Introduction Whoa, did somebody step on a duck?—Al Cervik (Rodney Dangerfield), after letting a long, wet one at a society dinner, in Caddyshack (1980)
A fart changes the atmosphere. In a 2007 L.A. Weekly
review of a book about theater mishaps, Steven Leigh Morris recalled a personal moment at a performance of Euripides’ Iphigenia
. During the murder of the heroine by her father, “somebody in the audience of about one hundred people released a very small, involuntary fart—an accident, not a commentary,” Morris wrote. “Cutting through the silence, it was audible through at least the front half of the audience and by the actors—assorted guards and spear-carrier types in particular—who were clearly reaching into the marrow of their bones to contain giggles that were rolling through them in small, powerful waves.” Over the next few minutes, their “mirth suppression” hijacked the Greek tragedy and “crossed the footlights into the house. Suspension of disbelief unraveled. . . . The tiniest of farts had sent the walls crashing down.”
In our public life we hold at bay a disbelief that is not all that different from what we suspend at the theater. We know that when we’re sitting at home in front of the TV, we pick our noses, scratch our asses, and fart to our hearts’ content, but when we run down to the store for another six-pack or a bag of chips, we wrap ourselves in a veil of propriety because we want to be acceptable to all those other surreptitious farters hiding their true selves from us. Essentially, we’re denying our knowledge that we’re nothing more than tricked-up mammals, a mere baby step up from chimps and orangutans, struggling to adhere to a social code our mothers drummed into us while we sat on the potty.
That’s why the atmosphere changes—in more ways than one—when someone inadvertently lets a big one at the checkout counter or a small one in a quiet theater. A fart can instantly erase the luster from a beautiful girl—or make her touchingly vulnerable. It can strip the authority from the cop who’s giving you a ticket or the priest presiding at communion. We’re shocked, not because we didn’t already believe everybody farted, but rather because someone (usually unwillingly) confronts us with the big lie that underpins our conformity to social norms.
When Ten Speed Press released Who Cut the Cheese?
in 1999, a major columnist at the Los Angeles Times
told me that no family newspaper, including his, would ever print the word fart
. A few years later the Times broke that barrier by using the term old farts
to describe fogeys who weren’t keeping up with youth culture. And now the word pops up fairly often in its full flatulent context. In early March 2009, for example, columnist Meghan Daum lamented the loss of a Los Angeles talk-show station with “I’m taking my fart-joke business elsewhere.” In a June 19, 2009, film review, Times
critic Betsy Sharkey described the Jack Black/Michael Cera comedy Year One
as a “turn-back-the-clock, take-a-look-at-our-ancestors fable with fart jokes.” And on October 3, 2009, the Times
Calendar section’s front page broke the visual barrier by running a large, top-of-the-fold photo of children’s comic-strip author Berkeley Breathed with several of his illustrated dogs, including one propelling itself through the air on a skateboard with a whooshing trail of chunky—and I do mean chunky—fart gas. Meanwhile, the Chicago Sun-Times
has not only run several articles about the ubiquity of fart humor in American culture today, but also phoned such personages as professional farter Mr. Methane and even yours truly for a quote or two. Clearly, the age of the fart is upon us, and we can deny it no more.
In fact, as you’ll see in these pages, farts are everywhere, in politics, science, religion, history, sports, entertainment, and . . . well, what’s left? We even discover new ones every day, such as the fargle
, which is a fart that doesn’t quite escape as you lean forward to slip it out, and when you lean back too soon, it’s forced back in and makes a reverse fart noise. Or how about the new courtesy fart
, which is what you offer when someone else accidentally lets one go and you don’t want them to feel like an outcast?
Okay, I know, you’re asking yourself, what kind of smart feller (an old hillbilly jibe meaning fart smeller
) who’s well into middle age writes three books about farting? Obviously he’s not well. As radio host Stephanie Miller told me ten years ago during my media blitz for Who Cut the Cheese? (the trilogy opener), “Jim, you’re a very sick man, and you’re spending way too much time by yourself.” Another talk show host, Bill Handel, thought I should be locked up (though he did love the book).
