The Delicate Art of Potty Humor

I feel quite confident in my theory. Across the entire history of homo sapiens, across all cultures, ethnicities, geographies, and however else we might seek to self-identify, I know that we all have one thing in common – enjoyment of an occasional jolt of potty humor. Two of the foundations of humor are the element of surprise and challenges to societal norms. Both coalesce into the perfect storm for potty humor. Few will flat out say that they are a fart aficionado, but it is my contention that the ill-timed toot is a universal guilty pleasure that brings even the most pretentious down to earth.

Let’s imagine the preverbal life of a caveman sitting in his cave with his hunting colleagues, gnawing on the enormous thigh bone of a wooly mammoth. Grease from the meat seeps into his matted beard and the sputtering fire stings his eyes. He stops eating and puts his hand on his distended stomach; his eyes bulge out and then, suddenly, the cave ricochets with a fart of heroic proportions. The man sits back, grunts and immediately points at his cave-mates who then point back at him. The group rushes out the cave entrance and dissolves into laughter. Later he uses the cave wall to paint a commemorative picture with stick figures surrounded by elaborate squiggles representing the spreading fumes. The picture puzzles anthropologists for years until a little boy sees it and says, “Wow that caveman must have really ripped one.”

Potty humor shows up in some of the earliest recorded writing. Aristophanes, a Greek playwright writing in the 5th century BC, filled his plays with irreverent fart jokes, frequently at the expense of his nemesis Socrates. An Arabian Nights tale tells the story of Abu Hasan who flees to India in embarrassment after tooting on his wedding night. He lives for years in atonement and becomes a man of utmost sobriety and respect. Finally, he returns home but is still nervous at his reception. At an oasis on the outskirts of town, he overhears a young boy and his mother still laughing about his fart that occurred decades earlier. He flees the country never to return. I posit that we can all sympathize with his humiliation.

Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonathon Swift and Mark Twain are more contemporary luminaries who have ladled flatulence into their prose, often with the specific purpose of challenging social norms and pretentions. Please note that the potty humor did not devalue their status as respected authors. These men were able to find that sweet spot on the spectrum of potty humor that ranges from gentle tee-hees to the extreme of gross-out and cheap shock value.

However, I think that there is a second category of potty humor, one where the craft is even more challenging than that faced by Shakespeare, Mark Twain or their ilk. How do you find that elusive sweet spot when the subject is excrement itself? Here you cannot use the tools of sly innuendo. In fact, authors might have to finesse the gross-out humor inherent in excrement.

This is not an idle question on my part, because someday I would like to write a book on the history of sewer systems. My thesis (as yet unresearched) would be that a civilization could only progress so far, a city could only get so big before its citizens would have to devise some sort of sewer system to avoid typhus or other pestilential diseases. The current book at my bedside table is titled Napoleon’s Buttons, and it sets forth the theory that Napolean’s Russian 1812 campaign failed due to the Russian winter – that is well known, but the book goes further to propose that the Frenchmen succumbed to the weather because their tin buttons disintegrated in the frigid temperatures. Basically, the freezing soldiers had to choose between firing their weapons or holding their coats closed. For want of a better button the battle was lost. If a button can be a critical factor in warfare, I’ve just got to believe that some pivotal moment in history must hinge on a toilet. I envision my book as a compelling combination of science and history with just the right leavening undercurrent of potty humor.

I have researched science-themed excrement books to see how other authors have handled this peculiar dance. This niche category can be broadly divided into the top-down approach written by the content expert who translates his knowledge to an eager audience, or the bottom-up approach written by a motivated lay person who takes readers on a curiosity-driven journey, detailing the unfolding research, site visits and interviews. The first book I reviewed was titled “The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tell Us About Evolution, Ecology and a Sustainable Society,” by David Waltner-Toews, a Canadian expert in waste management. I was immediately captivated by the title’s clever pun, but when I pulled the book off the shelf I became even more enthused by the cover art – a single iridescent fly approaching the second “e” in feces.

This struck me as a shining example of effective potty humor understated an clever. A steaming pile would have been too much, several flies on the cover would have been equally unappealing. The single fly was perfect, it said it all. This was my first inkling on how to harness the inherent humor. The author can just set the situation up, then step away and let the reader’s imagination take over. Here’s the bottom line: When you are dealing with excrement, less is more.

The cover was the high point of the book, and Waltner-Toews makes the unfortunate mistake of overreaching as he adds little shit jokes throughout the text. There are multiple variants of the stale idioms of “You don’t know shit,” or “You better know your shit.” In Africa, he searches for dung-beetles, but notes that in the dry season “most dung beetles were already hunkered underground in front of their television sets, watching Bushland Idle.” Perhaps this is an in-joke only appreciated by Canadians. He then notes that male dung beetles can push more than 1,000 times their weight, a feat of strength they also use to push rival males out of the way during mating. Get ready – here comes the punch line, “It would not be the first time a male has gone to the gym to improve his chances to find a sexual partner.”

