05/15/2012 06:28 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

Did That Come Outta Me?

Let's say you're an alien. (Not the illegal kind who we hate and fear -- the extraterrestrial kind who only want to eat and/or enslave us).

Between eating and/or enslaving, you want a few laughs. "Hey," you say in your impenetrable yet vaguely Eastern European tongue, "why not take in a flick?"

You make your way to the old abandoned (as of a couple days ago, when you landed) movie theater, picking your way past the rotting corpses of those too thin or weak to eat/enslave, and an example of Contemporary Comedy is playing on the screen.

You watch with interest then, on your way out, meet a young guy, trembling with terror. "That was hilarious!" you say. "It's amazing that on both our planets, physical comedy consists primarily of men getting hit in the balls." The kid nods nervously. To put him at his ease you say "Okay, who's for dinner?"

The fascinating thing about this story (other than the question of who's running the projector) (but, y'know, it's all automated nowadays, right?) is that there was once a time when 90 percent of all movie and TV comedy didn't consist of testicle-impacts.

Yes, the body being smashed, stretched, folded, spindled, and mutilated is funny. But why? What is it about the seemingly endless, frequently painful mutability of the human body that makes us laugh?

The answer can be found in my very own "Funny: The Book / Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Comedy", now available wherever fine books are sold. (Also available where, quite frankly, some pretty sucky books are sold.) But, secular saint that I am, I shall reveal it to you here for free...

We're animals.

Do you object to that characterization? As Hugh Hefner said, the alternatives are minerals and vegetables.

We like to think we're the most evolved -- intelligent, moral, good-looking -- life-form on the planet. So when we're reminded that we're just upright apes with opposable thumbs, the contrast between our self-image and the gross reality is funny.

When things emerge unbidden from our bodies -- pretty much any orifice -- or when we lose control, like an animal, it's shocking... and funny. To quote the original Saturday Night Live's Roseanne Roseannadanna: "Did that come outta me?"

We don't like to be reminded of what we are underneath and nothing reminds us more thoroughly than being unable to suppress our animal urges, meaning every kind of -cation from defe- to forni-.

Let's examine a few of the ways our bodies are hilarious...

Extreme Postures

In the movie All of Me, Steve Martin's a lawyer and Lily Tomlin his dying rich client who's hired a mystic named Prakha Lasa to take her soul and transfer it into a beautiful young woman's body.

Within that scene of fantasy is a grounded truth; that our bodies sometimes have minds of their own.


Here's a famous sketch from Monty Python's Meaning of Life.

That scene could be viewed as a critique of materialism, with the expensive foods going in contrasted with what comes out; the idea that everything we eat and own ultimately turns into crap. (Yes, that last sentence was Marxist. Go ahead, report me.)

But for our purposes, it's just the lovable old body being incredibly gross.

Both South Park and Superbad invented a new comedy trope of guys puking on girls; in fact, the frequent use of vomit in modern comedy makes it seem like a new version of the silent comedy pie fight.

But despite our delight/repulsion at the noise and fluids and mess, what really makes vomiting funny is seeing humans brought down from their cocky exceptionalism ("Man Rules!") to their true animal state ("Man drools, then pukes").

Of course, there's another kind of ejaculation. In Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, Peter Sellers is Capt. Mandrake, a British officer on an American Air Force base which is under attack, while its commanding officer, the insane Gen. Jack D. Ripper, shares with Mandrake a theory.

The basis of that famous monologue was the fluoridation battles of the 1950's, when many considered it a Communist plot. (A not inconsiderable minority believe that today.)

But the humor goes beyond that time-sensitive reference. Ripper has a narcissistic paranoia about his body and its violation, to the point where he feels that ejaculation is a form of theft, maybe even rape, and that to be a man is to not let anyone have anything that's yours, including sperm.

This is not a sentiment shared by Jason Biggs in American Pie. And we mustn't forget There's Something About Mary, which raised/lowered the bar when it came out, and is pretty extreme even now. Here's Ben Stiller in a romantic mood.

Gross, right? But why? Why should semen be seen as disgusting?

Because of where it comes from and why it comes out; it's the perfect -- and perfectly embarrassing -- example of our basic animal nature.

And now to a more innocent form of ejaculation, a classic scene I've had for awhile but have been holding in to let it loose at just the right moment: "Blazing Saddles".

So why are farts funny? Let me count the ways: makes us seem like animals, the body acting on its own, anti-social behavior, where it comes from, bad smell, funny noise. Obviously, there are some times when some ejaculations aren't funny, or else we'd all be guffawing our way through porn. But, in this case, context is irrelevant: farts are always funny.


You could say that we're never more like animals than when we're naked: that's when our brains, our hearts, our souls, tend to matter less than our breasts and pecs.

Nudity can be sexy, of course, but it can also be funny: Old School.

The incongruity of Will Ferrell's shamelessness, his lack of vanity in showing his out-of-shape, less-than-ideal body is what makes it funny, along with our recognition of bodily kinship. (Any supermodels reading this can skip that last part.)

But it's also because the scene thrusts the silliness, the grossness of the human body -- the one all of us have, even if for the moment ours may be in better shape than Ferrell's -- right into our unwilling faces.

Nudity can be funny where there's no dialogue: Monty Python's Life of Brian: Brian. And it can be funny when the dialogue isn't: Monty Python's Life of Brian: Judith.

Both of those scenes get laughs from incongruity, but what are those incongruities? (Take your time, think about it carefully... ) (Time's up!)

Brian's naked where it's inappropriate, which mortifies him; Judith's naked where it's inappropriate, and doesn't care. Each scene is funny for the opposite reason.

The truth is, humans find the fact that we're both human and animal to be a constant source of embarrassment. And that's why the absolute funniest thing in the world is someone farting and puking while naked.