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Dr. Toon: The Smell of Failure

In this month's column, Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman sniffs the air for signs of creativity, but finds only a smelly contrivance.

Martin Goodman.

Martin Goodman.

Recently I was whiling away some time watching Nickelodeon, hoping to see an episode of some show or another that I hadn't had the time to catch as of yet. The Orange Slime Channel was promoting some new shows that were in the pipeline, and two cute young live actors were gushing over how great they were going to be. They relented in order to give us a sneak peek at one, so I sat back, ready to check out this highly-touted preview. I must confess, I don't remember the name of this animated show. This was not due to lack of attention, though my brain is hardly an iron lockbox; it was more due to dismay over yet another example of an overwhelming trend in animated shows, a creeping cheapening of what passes for entertainment and humor of late.

The snippet of film showed two people in a car, an adult driver and a young boy who occupied the rear seat. After a few lines of dialog, the lad loudly broke wind, and this bodily function dominated the remainder of the action in the clip. Cut back to the greatly amused live actors, who averred that they were waiting for this show with considerable anticipation. One night later, I turned to Nick to find an animated lesson concerning the physiology of farting, including detailed information on why farts stink in the particular manner that they do. No doubt the FCC's mandate for education broadcasting during children's programming had seen its most odiferous moment.

I switched over to the Disney Channel after awhile, where I saw a rerun of Brandy and Mr. Whiskers. There's really not a lot to love about this weird little cartoon except for the visual conceit of having the two main characters look as if they had been pulled from two different shows, the better to highlight their differences. This tale of a vain, spoiled female dog (Alice?) and a misanthropic white rabbit stranded in the jungle (Wonderland?) could have generated plenty of laughs from situational sources, but the writers evidently felt they needed another device to rely on. Mr. Whiskers is a flatulent cheese-cutter of the highest order, loudly flapping his tail at least five or six times per episode. Of course, Disney had been featuring a warthog doing much the same thing for several years, so no great shock there.

Discovery Kids features an animated series produced by the esteemed Nelvana studio called Grossology. Although the program has a purportedly scientific bent, the title leaves little to be explained. One of the villains facing the crime-fighting Grossologists is Fartor. It is explained that Fartor was once a human boy who was victimized by his older brother. This fine role model held the poor lad under the bedcovers while unleashing methane rippers until baby brother could breathe nothing but farts. Fartor is encased in a dome filled with rectal fragrance; in a later episode, he garnered an accomplice called Far-Ty. No prizes for guessing what evil powers they possessed.

In one cartoon after another, in instances now too numerous and dreary to list here, the fart has become a deluxe mode of repartee for animation writers. Farting as a form of popular humor goes back as far as Chaucer, although no one recalls breaking wind as the highlight of The Canterbury Tales. During the 1890s, a French entertainer named Joseph Pujol took the name "Le Petomane" (literally, "Fartiste") and entertained audiences with his amazing ability to fart out tunes. Even though Le Petomane sold out the Moulin Rouge for three years running, farting was generally recognized as a bawdy and rather debased form of humor several cuts below satire and other forms of comedic art. As lowbrow as the Three Stooges might have seemed, they at least kept their gas to themselves.

America's infatuation with flatulence appears to date back to Mel Brooks' Borscht Belt western comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). In one memorable scene, a bunch of cowboys sitting around a campfire punctuate a bean dinner with loud, raucous farts that seem to grow in volume and intensity as the scene goes on. Contemporary reports noted that the audience shook the rafters with laughter. Once this taboo was broken, it was doomed to be replicated countless times. Virtually the same scene, for example, occurs in the remake of The Nutty Professor (1996), with the fartfest taking place around a dinner table.

It took John Kricfalusi, the legendary rule-breaker of American cartoons, to bridge the gap to animation. During the early run of The Ren & Stimpy Show there were discreet allusions to breaking wind in the form of sound effects. Eventually Kricfalusi edged his way to bubbles rising in a bathtub from beneath a contented Ren. Ever willing to push the package, the animation auteur finally flaunted his style.

