No-class humor brings in bucks per yuck

It's going to get grosser.

Lest you think Hollywood is running out of inventive ways to film bodily fluids, not to fret: Popular culture's long march down the road of tastelessness is just beginning to hit its stride.

"It's open season for grossness," says Garth Jowett, an expert in popular culture and a professor at the University of Houston.

The trend - introduced in part by cartoons such as "Beavis and Butthead" and accelerated by the crassly funny films of the Farrelly brothers - got a huge boost last weekend. "Scary Movie," an outrageous spoof of horror films, blew out box-office records for the opening of an R-rated film, garnering $42.3 million. That kind of success, Mr. Jowett and others say, is sure to have film studios lined up to make more yuckfests.

"I don't think we've tapped into the limits [of grossness] yet," says Robert Bucksbaum, a film analyst for Reel Source. "Theaters are going to be feeding us a steady diet of gross-out humor for the next two or three years," he says, pointing out that it takes that long for a movie to get made. "It'll bottom out eventually.... But until then, we're going to have to suffer through what I call a wave of nauseum."

The reserved Mr. Brooks

Crass humor, of course, has bounced around the silver screen for at least the past 25 years. But it's gotten crasser and more explicit in recent times. Mel Brooks's early take on the subject, "Blazing Saddles," which was released in 1976, seems quite tame these days. Back then, Brooks got big laughs with the sounds accompanying cowboys eating beans around the campfire. These days, particularly in films by the Farrelly brothers, such as "There's Something About Mary" and "Me, Myself & Irene," it's not just body sounds, but body fluids - and a lot of other things thrown in the mix.

Industry observers say shock humor is aimed at a very specific audience: teenage boys, who make up one of the largest segments of the moviegoing public. The trend toward grossness is accelerating in part because the films that traditionally draw young males, horror and action, have been done over and over.

But while some moviegoers are laughing it up, others are shaking their heads.

"It's just evidence of the further debasement of our general culture that this kind of stuff is entirely acceptable," says James Bowman, film critic for the American Spectator. "Particularly with regard to sexual things. There's more treatment now of sex as being in the same class of things as flatulence.

"What bothers me," he says, "is that it's boring to explore the limits of shock."

Some observers see the recent surge in outrageous humor as a reaction to the 1990s political correctness, with its tightly bound rules of who can say what about whom.

But seriously, folks

Films that poke fun at everyone from midgets to people in wheelchairs are a way of ridiculing those social inhibitions.

"This is one way of essentially subverting that mainstream culture," says Jowett, a professor of communications. That's not to say there aren't certain rules. "You can poke fun as long as everyone knows you're not serious about it. It's like, Yes, you believe in equal rights, but let's poke fun at it anyway."

Other observers say entertainment's public embrace of once-unmentionable private things is a reflection of society itself. From President Clinton's Oval Office affairs to 24-hour Web cams, private lives have become routine public information.

"People now tolerate exposure of things that used to be kept hidden," says Josh Meyrowitz, author of "No Sense of Place," and a professor of communications at the University of New Hampshire. "It's not just people who are making movies. We've lost the idea that some behaviors are fitting only in certain contexts, the idea that only certain types of people should know certain things," he says.

"There are no limits to no limits. I don't see us coming up with limits right now."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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