In 300 years, when machines run the earth, our robot scientist overlords will be able to study our ancient society’s morals and taboos via what we allow and eventually embrace in pop culture.
Film and television will be a huge part of future anthropological research. Researchers will marvel at how we were once so uptight, married couples on TV couldn’t be shown sleeping in the same bed. The robo-researchers will also surely have a good chuckle over how we were uncomfortable with any depiction of homosexuals on TV and dumbfounded that full frontal male nudity was unthinkable.
The evolution of cussing on TV will also surely be part of the research. In the early ’70s, George Carlin riffed on the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Cable TV (which is self-regulated and censored for the sake of advertisers) came along and made the entire bit seem antiquated, but even network television (whose standards are overseen by the government’s FCC) has adapted to the times; depending on the time of airing and the way they’re used, two of those forbidden words are fairly commonplace — “tits” and, to a lesser extent (for now), “shit” — and “piss” has seemingly found its way off the list.
But what will researchers make of the rise of our culture’s gradual acceptance of puke?
Vomit used to be special. It was used sparingly by filmmakers for dramatic effect — the crucial scene in 1973’s horror classic The Exorcist when demon-child Regan projects about 25 gallons of pea-soup-like puke all over the poor priest was shocking for its time. A decade later, U.K. comedy troupe Monty Python cemented barf’s role as a legitimate comedic tool with Mr. Creosote, whose non-stop puking is tolerated at a fancy restaurant because of his wealth.
Today, shows on network and basic cable — from Family Guy to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — have helped make those scenes seem quaint.
We, as humans, have evolved to the point where seeing others vomit is part of our everyday entertainment. Where once most would cringe or avert their eyes at the sight of even the most innocuous string of spittle in a movie, today we celebrate the bravery the actresses in Bridesmaids show when they shower each other in puke for laughs.
It seems like that gag reflex we once had that made someone puke when they merely saw someone else spew (the basis of many comedic barfathons) has been lost to evolution. Most likely, it’s because Smell-O-Rama never took off.
I don’t bring any of this up out of fear for our decaying morality. I fear the increased misuse of vomit as a dramatic or comedic device. Some comedians can work “blue” material seamlessly into their act (Chris Rock, for example), but the influx of comedians who use foul language as their main weapon has killed the shock value.
Likewise, there are vomit-artistes in the comedy world that still find ways to use puke creatively. The Comedy Vomit Scene Hall of Fame is heavy on over-the-top-ness, from the pie-eating scene in Stand By Me to the marionette spew-fest in Team America: World Police. One of the better TV puke scenes recently was Tim and Eric’s slo-mo vomit montage set to “Take My Breath Away.” Genius.
But usually, due to overkill, a vomit scene is as banal as a CBS sitcom punchline. Today, vomit scenes are used to promote new “gross-out” elements of movies like 21 Jump Street. Even the cuddly Mort from Madagascar 3 pukes within the first 10 minutes of the new animated kids’ film. If every comedy has a puke scene, it’s just not that funny anymore.
Filmmaker John Waters has been called the “Prince of Puke” and, especially in his early work, he was a provocateur of shock via bodily functions. In Waters’ 1981 autobiographical book Shock Value, Waters began the book writing, “To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits while watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste.”
My fear is that the line between bad taste and bad bad taste will never stop moving. If there’s one thing that makes me most nervous about vomit-mania, it’s wondering what’s next.
What is the next great unspoken restriction to fall? Will cartoons regularly feature scenes of explosive, projectile diarrhea? Will the next wave of gross-out films have to include a mandatory “menstrual blood” joke? Will 2 Girls, 1 Cup: The Movie someday be greenlit for the big screen?
We can only wait and see, of course. And maybe keep a bucket nearby, just in case.
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