Ren and Stimpy, dejected over the lack of flavor in their slices of "powdered toast", have their breakfasts richly enhanced by Powdered Toast Man. The missing condiment is revealed when the hero farts mightily on their meal. Powdered Toast Man flies out the window, his odiferous job complete, and we see Ren and Stimpy beaming with happy happy joy joy as they munch their befouled breakfasts. Kricfalusi managed to top himself by developing a Christmas special in which Stimpy gave "birth" to a sentient fart. After that the doors were wide open -- especially the rear ones.

It was not always this way. For decades, animation writers and directors managed to create some of the most beloved, hilarious characters ever to be treasured by their public. Bugs Bunny got heartfelt laughs for years without cracking so much as a single fart. Donald Duck may have turned the air blue with his unintelligible squawking, but that was the only method he used in doing it. Popeye's only emissions came from his pipe. Tooter Turtle didn't. How can it be that animation has produced so many funny and memorable cartoons over so many years with nary a butt blast? The answer is simple: Cartoons tried to be genuinely funny without having to resort to this level of humor, and the prevailing culture expected no less.

I am not about to embark on some dreary and predictable diatribe about the progressive cheapening of culture. Highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow culture have been jockeying for position over many decades in America, and always will be. When I reflect on the prevalence of farting as a source of humor in modern animated TV series, I find myself more disturbed by the lack of imagination and inspiration by those who draw up storyboards or pen scripts. This smelly trend seems to me to be a derivative attempt to mine cheap laughs in cases where sophistication cannot be summoned. Farts are a fallback position in the struggle to get a laugh when the script can come up with nothing better. For the cost of a sound effect, the problem is solved.

Notable directors who loved to tweak the censors in days past (such as Tex Avery or certainly Bob Clampett) might have been able to insert such gassy foolishness into their cartoons, but never did. They never really needed to, because they themselves were comedians who understood their art and knew how to entertain audiences without resorting to coarseness. Chuck Jones, perhaps the most revered name in American animation, relied on wit, timing, and character, concepts that seem to demand further study in today's animation schools.

An example: Jones' creation Pepe LePew may have been a walking stink bomb but his stench was, in fact, peripheral to the humor in his cartoons. The biggest laughs came from Pepe's enormously amorous ego, which prevented him from seeing the deadly effect his odor had on the females he pursued. Pepe simply considered every fleeing damsel to be playing hard-to-get. Dorothy Parker and Mark Twain inspired Jones; today's directors seem to be inspired by Le Petomane.

In the end (so to speak), flatulence is really not funny. Not as funny as Donald Duck struggling in vain with a recalcitrant carnival game. Not as funny as Jerry mucking up a house way faster than Tom can possibly clean it up. Not as funny as Bugs baking a cake in a blur of motion and frosting it just in time for his staggering adversary to fall on it face first. Farting is nothing more than an involuntary passing of gas, a biological function common to all of us. The humor of farting would supposedly be found in the social embarrassment it causes. However, none of this exists in the cartoons I've seen; characters simply fart for laughs. Thus, the use of the fart is not very imaginative. Not as imaginative as Felix the Cat's metamorphoses, Bimbo's harrowing initiation into a secret club controlled by an army of Betty Boops, or Mickey Mouse's musical mishaps in Fantasia. So, with neither humor nor imagination in play, what have you got left?

Ask yourself, reader -- would a few well-timed farts have enhanced even one of the above examples? Had cartoons been missing something special all along until now? Somehow I think not. Making kids or audiences of any age giggle can be accomplished by other means that blasting farts at them. Writing well-constructed, funny stories and combining them with goofy and engaging animation might be a good route to consider, and I beseech those being trained in the industry today to give it a try before resorting to cutting the cheese. After all, it worked for Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett.

An earlier version of this column originally appeared on the TOON Magazine website. Since farts remain an overworked and problematic device in cartoons, I updated the piece for AWN readers.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.