Fart humor may seem the underachieving sibling of poop humor — it is thematically, locationally, and even molecularly affiliated with scatology. (In the case of Bridesmaids, it’s a fearful precursor to it). But when you’re a Paul Feig or an American Pie maker, why limit yourself to a mildly embarrassing, fugacious puff over the real stuff? You’d think options for poop humor would far extend those of flatulence because of, well, tangibility. But the fact that the fart never transcends the realms of the olfactory, the atmospheric, and the social may actually be what gives it its comedic… potency. Said potency has been on the minds of audiences and critics at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where the Daniel Radcliffe/Paul Dano film Swiss Army Man just debuted and had some audience members rushing out faster than a flatus from a — well.
The film follows Paul Dano as Hank, a shipwreck victim on a deserted island who’s at the end of his rope until a corpse with magical powers (the corpse is, after all, played by the man who was once Harry Potter) washes up. As though it were a more grotesque and fetid version of Cast Away‘s Wilson, Hank befriends the corpse and uses it as a survival mechanism, while the corpse helps try to save them by craftily combining the powers at its disposal: namely, priapism and bloating. Reportedly, critics and others lucky enough to get a premature whiff of the film began to leave after an early scene where Hank careens across the water atop the corpse with the Radcliffe-cadaver’s farts working like an engine. “I spent most of the runtime wondering if I was seeing a ridiculous one-joke comedy or a work of warped genius,” said A.A. Dowd, writing for A.V. Club in a piece titled, “Daniel Radcliffe’s Farty Boner Corpse Movie Isn’t Too Bad,” noting that the film’s writers were “daring viewers to push past the gross-out humor and get [emotionally] invested.”
Farts are both the most trivial, dumb, and universal thing the body could do — and a weirdly rich (if polarizing) phenomenon to depict on film, as they’re generally stifled in public and unleashed in private. Onscreen, even moments of privacy for characters are intended for viewing by the public — so even the most naturalistic of onscreen depictions of privacy tend to be abridged.
Just like a director wouldn’t have a character pick their nose alone onscreen unless they were trying to draw attention to that tendency, it’s hard to think of even the most documentarian-styled film featuring a character farting and then continuing past that moment as though it were the nothing it actually is. Perhaps because the fart itself is neither sexual nor violent nor dramatic (though some rogue dissenters might argue it’s all three), flatulence often gets featured in its own, tangential, isolated moments. Apart from occurring simply to be gross, TV/filmic farts have, through the ages, been all about underscoring — or shifting — forms of control.
There are two major categories of fart onscreen. There’s the accidental fart — a lapse in self-control that creates tension with societal control, resulting in embarrassment from the farter and shame from the farted at. And then there’s the intentional fart, which is almost always seen in gross-out movies as an expression of power. The fart continues to elucidate the power of manners and norms within the societies in which a film is set — it is a jolt of a reminder of the thresholds of social respectability, a transgression that illuminates (or at least odorizes) invisible boundaries.
The fart became a major force in film in the 1970s, at the dawn of the gross-out comedy’s reign. Though the genre ultimately became normalized and even utterly boring by the time the Farrelly Brothers and Jim Carrey appeared in the ’90s, it was initially something of an act of political-cinematic irreverence. (Recall that John Waters was one of the pioneers of the genre.) The explosion of gross-out humor was a loud, defiant celebration of the sudden ability to disregard censorial constrictions onscreen following the abandonment of the oppressive Hays Code (which was replaced with the MPAA letter-rating system). This puritanical system hilariously dictated, for example, that “sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures,” that “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden,” and most topically, that “the treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.”
As MentalFloss points out, Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western spoof Blazing Saddles was the first film to “incorporate audible flatulence” (the flatulence was still actually censored when the film aired on television). The film hyperbolized to absurdity all of the silly tropes of the Western — and, as Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey noted, brought out some of the more serious flaws in the genre tradition, i.e. its racism. But one of the less serious elements it exaggerated was cowboys’ bean intake — and the resultant anal nocturne that famously happens in the film’s campfire scene. The film farted in the face of everything that was formerly taboo onscreen in America — and was generally an assertion of irreverence over what was hypocritically considered acceptable.
