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The Evolution of Gross
Bathroom humour has made its way from schoolyards to TV and the big screen. Tony Atherton explains that an Ottawa show can take a lot of the credit (blame).

By: Tony Atherton
The Ottawa Citizen
Printed on Aug. 29, 1998

Where did this grossness get started? Some point the finger at Ottawa's You Can't Do That on Television. The show, which starred Les Lye, once did a whole episode on fart jokes.

In Gogs, an award-winning Welsh claymation series that makes its Canadian debut tonight (Teletoon at 11:30 p.m.), the graphic depiction of urination and defecation among a family of troglodytes is a large part of the fun.

In South Park, a cult cartoon that is the biggest thing ever to hit Comedy Central in the U.S. or Canada's Comedy Network, toilet-mouthed kids make friends with a singing, dancing turd.

In There's Something About Mary, the summer's most successful comedy movie, semen is mistaken for hair gel to disgusting effect.

In BASEketball, the summer's other gross-out comedy, when you stop giggling at flatulence, you're expected to guffaw at lactation.

This year, a surge in comedy that is icky, sticky, smelly and nasty has given new meaning to the phrase "bodily humours." Suddenly, it's not only OK to include toilet jokes in mainstream entertainment, it's de rigueur.

In the series finale of Seinfeld, that fact that George urinates with the door open becomes the subject of comic analysis. In The Secret Lives of Men, a new sitcom on CTV this fall, a recently divorced man celebrates the fact that he's "finally able to take a nice peaceful dump.

And in a welter of "adult" cartoons delivered by specialty channels, the standard comedy arsenal includes vomit, pus, flaming farts and anal probes.

The trend has reached a point where even stuffy old CBS has seen fit to give a weekly spotlight to shock jock Howard Stern, a man who thinks breaking wind into a microphone is a scream.

Given the precipitous escalation of the vulgar and shocking in cinema and TV, you might wonder where the trend could possibly go from here. It's best not to ask.

"We can always get worse," says Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park, and co-star of BASEketball.

"I know that we didn't go into making (South Park) consciously saying let's take it a step further, or let's be more offensive than the last thing," Stone recently told reporters. "It's just kind of a natural progression."

The root of that "progression" may come as a surprise. At least one senior proponent of gross comedy credits its mainstream breakthrough to a children's show launched on CJOH almost 20 years ago.

"(You Can't Do That on Television) was probably the first," says John Kricfalusi, creator of the fart-friendly, nose-picking, kitty-litter-obsessed Ren & Stimpy (Teletoon, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.) "If it hadn't been for them we wouldn't have been able to do our thing. It was (Ottawa comedian) Les Lye and all those wacky guys who paved the way."

YCDTOTV was an iconoclastic series for pre-adolescents, beloved of kids but reviled by their parents. Its British-born producer, Roger Price, had taken the rapid-fire comedy concept of Laugh-In and found a way to make it even less sophisticated. The program featured a couple of adults and an ever-changing troupe of irreverent moppets (including Alanis Morrisette and Brooklyn South's Klea Scott) making fun of parents and school, and revelling in gross humour: a short-order cook named Barf (Lye) who sneezed on his road-kill burgers before serving them; a beer-stained, snaggle-toothed belcher known only as Dad (Lye again); and a patented concoction of viscous green muck dumped each week on some unlucky kid.

It lasted only a year on CTV, which was barraged by complaints from parents fearing its "harmful effects." But soon after, the show was snatched up by Nickelodeon, then a struggling young U.S. children's cable network. YCDTOTV not only gave Nickelodeon its first and most enduring hit, but also the network's massively successful programming attitude: brash, rude and in-your-face. YCDTOTV's first director, Jeff Darby, left CJOH to become the head of programming at Nickelodeon.

Les Lye, a radio veteran who remembers when letting the word "damn" slip out on air could cost you your job, says he is still amazed by what YCDTOTV could get away with.

"I remember one show that really turned me off. The whole thing was fart jokes from beginning to end. But Nickelodeon didn't seem to mind."

That's because the network had come to understand its audience, Ottawa-bred Kricfalusi said in a recent interview from his L.A.-based studio, Spumco.

"Kids are always laughing at gross humour. Leave kids to their own devices and they'll come up with their own gross humour. They'll talk about farts all day long and they have rituals connected with them."

"We hear a lot about respecting people's cultures," Price said at the time of YCDTOTV's 10th anniversary. "We should also respect the culture of eight-year-olds. The more we condemn it and the less they are secure in it, the less likely they are to move on."

Only now it seems like the early fans of YCDTOTV never actually moved on. Having had their juvenile humour validated on mainstream television, they merely refined it with other comic influences.

South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker will tell of being greatly influenced as eight and 10-year-olds by PBS broadcasts of Monty Python. But given that fact that the pair were eight and 10 years old about the time YCDTOTV was becoming a huge kids cult hit on Nickelodeon, you almost have to assume some cross-pollination. Certainly there's at least as much YCDTOTV-style crudeness as Python-style absurdity in South Park.

