The age of gross
In 1999, the world watched as Jim (Jason Biggs) tested a theory that â€˜third baseâ€™ feels like â€˜warm apple pieâ€™ at the climax of seminal teen comedy American Pie. It was, for its time, one of the boldest and most outrageous comedy moments on film.
Not only was it outrageous, it was profitable too. Despite a critical drubbing, which saw it described as a â€œgross and tasteless high school rompâ€? American Pie banked over $235 million and frequently tops â€˜Top 100 comedyâ€™ lists worldwide.
The fact of American Pieâ€™s incredible popularity, along with its subsequent (and more extreme) sequels and imitators, such as Road Trip, Freddie Got Fingered and Wedding Crashers is a testament to the public affection for the â€˜gross out comedyâ€™ â€“ a sub-genre that squelched into life somewhere in the background of that pie scene back in 1999, and delights in shocking the audience with sexual, scatological and crude humour.
But why are gross out comedies so enduringly popular? And where will it end?
Cinema has always been a cathartic experience. Arguably the best moments in cinema come as we experience tears of fright at a horror film, or weep with sadness at a tragic romance. But the gross-out genre represents a growing opportunity for audiences to push themselves to a new limit â€“ by testing their capacity for disgust in the safe realm of a comedy.
While horror films have become increasingly explicit and visually shocking over the years (compare the positively puritanical Scream to any entry in the Saw franchise) gross out comedies have also evolved (or should that be devolved?) in their taste for the grotesque, pushing the envelope further than ever before.
There comes a point in this summerâ€™s blockbuster summer comedy Get Him to the Greek that, quite frankly, is too obscene to describe here in any detail without receiving complaints. Suffice it to say that the scene features a male being raped and then drugged by his friends to help him over the experience.
The unparalleled success of the gross out comedy genre has created a troubling catch-22 â€“ where the films have generated their own demand for increasingly gross humour.
Filmmakers feel obligated to trump the hilarious horrors of previous movies in order to pull in more demanding audiences. However, those same audiences have only developed such powerfully strong stomachs thanks to the growing back catalogue of entries in the genre. The further filmmakers push their audiences, the further the audience will demand they see when the sequel rolls around.
Whether audiences genuinely enjoy such films, or simply see them as a kind of dare, or cheesy distraction is impossible to know (and inevitably in the eye of the viewer to decide), but the incredible popularity of the gross-out comedy and the horror-porn genre suggests that there is a demand for that which shocks.
While it is commendable to push boundaries, and the use humour (or even horror) to render taboo subjects accessible to the public is well documented by comedians like Richard Pryor and Richard Herring, filmmakers must be careful that smut and crassness are vehicles for something else, rather than the end in itself.
By Philip Reynolds