the most famous film from his trash oeuvre, Pink Flamingos, Waters’ long time friend and muse Divine eats a piece of dog poop for our entertainment. It’s a pretty gag-worthy act, and it was performed solely to poke at the concept of propriety. Sure, it’s not “normal” to eat dog poop but who is it hurting besides Divine’s gut biome and anyone who found themselves downwind from her breath?
On this feat of fecal consumption, Waters said the following: “It was just a little piece of dogshit, and it made her a star.” He ain’t wrong.
But for my money, the best piece of taboo-tackling humor in the Waters canon comes from the same film. I’m speaking, of course, of The Singing Asshole. While I can’t find a clip of it online, I will do my best to describe it to you.
Set to the peppy sounds of The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird, a young man pulls his ankles behind his head, revealing his very large, gaping asshole. He then uses his sphincter muscles to move said asshole like a mouth, opening and closing it at a manic pace. The degree to which this man can manipulate his balloon knot is quite impressive. It’s as fascinating as it is horrifying, and it’s designed to upset stuffy, taboo-beholden squares while not drawing any of its humor from any one person or group’s expense. There’s no targeted demographic, nor is there even really a butt to the joke (pun probably intended). Nope, this is just a man giving a demonstration of a particularly uncouth talent, and doing so on camera. On a surface level, it’s hilarious — this guy’s asshole looks like it is singing a famously goofy, high energy song. On a deeper level, this is Waters and gang essentially saying “Oh, do I make you uncomfortable? Good! Be uncomfortable. I don’t care.” For those of us that get the gag, the distaste of others makes it that much funnier.
A more contemporary, less artistic version of this very same thing is the early internet meme called “Goatse.” If you’re familiar with Goatse, you get it. If you’re not familiar, well, Goatse is a single image of an anonymous asshole being held open by two hands. It’s pretty visceral, with a suggestion of dampness that can’t be unseen, and it was originally employed on early message boards whenever a user wanted to say “I don’t care about what you think. It’s not that serious.”
“It’s not that serious.” That’s precisely what I want to say to the pearl clutchers of the world. To the folks who want to better the world by being loudly upset. To the folks who strongly believe that their own tastes are the yardstick by which all things should be measured. The demographics of these folks are irrelevant, but their mentality is undeniably in need of being shaken up. It’s also what I want to say to the edgelord comics who think they’re doing some heroic work by being dickheads. It’s not that serious. It’s not that important. Maybe you should be funny first, and then work whatever statement you want to make into the material.
This is why I love The Singing Asshole so much! The crass, disgusting nature of the idea, mixed with the gleeful, unpointed, anarchic execution of it tells both the aggrieved audience member and the edgelord comic that things aren’t so damn serious. That it’s okay to laugh at poor taste. That it’s valuable to enjoy yourself just so long as no one else is getting hurt in the process. That being upset by a joke, even a terrible one, doesn’t necessarily qualify as having survived some sort of violence. That we all need to understand something a very wise man told me many years ago: If you party where shit lives, don’t be surprised when shit shows up.
Now that you’ve read my ridiculously overlong rumination on humor and Singing Assholes, please enjoy this quote from Waters himself, who managed to sum up this entire piece in just three sentences:
“To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste.”
One small piece of trivia before I go: the identity of The Singing Asshole is unknown. Despite having one of the most thorough credits sequences I’ve ever seen, the actor who performed this lovely number is not named, and Waters has kept the secret for decades.