As one of the key gross things the body can do, the fart remained a staple of the gross-out comedy through the ’90s and ’00s, and because it often temporarily commandeered the films for its moment in the spotlight, certain symphonic farting scenes are still pretty memorable. As in Blazing Saddles, the fart was used in crude spoofs to dismantle — or at least throw a stink bomb at — tired cinema tropes. In the oft-inane but sometimes spot-on Austin Powers, Mike Meyers prodded the sexualized spy movie, transforming the hot tub from aphrodisiac to exposer-of-fart-bubbles — and the joke was that the fart-bubbles actually contributed to the sexual energy. In the infamous fart scene from Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor, meanwhile, flatulence stands in for the emotional discord of typical dysfunctional family dinner scenes: the farts occur as a chain reaction at a Klump family dinner, with the patriarch going on a raucous anal tirade against his wife’s mention of a colonic. The farting in this scene becomes an assertion of a gendered right to be gross — with the patriarch (Murphy) unrepentantly farting up the dinner table while the women (also Murphy) become increasingly incensed.
But while the fart was traditionally depicted as a male action, some comedies fought Hollywood’s resculpting of the female body through male ideals of perfection by depicting women doing it (as the average human does 14 times a day). Sex and the City saw stylish Carrie Bradshaw accidentally farting in bed with Mr. Big in an episode called “The Drought.” Despite the fact that now the show seems seriously dated, there’s an element to this particular moment that still feels relevant in the magnifying lens it puts on a post-fart power shift.
Carrie’s body takes her by surprise with its involuntarily protest against socialized standards of femininity, and she runs out of the room with her head covered in a sheet, screaming, “Shut up!” (Because it’s still Season 1, she then turns to the camera, breaks the fourth wall, and says, “Oh my God, I was mortified.” Yes. We saw.) She tries to work the next day, but can’t stop reliving her “hell.” Ultimately, however, she shakes her shame, and the SATC lesson of the day is that “romance gives way to reality,” and that can be great too. However, the initial forced relinquishing of control exposes just how much weight is placed on the involuntary act. And the fact that this is what catalyzes the shift from “romance” to “reality” shows the hilarious seriousness society can ascribe to a gesture as accidental, frequent, and trivial as the fart — especially when it’s coming from a woman’s butt. As seen in a compilation of onscreen women’s farts made by Jezebel, when it’s not accidental, women characters often fart deliberately — as in Shaun of the Dead — to subvert norms of femininity. Which makes sense, because when it is accidental, the scene almost always becomes a matter of the character, or someone else, questioning her sex appeal.
The fart has made its way into a couple of dramas as comic relief, and here it is likewise an assertion of overt control — a heightened awareness of social mores and an irreverence toward them — or a complete lack of same. Compare a scene in Amadeus — where Mozart, as punctuation for a piece he’s playing on the harpsichord, lifts his derriere from his piano bench, parts his jacket tails, and lets one fly — to a scene in Rain Man, where Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) farts in a phone booth with Charlie (Tom Cruise) and mumbles, in response to Charlie’s repulsion, “I don’t mind it.” In Amadeus, the fart is deliberate and musical, and is used to underline Mozart’s virtuosity, status, and societal influence (he has the power to fart and be loved for it!), whereas in Rain Man, the fact that it’s not deliberate but rather just a fulfillment of a function is used to suggest Raymond’s lack of a grasp on social code — and thus to endear audiences to him.
While gross-out comedies have soundtracked their films with farts to blare in the faces of old Hollywood production codes, comedies with an eye towards gender norms have used flatulence to highlight the disproportionate pressures placed on the sphincters of men and women. Dramas, similarly, have used the fart as a way of delineating confidence and control; the small farting-corpse subgenre seems a way of acknowledging the final submission to a lack of control: death.
In Episode 2 of HBO’s Six Feet Under, a corpse that — like Swiss Army Man‘s — arrives with an erection and an aromatic soundtrack awakens one character to the oddity of what happens to the body once it no longer has consciousness to control it. The farting corpse is an uncanny phenomenon not just because it imitates life, but because it imitates an aspect of vitality that’s, well, smelly and shame-inducing. The one completely trivial, stupid function we spend so much time thinking about policing or using to exert power… is ultimately what we’re left with. It’s certainly a hilarious existential insult that the one thing we continue to do in death that’s more reminiscent of our human lives is fart. But it’s also a huge, and awesome, insult to social posturing and manners that ultimately — despite the social delineations between those who fart publicly and those who don’t — we’ll all meet our end and simply continue farting.