There are a lot of things that divide the movie-going populace. Just a few weeks back, I talked about Inception (2010) and touched briefly on the drastically different views that two groups have of that film. Recently, Jessica at the Velvet Café tackled the different (and divisive) ways that movie-goers use the word “pretentious”. And then, there’s poop. Modern film history is littered with fecal references. A large part of audiences will wince, or flat-out avoid films that are likely to have poop references. Still others will actively seek out these kinds of films. Let’s take a small look at whether or not poop in movies is funny.
Thanks to the wonderful site /Film, the topic of feces on film has been researched a little bit already. As /Film notes, Alfred Hitchcock was likely the first filmmaker to put a flushing toilet on screen in Psycho (1960). As near as I can tell, feces- or references to feces- didn’t start showing up on the screen until the 1970s, and only sporadically even then. As the /Film article points out, 1972 saw Divine eat dog feces in Pink Flamingos. Two years later, Luis Buñuel used defecation for humor in The Phantom of Liberty. Poop humor really exploded in the 1980s, and it has appeared many times ever since. Before determining whether or not it’s funny, let’s take a look at the kinds of poop jokes that are out there in movies.
Indirect/Animal Feces: This is when a character inadvertently steps in animal poop, or a bird takes a dump on their head. This will occasionally lead to another character pointing out that it’s “good luck”.
Noises: The noise brand of poop jokes involves a character taking an outrageously loud dump, or making ridiculous noises. It’s one of the most commonly used versions.
Consumption: There are quite a few movies that involve characters consuming feces. And in one very famous case- Caddyshack (1980)- consuming items that merely look like feces. To this day, I won’t eat a Baby Ruth candy bar.
The “Pie in the Face”: This particular brand doesn’t have to actually hit the face, though it’s been done. The general idea here is that poop is thrown at someone.
Poop Monsters: These actually exist on celluloid. Three examples off the top of my head: Dogma (1999), Weird Science (1985), and Monsturd (2003).
That’s No Place to Poop!: The Phantom of Liberty is a prime example, with characters defecating at toilets set up at a dining table. This category also includes the number of times characters have crapped their pants. In South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999), the boys witness a German guy (on an adult website) defecating on a woman.
Now that we’ve established some ground rules about the kinds of poop jokes in movies, we must ask, “Is poop funny in movies?” It’s a very difficult question to answer. For me, the answer is “sometimes”. Obviously, humor is extremely subjective to begin with, so your results may vary. Here are some rules that I think apply to making poop funny.
-Like any good comedy, fecal or otherwise, there should be a proper setup. The Caddyshack sequence works so well because it’s so protracted, with the kid dropping the candy bar and the theme from Jaws playing.
-Caddyshack also works because it provides the unexpected. Seeing Bill Murray eat the candy bar, and the reaction from Mrs. Smails, was completely unexpected. Catching the audience off guard makes it work on some level. Honestly, I think the Caddyshack poop joke sequence is the best movie poop joke out there.
-The third aspect that can make a poop joke work is the degree of outrageousness. There’s a really fine line there, and I’ll touch on this more in a second. The more outrageous you can make it, the more likely it is to succeed no matter the setup. The Golgothan in Dogma works for that reason. It’s a giant monster made out of feces. However, one must be careful, because…
-You shouldn’t gross out your audience too much. There’s going to be a level of gross out, regardless of anything else you do. But push it too far and you’re going to lose the audience. Austin Powers drinking Fat Bastard’s stool sample is a perfect example. That didn’t make me laugh. It made my stomach turn. The fecal puns were ok, but not nearly enough to compensate for the fact that I wanted to vomit.
-Subtlety can work. The Phantom of Liberty scene is great because the joke isn’t “Hahaha, poop!”, but rather a play on concepts and language. There were two poop jokes in rapid-fire succession in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. One worked, the other didn’t. The first- the one that didn’t make me laugh- was when a giant pile of feces was flung at the driver’s side window of their car. But later, we see the same car at the drive-thru (of White Castle, where else?) and the window is partially down. The dookie is plainly visible but nobody even acknowledges it. Harold and Todd carry on an entire conversation with a giant glob of poop in plain view, but don’t even act like it’s there. And I thought that was hilarious.
-A lack of subtlety will sink it for me. If you make it really outrageous but there’s no other purpose or setup than “Someone is going to shit really loudly”, I don’t think that’s funny. It’s an attempt at making something outrageous, but not going far enough. I’ll probably make some people mad, but I’d put the Dumb and Dumber scene in here. But I’ll give a caveat. It didn’t work for me because it wasn’t subtle and it wasn’t outrageous enough to make it funny, but I completely understand if you’re one of the folks who happened to find it perfectly outrageous. More power to you, because laughter is a good thing.
-It helps if poop and poop alone isn’t the only joke. Again, Caddyshack was great because there were also the reactions from the swimmers and Mrs. Smails, and the inside joke that Murray was actually eating a candy bar.
-Juxtaposition helps. Poop is kind of gross, even if it is natural. But if it’s a small child, or a dainty person, we wouldn’t ordinarily associate poop with these groups. Or at least, when babies and small children poop, people understand.
There you have it. There’s no definitive answer, because poop can be both funny and awful, even at the same time. But I think there are some solid guidelines you can follow if you want to make poop work in a movie.