CULTURE & ARTS
03/09/2016 09:42 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2016

Gross-Out Humor Is On The Rise, And That’s A Good Thing

“Broad City” makes fart jokes woman-centric. It’s about time.
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I’m wary of sweeping adages about what makes a relationship last. Couples that laugh together, stay together. Families that pray and/or play together, stay together. How could such a narrow formula cover all of the nuances of a modern relationship?

The restriction that irks me most has to do with bodily functions; some say if you can’t laugh with your partner about smelly, primal deeds, you’re not truly intimate with him.

For me, that’s always been bunk. I have a dry sense of humor; spelling or editing flubs à la Weird Twitter, “The Office” or “Tim and Eric” make me laugh more than a fart joke ever could. So a first-date fart joke is a deal-breaker, and a fifth-date fart joke gives me pause. Call it snobbish, or squeamish, or a result of my sibling-less upbringing, but nothing makes me abandon a romantic interest, or a TV series, quicker than a penchant for gross-out humor.

For most of my life, this hasn’t been a problem. I’d avoid anything starring Adam Sandler, and selectively watch Judd Apatow movies, enjoying them in spite of the occasional potty humor-fueled scene. This always left plenty of comedies to choose from. Like most twee-ish millennials, I opted for Wes Anderson, "Seinfeld" reruns and so-bad-it’s-good shows. Today, my favorite comedy is the fast-paced, feminist “Jane the Virgin.”

But, as a twee-ish millenial, I’ve run into a conundrum: I really, really want to like “Broad City,” but the gross-out humor, well, grosses me out. To be clear: I don’t disapprove of Abbi and Ilana’s confessional tone and boundries-free relationship. I’m in no way suggesting that they’re unladylike; that word alone makes me cringe harder than a dirty toilet would. The problem is that I want to embrace the grittiness of the show, but can’t manage to.

I’ve started “Broad City” twice, looking away while Abby scrubbed gym bathrooms. I’ve laughed -- hard -- when Ilana’s warring habits of slackerdom and ambition amounted to her working at a temp agency during her lunch break from her day job, and leaving early to walk a pack of bougie, well-groomed dogs. But I keep getting held up on the episode where a group of friends huddled together during a hurricane are mortified by a turd that mysteriously appears in a shoe left in the hallway. For me, it’s the equivalent of watching a movie with gratuitous gore. I wail, “WHY?!” before pressing play on the next episode.

The answer, I think, depends on how cynical you are. My initial explanation for the recent spike in gross-out humor on TV shows (“Girls”) and in popular movies (“Bridesmaids,” “Trainwreck”) was that it was a way to make niche, quirky plots or characters appealing to a broad audience. Who’d really tune in to “Broad City” if each joke hinged on Ilana’s socially liberal politics? Her sex-pos rants are sure to get feminists excited, but are dudes as inclined to listen? And if this is the motivation behind the show’s fart jokes, are the writers being true to their experiences, or are they pandering?

A more positive interpretation, and what I believe is the truer one: Gross-out humor, when executed smartly, is a way of taking a taboo topic and normalizing it. This probably explains why I manage to stomach the gags on “Broad City”; Abbi and Ilana’s antics are forging new ground when it comes to what women can and can’t talk about. If dick jokes are okay, then carrying around a bag of weed in your vagina should be fair game, too. If bro comedies can quip about masturbating, why can’t women do the same?

When it comes to how women behave on screen, these forces of normalization are necessary. If the stand-up comedy scene is a barometer for how dirty jokes sound to audiences when they’re told by a woman rather than a man, things are bleak. Even though there’s been a surge against the harmful notion that women aren’t funny, sexist jokes abound and women comedians are underrepresented.

That the issue is so pervasive is exactly why “Broad City”’s brand of gross-out humor is important: to take the style of humor that men have used to reach audiences, and turn the focus to their own bodies, they not only question what’s normal, but assert it. And as much as their jokes make me squirm, I say it’s about time somebody tells them.

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Sign up to receive it in your inbox weekly.

Follow Maddie Crum on Twitter: @maddiecrum

 

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