The first time I realized I had the ability to make someone laugh was in the gift shop at Dollywood. My friend V.J. and I had—through, no doubt, an error in judgment by one of our parents—obtained a whoopee cushion.
We blew it up, hung quietly near the clothing racks, waited for a browser to approach, and squeezed it with all our might. It erupted into, as the whoopee cushion put it, “a real Bronx cheer” that echoed throughout the store. One of us followed the sound with a deep-throated “Oh, excuse me!” and a mention of what we had for lunch. Beans were a popular scapegoat. After our victims moved to a different part of the store, we giggled, reloaded, and lied in wait for the next prey.
The first joke I remember contributing to, then, was a fart joke. This is not an accident.
Farts are funny. This is without question.
Perhaps a particular fart isn't funny, perhaps a particular joke involving a fart isn't funny, perhaps a particular person doesn't enjoy fart humor. (Comedian and friend Jimmy Pardo refused to be interviewed for this piece, only saying, “I don't think there is a topic I hate more, and you can quote me.”) But that doesn't mean they're not funny.
Jokes are one of the only truly democratic art forms. If a large enough percentage of people laugh at something, it is defined as funny. It might not be good or clever, or add to the conversation, or even be socially aware. But it is funny. We can track whether or not something is funny, then, by figuring out how many people are laughing. And a lot of people have laughed at farts.
Howard Stern has parlayed the relatively constant airing of farts on radio waves into millions of listeners and millions of dollars. Before him, a French performer by the name of Joseph Pujol—stage name: Le Petomane—would awe the crowds in Paris' Moulin Rouge by producing a wide variety of tones and spot-on impressions (including a pup and his mother-in-law), all from the air produced by his derriere. But as Jim Dawson points out in Who Cut the Cheese? A Cultural History of the Fart—just one of Dawson's three flatulence-related books—Le Petomane was only the latest in a long line of “flatuists”:
At the beginning of the fifth century, Saint Augustine observed in The City of God, a chronicle of Rome's history, that “Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the singing.”
In fact, we can take this history even further, all the way back to the first joke ever recorded. It comes from Sumeria in 1900 B.C.E., and it goes something like this:
Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap.
Something is lost in translation, for sure. What's so amazing is that this joke, streamlined a bit to account for current linguistics, could pretty easily fit in a club act's routine today.
“Isn't it depressing that after 4,000 years, opening acts are still using the same jokes?” says Tony Boswell, a comedian of more than 30 years. The fact that it has been used for so long, however, points toward one of the key aspects that make farts so funny: Their complete universality.
“There are only three guarantees in life: you will shit, you will die, and you will fart,” writes Leigh Cowart, who maintains the self-explanatory Twitter presence @fartdescriptor, in an email. “Farts are like little, musical love notes from the abyss, a shareable reminder that your body is, ultimately, disgusting and out of your control.”
There are few completely universal concepts, especially ones that translate through both cultures and eras. Marriage differs from culture to culture, century to century. The structure of the family has shifted as well. Even knowledge of our bodies has changed—sometimes subtly, sometimes in dramatic leaps—as medical science has improved. Eating, sleeping, and body waste disposal systems are truly the only three actions that all humans, no matter the time or place, can relate to.
Relatability is key to humor, particularly frames of reference. A comedian makes a reference either to some shared experience, or by comparing their own experience to something shared. If the audience doesn't see the connection (and instead has to ask, “Wait, what do you mean by that?"), it's just not funny. The disruption of patterns is also crucial for humor. As this 1981 Christian Science Monitor profile of philosopher Edward de Bono concisely put it: “Our thinking tends to become rutted, stuck in the same old patterns and solemn perceptions. Humor is a challenge to expected patterns; and sometimes risking the ridiculous liberates these imprisoned concepts."
There is no better pattern disruptor than a perfectly timed fart.
This classic joke that Boswell relayed to me stands as a perfect example: There's an old woman who goes to see her doctor. The doctor asks her what the problem is, and she says that she's been making these silent boo-boos. When she was out to lunch with her girlfriends, she made four silent boo-boos. When she was playing cards with a neighbor, she made five silent boo-boos. “And she said, 'Doctor, while I've been sitting here with you, I've made three silent boo-boos,'” Boswell says. “And the doctor says, 'Well, the first thing we need to do is get your hearing checked.'”
The old woman/boo-boos story is a fart joke, technically. But it's more about pattern-recognition and frame of reference. That she continually utters the phrase “silent boo-boos” sets the pattern that's disrupted when we realize things aren't as quiet as the old woman—or, the joke's audience—thought. As far as frame of reference, well, we all know what she's talking about when she uses that euphemism. We all know the sound—and, possibly, the smell—of that fictional room without it needing to be described. We don't need to ask for more details. Farts are in that unique sweet spot where no one ever needs to ask.
“It's the one thing that unites seven billion people,” Boswell says. “If we could just get ISIS to understand that.”
Over the years, research on why we believe certain things are funny has gradually gained respectability in the academy. In 1998, Stanford researcher Thomas Veatch offered a "Theory of Humor" in which he proposes that something's funny when a scenario is wrong, but generally OK: Falling down the stairs is funny, but only if the person comes out of it unscathed. This idea was expanded upon with the work of journalist Joel Warner and behavioral scientist Peter McGraw, who criss-crossed the globe in an attempt to dissect humor and come up with some kind of universal theory. But as far as why farts, specifically, are funny, science remains tightly clenched. (Although, a fascinating 2005 study looked at the gender gap of shame associated with any sort of fecal activity.)
In order to get to the bottom of this investigation, I felt it necessary to speak to the people who find the most humor in the act of farting: young kids. So, I put out a call to friends with children who (a) are of speaking age and (b) laugh at farts. A few of them were kind enough to let me ask their children about why farts are funny.
Kieran, a six year old, laughs when other people do it, and also when he does it. Why? “The sound is funny.”
For Astrid, a seven year old, it depends heavily on how audible the fart is. “Some of them are so quiet you barely hear them, or some of them are so loud that they make you laugh,” she says. At seven years old, she also has an added insight that comes with age. While she still finds them somewhat funny, “they were really funny when I was younger.”
Myla, four years old, testified that farts are funny because “it's potty talk and potty talk is funny.” She was also quite succinct when I asked her why she thought it was funny. “Because it comes out of the body,” Myla says. “It comes out of your butt.”
In a 2015 interview on The Daily Show, Louie C.K. came to the same conclusion. He broke down exactly why farts are funny into three distinct points. Number one: It comes out of your butt. Number two: It smells like poop “because it's just been hanging out next to it for a long time.” Number three: It makes “a little trumpet-noise” when it comes out.
“A toot noise that smells like poop that comes out of your ass,” he concludes. “That's hilarious. That's the funniest thing in the world. You don't have to be smart to laugh at farts, but you have to be stupid not to.”