The popularity of “toilet humor” is a commonly accepted, and often lamented, fact of comedy. Some—particularly fans of “smart” comedy—complain that a meticulously well-crafted punchline will sometimes get less of a laugh than a hackneyed fart joke.
People also tend to read a lot into the popularity of crass humor, citing it as an example of society’s declining intelligence, or its immaturity. They accuse a certain type of comedian of pandering, or doing cheap jokes.
A scene from Bridesmaids provides a perfect recent example: Nearly every review I have read of this film has specifically mentioned a scene in which the bridal party gets food poisoning—of a particularly graphic kind—while trying on dresses at a fancy bridal shop. The inclusion of such a crass scene is almost always attributed to some kind of ulterior motive, like the principled desire to prove that women can be raunchy too, or the shamelessly commercial desire to get a film with a largely female cast to appeal to men.*
*How the images of women of vomiting and defecating are supposed to “appeal” to men, on the other hand, is never explained. I literally cannot think of anything less appealing to the male sex.
Judd Apatow, the film’s producer, provides a much simpler explanation for the scene: “People want to laugh big…. It is the biggest laugh I’ve seen in a movie.” This is the dirty comic’s most common (and usually best) defense: People laugh at this stuff. In this case, though, I think the explanation is incomplete.
I can definitely see why Apatow would say that—when I saw Bridesmaids, the aforementioned scene certainly got the loudest response from the crowd. But I’m not sure that the response was laughter. When people see toiler humor—particularly when they see it in public, such as a theater—they tend to react audibly: They groan, or say “Eww,” or laugh nervously. These things are like laughter—they are involuntary, often unconscious, and semantically empty noises—but different in one key respect: They don’t imply mirth or humor. They are not opposed to mirthful laughter—groans can often turn into laughs—but they are not the reaction of someone finding something funny. There were certainly people in the theater who found the scene hilarious, but not all, or even most, of the noise was coming from these people.
In a theater, though, all these sounds tend to blur together, and it sounds like one big laugh, particularly if (like Apatow) that’s what you are listening for. Most importantly, though, it’s not silence. Comedians hate silence. Almost anything is preferable. Laughter is ideal, but if you can’t get that, then groans, or moans, or even the “ooh” sounds of people taking offense are acceptable. And this is probably one reason why comics so often come back to toilet humor: It can be counted on to get some type of audible reaction.
In other words, we can refrain from grand statements about vulgar comedy. Its popularity is not due to society’s overall intelligence, or the commercial nature of Hollywood, or the shameless pandering of comedy writers. Well, it may have something to do with these things, but it’s mostly about volume.