Sunday, May 31, 2009

Are Gross-Out Gags Invading Family Films?

This morning I went to see Up which was by all accounts a fantastic film, the highlight being the four-minute montage devoid of dialogue that perfectly visualized love in its purest form. But before the film started I was distracted by a nagging observation made about the previews that ran before the film: the large number of gross-out gags – jokes designed to make the audience recoil in disgust while simultaneously laughing.

I’ve long been fascinated by gross-out comedies and have devoted much thought to the theoretical ramifications of it as a comedic movement but until this morning I’d never considered their presence in family entertainment. Now that I think about it, booger or cooties jokes seem commonplace and in the ‘90s Nickelodeon virtually planned its entire programming around gooey substances. But I was struck by the usage and the content of the jokes I saw this morning and wonder if the gross-out gags featured in family films have escalated and become more graphic?

The three trailers in question were Imagine That, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and G-Force. All three trailers use a gross-out gag prominently as a punctuating joke. In the case of Imagine That, it’s the opening scene:

At the 0:11 mark we see a close-up shot of clumpy, spoiled milk being poured onto a bowl of cereal. The gag is created not just from the viscosity of the liquid but from the prospect that Eddie Murphy’s poor daughter might actually end up eating it. On the scale of gross-out humor this is fairly tame but it still produced an audible disgust from the sold out audience and it is significant as is chosen as the film’s introductory gag.

Next up is Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs which concludes its trailer with two gross-out gags, one visual and one verbal.

The first occurs right before the title card (1:53) and involves a sap-doused nut being violently ripped from Scrat’s furry chest, resulting in a pink underbelly and a pained yelp. 40-Year-Old Virgin anyone? (To be fair, that film went further and fully solidified the gag as gross-out by showing extreme close-ups on the removed hair and the bristling gashes on Steve Carell’s chest.) The Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs’ trailer then concludes with Sid mistakenly milking a male ram, the error of his ways being emphasized by an amplified sound effect and close-up on the ram’s eyes (2:16). While the gross-out infraction is kept off-screen, the audio track and accompanying facial expression indicates that Sid has inappropriately manhandled the ram’s reproductive organs.

Finally, there’s G-Force which uses a gross-out gag to punctuate the trailer’s moment of maximum excitement – the hamsters soaring through the air in a protective ball – with a fart joke (2:14): (trailer not embeddable)

This was the specific gag that got me thinking about the propensity of gross-out humor in these trailers. It was the simplicity of its insertion, how unmotivated and unnecessary it was (the trailer also ends with a “poop in his hand” line of dialogue – 2:29). The film is rated PG for “Some mild action and rude humor.” Have family films always thrived on rude humor? To the point that it serves an essential function in their marketing? Or is this a more recent trend spurred by the success of There’s Something About Mary and American Pie?

Perhaps rude humor has always been present and I just haven’t focused on it. Surely, Beethoven contained a wealth of dog slobber jokes? I love a good gross-out joke and when they’re properly executed they can be wonderfully unifying acts, leveraging the lowest common denominator appeal into a class-defying unity of mirth. But when used improperly they’re resolutely low-brow – and the three trailers under scrutiny are certainly low-brow. For the record, Up, an exemplar of the high-brow family film, contains two minor gross-out gags involving animal saliva and the lead character’s walking implement. Neither gag features in Up’s marketing and both are executed in a simple, non-glorified manner. There’s a clear distinction between these gags and the ones profiled in the above trailers. But has there always been a need for this distinction within the genre of the family film?


Rory said...

Interesting topic. The trailer that I thought really crossed "a" line (but probably not "the" line) was the Alvin & The Chipmunks trailer, in which one of the Chipmunks eats what is supposed to be feces. It says something about the visual that I can still recall this gag from two years ago, from a movie I had no interest in whatsoever.

Chris said...

Great post, and a very interesting topic. I always feel completely turned off to movies where the trailers parrot the gross-out stuff, and it's amplified when everyone around you is laughing about it.

But then I think about the scene in The Naked Gun where Leslie Nielsen slips out of the Queen's press conference to use the bathroom and he forgets to take the mic off. I love that scene, and it's nothing but audible urinating and farting. What gives? Why is it okay for me to laugh at that—nay, find it hilarious—when I recoil at stuff like what Rory mentions in his comment above?

Do you have any thoughts? I'm kind of at a standstill myself, LOL!

By the way, added you on my blog roll! I really like your writing!

Stephen Snart said...

Many thanks for the comments guys.

I’d managed to forget about the Alvin and the Chipmunks gag and I must thank you for alerting me to it. A prime example as it’s the teaser trailer’s only real gag.

As for the Naked Gun example, I too love that scene. And I think it’s proof that a fart joke can be a useful tool. Taking into consideration the context of the scene, the fart joke is used to comment on social class. Farting and urinating are something no human is exempt from, not even the queen, so why shouldn’t it be something we can all talk about? A socially mandated level of decorum suggests that these matters be kept private – and rightfully so. But Leslie Nielsen’s amplified bathroom duties being played in the presence of the queen serve as a reminder of our inescapable corporeality in any social class. He is, after all, properly excusing himself to go to the bathroom so it’s not a matter of social disregard. Perhaps the accidental nature of his social transgression is what makes it easier to enjoy?

On another note, a fellow reader reminded me of a forbearer in the extended burping sequence in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.