THE JOKE OF THE BUTTby Rip Rense
(Originally published in "The Rense Retort," 1998.)
It's not every day that someone just comes out and announces, "I am an ignorant, unsophisticated, crass, arrogant buffoon."
Yet that, in effect, is what "writer" A.J. Jacobs did recently in an issue of Entertainment Weekly. For reasons known only to the EW editor, Jacobs was given a couple of pages to tell the world about his taste in comedy. Why anyone should be interested in his taste in comedy was not clear. Give the editor the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to being provocative.
In an article bearing the banal-speak headline, "Everything Old Blows," A.J. begins by proclaiming that all black-and-white comedy films are not funny. Color, he avers, is a requisite for laughter.
The drooling idiocy of this statement should require no elucidation.
Further, A.J. declares that Chaplin wasn't funny ("I just think he sucks," he eloquently offers.) Neither was W.C. Fields (boring), Jackie Gleason (too loud), The Marx Brothers (too much music), Lucy and Desi, Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Gracie Allen. ...
A.J. didn't bother to mention Laurel and Hardy, presumably because they are so dull as to be beneath contempt.
All right, you say, let's give the guy a break. Everyone, after all, has his or her own taste. I never really liked Abbott and Costello, for instance. But sympathy for A.J. fades quickly as one encounters the crux of the Jacobs Theory of Comedy: "There's nothing funnier," he writes, "than a well-placed, well-timed, well-earned use of the word 'ass.'"
What's more: "In my opinion, too many butts are better than no butts at all. Butts, after all, are a part of life. ... Did Steamboat Willie ever emit a flaming fart?"
Disregarding the fact that "Steamboat Willie" is a sound-pioneering Disney cartoon, not a comedy, A.J.'s point is clear. The essence of witticism, the epitome of amusement, the very fundament of all things funny (so to speak) in the world of A.J. Jacobs is. ...
The human hindquarters.
Yes, one "butt" or "fart" joke and old A.J. is on the floor, busting a gut, lips peeled back like a chimp, tears streaming. Hee-hawwww! Hee-hawwww!
Now, notwithstanding the rich history of scatology in humor (from Chaucer to the tokus-infused routines of the Catskills), I must insist that there is more to eliciting merriment and mirth in the human psyche than speaking the word, "butt."
Yes, it is true that horse-laughing hordes in Las Vegas hotels and HBO comedy specials go berserk at the faintest suggestion of the cloven configuration resting atop the legs. But then, these folks aren't exactly in the market for subtlety. They're like the groundlings of Shakespeare's day, whom the Bard always thoughtfully remembered with token references to things derriere. No doubt A.J. would pronounce this slight aspect (no pun intended) of Shakespearean comedy to be its very pinnacle.
Yes, according to A.J., if Laurel and Hardy had just broken wind a lot, they would be funny (provided their films were colorized, of course). W.C. Fields? Should have just said "butt" every minute or two. (To his "credit," he does address a woman as "Mrs. Broadbottom" in one film, and in another remarks, "Isn't it wonderful how everything always rounds itself out nicely in the end?") Gleason? If he'd changed "To the moooooon, Alice!" to "I'm gonna moooooon you, Alice," A.J. might have been happy. This is a guy, after all, who complains of the great Buster Keaton -- as innovative and clever a filmmaker as ever to get behind a camera -- he "never talked out of his buttocks, now did he?"
Furthermore, "I need the joke-a-second pace of 'South Park' or 'Friends,'" A.J. writes, thus confessing to being the victim of a psychotically fractured attention span, like much of the TV-mainlining public. Yes, A.J. is haplessly primed for kneejerk yucks in response to jokes, jokes, jokes -- by his own admission -- as long as they come fast and furious. "Call me an MTV-bred Philistine," he writes.
And here is the most dreadful part of A.J.'s "argument": "All the actors are dead. Lucy? Dead. Desi? Dead. That guy who hangs from the clock? Dead. I'm sorry, but I don't want to be reminded of my mortality. ..."
This is where Jacobs' appropriated Paul Reiser/Howard Stern bitchiness becomes asinine (again, no pun intended) to the point of, well, hilarity. This guy is actually dismissing the worth of artists because they are dead! Take that, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Phil Hartman! I wonder if this prejudice extends to other professions, such as science or music, for instance. Perhaps A.J. would not have much use for Einstein, Beethoven, Salk. ...
What this puerile glib-meister has forgotten, or tragically seems never to have learned -- like so many people today -- are things called irony, satire, subtlety, social commentary, incisiveness, comedy that aims a little higher than the belt -- say, somewhere around the head.
Oh, and then there's a little item called context. Listen, A.J., you might never find Fields or Chaplin as funny as "The Buttmans" from In Living Color, but does it occur to you that the world was very different in the pre-A.J. period of human history? Perhaps if you could understand something of the time of Fields, Chaplin, et al., you might be embarrassed by the pomposity of your currently held opinions. But probably not. I think you would sneer at Edison for not owning a cell phone.
The real tragedy of Jacobs' article is not the point of view per se, but the fact that he was given a platform in a national magazine to present it. Why not just invite some twelve-year-old kid off the street to rant? (To be fair, the always-thoughtful Ken Tucker was allowed to, pardon the expression, rebut -- in less space.) A.J.'s piece was devoid of perspective and evidenced no understanding of anything other than that which pleased A.J. Traditionally, writers have had to claim some sort of expertise in a subject in order to hold forth about it. A.J. has all the credentials of kids in the "Cultural Revolution" of China. Given absolute power, those tykes and teens promptly dismissed as irrelevant and evil anything they couldn't understand. As with A.J., everything "old" was bad.
"Butts," writes A.J. Jacobs, "after all, are a part of life."
Yes, and so are brains. And they're really a lot more interesting. Try using yours sometime, A.J. When you're not too busy chortling at somebody saying "buttcrack" on "Friends" or "South Park.".
And in the spirit of generosity, let me close by giving you just what you asked for, a well-placed, well-timed, well-earned use of the word:
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.