That is what my Grandma Dee used to say when someone passed gas. My mom liked to blame the phenomena on the work of “barking spiders” and my brother was forever “cutting cheese.” My dad, always the poet, liked to call it “ripping ass,” and I loved the term “Squeaker”. Growing up my household was a mixing pot of silly slang, foul wind, and ever-present laughter. Which I can’t imagine was a strange or isolated case. Farting is an unbreakable constant of the universe. It is a base function of the human body, a law of anatomy if you will. There is not a creature that lives today who is not personally familiar with the concept. Or, at the very least, they are acquainted with the noise. Seeing as any good joke starts with a relatable subject it comes as no surprise that people find farting funny. It is a smelly noise that sounds silly and is often associated with embarrassment; that aerosoled shit is primetime comedic real estate. It doesn’t matter if you are one of the world’s highest paid CEOs or the friendly neighborhood hobo, we laugh because it’s something we understand and interact with on a daily basis.
I bring all of this up today because as April comes to a close, and its holiday for fools passes, there comes a time for reflection. And this year was rough for comedy. I don’t know if it’s the current political climate, the tumultuous state of higher education, or if people are simply changing, but it seems like jokes, especially the dirty ones, are falling out of favor. While most of this is based of my own anecdotal experience, I have seen more disdain for vulgar jokes this year than in my entire life spent pranking. To begin this insanity this year there was a kid at my local middle school that was suspended and threatened with expulsion for farting at recess. Not the classiest move to be sure but nothing that warrants institutionalized punishment either. But that is only one example of how things have slowly escalated. Famous comedian and inflammatory personality Stephen Fry was literally chased off Twitter earlier this month because of his sense of humor. While Jerry Seinfeld was recently quoted as saying that he has quit talking at colleges altogether because of how much shit he gets from students. Both of these guys aren’t even especially controversial comics that push boundaries and borders, they represent classic comedy. Sex jokes and potty humor sure, but nothing over the top or intentionally disruptive. They are just dirty enough, and even then both of them have been criticized for being too offensive in the past 6 months. I think you can imagine how fart jokes have fared in such stagnant comedic climate.To me at least, that is a net loss for humanity. Comedy is intrinsically linked to the truth of everyday life and fart jokes are not any different. The simple fact that in today’s diverse world there is a silly sound that still remains universally funny is amazing. It links us as a species and despite it being a pretty gross connection there is something comforting and beautiful about that bit of information. I have to say it, fart jokes, while unpleasant, are an important and necessary comedic tradition. Taking part in them is participating in some of the oldest, most well documented comedy to have ever existed.
The fart sound has existed and been recorded for laughs for as long as humans have been writing and creating. Everyone from present-day Hollywood to the oratories of Ancient Roman have used it for comedic effect. The word “fart” is one of the oldest words in the English Lexicon. That means that one of the first root words created, one of the origins of a concept and idea, was fart. Which means that even before the advent of the recorded word people were laughing about the bubbles in people’s guts. And the world firsts don’t stop there, it is also theorized that the one of the very first jokes ever recorded was a fart joke dated at 1900 BC. The exact text translates to: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Think about that for a second, I mean really think. In a world of almost infinite possibility and choice one of the first funny things ever worth writing down was a fart joke. A wife joke nontheless; you could edit that text to match a one liner from the Big Bang Theory or Seinfeld. That tells you something about the subjects’ humorous reach.
Despite all the contemporary baggage we have attached to the word and the joke was not lost on some of the world’s literary greats. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is one such example. In the The Miller’s Tale, love struck Absolon is tricked into kissing Allison’s boyfriend’s ass and in the process gets a thunderous fart to the face. Chaucer’s entire compendium is full of such examples, and they are used to great effect. Even when read through the muddled glass of Middle English, The Canterbury Tales can be considered a peerless comedic accomplishment in storytelling. An achievement only made possible due to how wide reaching and accessible the stories and jokes are, and Chaucer isn’t the only literary titan to figure this out.
Both William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri have used fart jokes in their fiction. From the famous A Comedy of Errors to the well-known Inferno, each of these works has used flatulence as a way to garner laughs. Except I don’t think these infamous writers would have seen it that way. Instead I think they used gaseous expulsions as a way to diversify their consumer base. They are a way to reach out and connect with people on a level that doesn’t require higher education or social class. Toots are a way to talk to everyone without the filter that is common decency. They can be considered a lowbrow form of comedy, an appeal to the most base form of humor. And yet, at the very same time, the subject mass appeal makes them not only acceptable but funny to more than the bottom rung (just behind closed doors and curtains).
Notice how I specifically say lowbrow when describing the type of comedy associated with our noisy friend. Nowhere in this piece am I going to argue that a fart is the height of comedic genius. It’s not. It is a simple vulgar joke. Tired and overused maybe, but there is a reason it has stuck around and been worth repeating. It’s the kind of thing you sigh about and crinkle your noise as a puff of laughter escapes you. Despite hearing it a thousand times, and smelling it even more, you laugh. Your mind tells you that you should be disgusted, and most of the time you are, but your gut and lungs say something different. I don’t think anyone has ever written home about how impressed they were with a burst of rectal breeze but that doesn’t mean they weren’t laughing as they condemned it.
Which isn’t to say that the act of farting has never been considered high comedy. In the late 1800s a man named Le Pétomane made wind across the French court as a flatulist, I.E. professional farter (yes that is an actual word and title, not to be confused with a “flautist” which is a flute player.) Pétomane was famous around the world for his unparalleled prowess in controlling his anal sphincter. During his early childhood and career as a soldier he unwittingly discovered that he could willfully suck things in through his butt. By things I mean water and air, a feat that held obvious comedic appeal to a band of traveling soldiers. After his time spent in the military honing his craft for his friends and colleagues he went into entertainment and theater. His act often consisted of him sucking in air and blowing it out while imitating different instruments and musical notes. His rectal melodies weren’t even the showstopper; he could even recreate the sound of a thunderstorm or cannon. Make no mistake; despite his seemingly carnival performance Pétomane was often a guest to the royalty and performed in some of Europe’s finest theaters. He was critically acclaimed and suffered accolades innumerable for his talent in colon calls.
Imagine that for a second, Pétomane literally performed a variety of farts for some of Europe’s most distinguished royalty. These are some of the wealthiest and most powerful people of the time period, and for fun they would hire a guy to come suck air into his ass and push it out in the form of a song. Not only is that one of the most outrageous things I have ever heard but it also says something about the sheer comedic power farting carries.
Now fast-forward to today and that very same joke has become an object of embarrassment. Sure they are still used for jokes now and then but more often than not the context of that humor has changed completely. It has shifted from laughing at the puff or squeak to laughing at the person who did it, who is horrified and embarrassed. A public display of flatulence is a quick ticket to earning people’s palpable disdain and apparently suspension. And that is a sad and sorry thing.
Farting has never really been about the noise or smell, it is about self-depreciation and having a good laugh at nothing. It is one of the few forms of comedy that requires no talent, no writing, no prior preparation, the only prerequisite is that you are a living, breathing thing. Despite class, money, gender, and all of the things that divide us, there is still something that connects. A link that defies all of the artificial fluff we have attached to ourselves and remind us that underneath it all we are still part beast. And that is a beautiful thing, it is comedy at its finest tearing away at our constructed egos and pointing out how outrageous it is that we even exist today. So next time the room fills with a foul and creeping odor remember, whoever first smelt it, dealt it, and while you can deny it, your ancestors most certainly supplied it.