Kricfalusi makes no bones about what the success of YCDTOTV meant for Ren & Stimpy, which also premiered on Nickelodeon.

"Every time I wanted to do something gross or weird, I'd say, 'Hey you're always bragging about Nickelodeon being the (station that aired) You Can't Do That on Television. Well, I saw Les Lye doing it, so if it's good enough for him, well, I'm from the same town, and he's my biggest influence.'"

Kricfalusi notes that gross comedy is hardly new, just more blatant than it ever has been in mainstream culture. It has had a place on the fringes of culture since at least the '50s, when celebrated "gross artist" Basil Wolverton was making a kind of art out of erupting pimples and rotting teeth in MAD Magazine. Gross, along with crude, continued to be big in the underground comics of the '60s.

What's surprising, says Kricfalusi, is that gross comedy didn't become popular sooner, given the way mainstream culture so willingly embraced what he considers the more offensive grossness of horror movies and slasher films.

"That's what I call ugly gross. What we do is funny gross or cute gross," says Kricfalusi. "Basil Wolverton had this way of drawing really gross things, but they were funny. You don't look at them and want to puke. When I see a slasher movie, I just get disgusted."

Saturday Night Live, which provided the comedy subculture's first entree into the mainstream, dabbled in comic grossness from time to time (Gilda Radner's Roseanne Roseannadanna would obsess over nose hairs and hangnails) but mostly in the abstract; grossness was usually discussed, not indulged in.

The latter-day grossness, everything from Jim Carrey talking though his butt to Tom Green slathering himself in unctuous fluid to accost strangers, has an urgency and directness that is about more than just being funny, says Ed Robinson, vice-president of The Comedy Network.

"It's about getting the attention, it's about the controversy, it's about getting people talking at the water-cooler, and getting time to carve out a niche."

In other words, it's about marketing, says Greg Lawrence, the Ottawa animator behind the SNL-bound Kevin Spencer, a cartoon about an adolescent sociopath. Gross humour, he suggests, is an aggressive marketing device in a fragmented and highly competitive television market.

"It's largely a condition of the specialty channels -- in the U.S., Comedy Central and HBO, and in Canada, the Comedy Network -- fighting to get their market share, knowing that if they put on Suddenly Susan ... then it's just going to be another interchangeable sitcom. They had to create shows that endeavoured to be clever but did something that wasn't being done on the Big Three (networks)."

In the early days of U.S. cable, the novelty was nudity. Week after week, clever comedies like Dream On, or fantasy series like The Hitchhiker, were formatted to include entirely gratuitous scenes of bare breasts.

When the cable audience began to take nudity in its stride, says Lawrence, programmers needed something else to make them pay attention, like South Park's Mr. Hankey, The Talking Christmas Poo.

"You look at the numbers South Park is drawing (over six million a week in the United States) and you think, 'Well, maybe a fart joke it OK, especially if it's going to sell $100 million in merchandise for us.' "

Kricfalusi, who swears that South Park's Mr. Hankey episode is just a reworking of a Ren & Stimpy episode about a talking fart, credits South Park with at least one enviable breakthrough: the marketing of toy turds.

"I went around and pitched plush dumps and toy dumps to manufacturers a few years ago and they looked at me like I was crazy. And now, of course, they have have Mr. Hankey toys."

Robinson compares the escalation of grossness in comedy to the culture of one-upmanship among special effects artists in big budget action movies. "In comedy we've kind of gone with that same philosophy, only in the direction of how outrageous can we be," he says.

But even outrageousness will eventually become passe, says Lawrence. The next innovation could be an intelligent family comedy, he suggests, because it will be so refreshingly different from shows that are cynical, sexual or gross. He points out that after animator Mike Judge made a name for himself with the sniggering adolescent comedy Beavis and Butthead, he went to greater success with the much less offensive family cartoon, King of the Hill.

There are still limits to gross or shocking comedy on TV. The Comedy Network, for instance, has aired South Park's Mr. Hankey episode, but censored a Tom Green segment that had Green fishing a turd out of a toilet, and tucking it into a little bed. And Comedy Central rejected a a proposed South Park episode about the Nation of Islam.

But thanks to digital technology, the role of the distributor/gatekeeper in popular culture is rapidly eroding. Kricfalusi has turned to the Internet to make sure his comic vision is not sullied (or unsullied, as the case may be) by what he sees as arbitrary decisions of TV networks. Pay-per-view cartoons on his website ( enumerate the possible household uses for erections, and otherwise smash the boundaries of good taste.

South Park's Stone and Parker may also be feeling hemmed in. They've made it clear that when they do a South Park feature film, they want it to be R-rated, despite the fact that a large part of their TV audience is under 18.

"We want to do something that just takes it to another level," Stone has said.

Consider yourself forewarned.