Now I feel I must consider what I would have done with the golden opportunity of dung beetles. As my father always said, “It’s easy to criticize but hard to create.” So here goes – I might have commented on the cultural history of dung beetles, specifically their worship by Phoenicians who considered the beetles the earthly manifestation of the sun god Ra based on the similarity between the rolling dung balls and the sun rolling across the sky. It’s hard to imagine American exalting the dung beetle. However, these beetles are one of the world’s great recyclers, and perhaps in this green age, I could ponder the implications of swapping out the American eagle as our national symbol. Or I could riff on the divergent evolutionary pathways of the sense of smell of humans vs. those who live in excrement. We are among the many social animals where the taboo is clearly “you can’t shit where you live,” and our brains have been hard-wired to perceive the smell of shit/dung/pooh as repulsive and gag-inducing. In contrast, to the hard-working dung beetle this same stench is perceived as the sweet and comforting smell of home-cooking.

My second principle of humor coalesced around these thoughts. Any humor should work at the margins of the steaming pile. Leave the pile alone.

Mary Roach is an example of the bottom-up lay author who takes the reader with her as she investigates various ick-factor topics. She doesn’t just dabble in the ick-factor, she wallows in it. In fact gross-out humor is her signature style. Her book Stiff is an exploration of the fate of human cadavers and provides grisly details on such things as the forensic science of decaying humans or cadavers used as crash test dummies. Her most recent book Gulp takes the reader on a tour of the entire gastrointestinal tract; as the journey reaches its bitter end Roach discusses whether a stopped-up colon can burst. She has been called the “funniest science writer in America” and was tapped as the guest editor of an anthology of science writing. Her topics often seem silly or fall into the general category of a childhood prank, but somehow she successfully turned the flat-out ick factor into critical acclaim.

I investigated this phenomenon by reading her book Packing for Mars, a discussion of life in zero gravity. While this topic doesn’t immediately scream ICK!, given Roach’s track record I knew that it would address a question that has puzzled me for fifty years: How do astronauts defecate in space? In the 1960s I sat transfixed as bobbing astronauts watched lunch sandwiches and pouches of Tang juice drift by in zero gravity. I felt sure I was not alone, just one of the millions with the same unspoken question, one that no one dared ask or answer. Yes, walking on the moon was a marvel of engineering and the American can-do attitude, but there were significant infrastructural questions that remained a mystery.

Sure enough, Roach has a whole chapter titled, “Separation Anxiety: The Continuing Saga of Zero Gravity Elimination.” The chapter starts by describing the Johnson Center “potty cam,” a necessary training aid for astronauts who must use a “toilet” that is only four inches across, thus requiring precise alignment. Roach then describes what the potty cam is “seeing.” At this point I felt that she had overstepped my newly established principle of “less is more.” Nothing more is needed, Roach can let readers use their own imaginations to flesh out the visuals, but like the dung beetle, I must ask myself the question: What would I do with the comic potential of a potty cam?

Here I would apply my principle of working around the edges. I would leave the potty cam alone and turn instead to Walter Cronkite. This was the man whose sonorous and clipped tones guided millions of TV viewers through the early days of the space program, the man who discussed the astronauts diet, heart and respiratory rates, but never mentioned the most basic of bodily functions. Cronkite was the most trusted man in America who personified the enviable trait of gravitas, a trait that has eluded many other anchors and statesmen. Perhaps Cronkite felt that any discussion of the obvious question of defecation would besmirch his hard-earned gravitas. Could the same man who announced President Kennedy’s assassination by wearily removing his dark rimmed glasses possibly also talk about a potty cam? Probably not.

Roach’s books are humor-first, science second, while Waltner-Toew’s is science first and feeble attempts of humor second. I imagine a spectrum with a turgid academic treatise anchoring the left end, and pure humor on the right. Roach skews way far to the right, while my academician Waltner-Toew’s lies somewhere to the left of center. I can see a way of combining these two approaches for my book on sewer systems – to find that middle point that uses humor to draw the reader in, but then provides a more serious discussion of the world-wide problems of sanitation. Using Roach’s model I would schedule interviews with passionate researchers and the executives of the World Toilet Organization and then join in the observance of World Toilet Day on November 19th. But I don’t want my book to be undiluted laughs at the expense of a serious problem. I would also want to add in a little bit of Walter Cronkite’s gravitas, just enough to educate, but not enough to get the reader bogged down in depressing facts and figures.

It’s a tricky business to be sure. I am reminded of the story of Goldilocks who tries out chairs that are t-o-o big, t-o-o small and then finds the one that is j-u-s-t right. Then there is the Serenity Prayer which praises the “wisdom to know the difference.” If I can find the wisdom to combine the two j-u-s-t right, I think that I can nail the delicate art.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters. Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.

The story of Abu Hasan’s wedding is one of the ***** of the Arabian Nights,

A story of an all-timed toot that gave the newlyweds a fright.

Abu felt so humiliated and ashamed in front of his wife,

That he felt that he had to ***** away and start a new life.

He thought “I’ll move to India, but how long will I have to wait

Until everyone forgets and I can return with a clean *****?

At ***** twenty years passed before he went home to try a fresh start,

But it wasn’t enough, the country was still laughing a his infamous fart.




Answers: tales, steal, slate, least

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