I suppose I could blame this fixation on arrested development. But before anyone accuses me of having the sniggering sensibility and emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old, let me assure you right now that I’ve progressed to at least age seventeen, maybe eighteen. Granted, that’s pretty much where I’ve stayed, but nobody’s perfect. Nearly fifty years have passed since my high school graduation, yet my daily wardrobe is still sneakers, jeans, and T-shirts; my music of choice is 1950s rockabilly and rhythm and blues; my favorite movies are postwar films noir and zombie bloodfests; my romantic ideal is still the exotic, dark-eyed girl with a bouffant high enough to tangle with a ceiling fan; and nothing will get me giggling with dimwitted delight like a well-placed fart. (Oh, and did I mention, ladies, that I’m single?) Yes, I’m too old for this nonsense, but then again, if I were a mature adult I’d be retiring right about now from some cubicle confinement and suffering degenerative brain function (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and you wouldn’t have the pleasure of my company.
So enough with the fanfare. Let the gamy prose begin.1. I Fart, Therefore I Am
When I was in the Marines in the 1960s, I heard a lot of colorful oaths and aphorisms from grizzled lifers who had picked them up a decade or two earlier, during one of the wars. One memorable line, meant to be delivered when a beautiful but unobtainable girl walked by, was: “I’d lay ten miles of comm wire through thick jungle just to hear her fart over a field phone!”
It never crossed our minds that someday people would carry around little phones that actually farted—and that a guy named Comm would have something to do with it.
You can blame the cellular phone, which has probably had more impact on our daily lives and personal habits than any other invention since television. The cell phone has its own (lack of) etiquette, its own language, its own alphabet, even its own laws to regulate its use in common situations, like driving a car. But more significantly, over the past few years it has evolved into the “smartphone” and surpassed its original function by becoming an all-purpose computer—a palm-sized extension of the owner’s nervous system. The product that dramatically sped up its insinuation into our daily lives was Apple’s iPhone, a veritable electronic Swiss Army knife with WiFi internet access, which was in seventeen million hands within a year and a half after its June 2007 debut. Time
magazine dubbed it the “Invention of the Year.”
What gave the iPhone its edge was Apple’s software development kit, available to all, democratically allowing any clever computer geek the chance to write his or her own application (mini-program) and sell it through Apple’s iTunes’ App Store. Before long, you could download an app onto your iPhone to satisfy nearly any impulse, no matter how whimsical. Among the tens of thousands available, there’s a GPS app that tells you exactly where you are at any time and how you can find anywhere you want to go from there, be it the nearest French restaurant or the most pretentious French restaurant within fifty miles. There’s even an app that turns your phone into an ocarina—an ancient Aztec flute—that you can play by blowing into the mouthpiece and fingering four note buttons on the screen.
But what really caught the world’s attention was the iFart Mobile app, introduced on December 12, 2008—a date that will live in, well, infamy perhaps. Suddenly anyone, for just ninety-nine cents, could enjoy a good fart over the phone—not just one monochromic poot but a library of twenty-five different “pharts,” including the Air Biscuit, the Honk, the Brown Mosquito, the Butt Socket, the Burrito Maximo, the Jack the Ripper, and the Silent-But-Deadly (first silence, then a disgusted voice moaning “Ohhhhh, man
!”). You could turn any one of them into your iPhone’s sputtering ringtone or email and text-message them to your friends and ex-spouses. Better yet, iFart let you record a real snort from your own fart funnel and send it to a loved one who, you hope, would recognize its distinctive loveliness the way a mother bird knows the chirps of her babies within the cacophony of a nesting colony. Or you could turn your very own fart into your very
personal ringtone. There’s also a time-delay fart (the “Sneak Attack”) that functions like an electronic whoopee cushion (thus superseding the battery-powered Fart Machine that I spotlighted in Blame It on the Dog
). The program even has a motion-detection alert (“Security”). Lay your iPhone down on a flat surface, and if someone picks it up, it farts—alarmingly!
The iFart was a hit from its day of release. It zoomed up the App Store chart to number one just before Christmas and lingered there for three weeks. The iFart’s designer is Joel Comm, an Internet businessman who had already made a name for himself by cocreating Yahoo! Games and producing and hosting the first Internet reality show, Next Internet Millionaire
. Comm noted on his blog (joelcomm.com) that during just two days alone—Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—his InfoMedia, Inc. sold more than 58,000 downloads, netting over $40,000 dollars. Said Comm, “iFart is a cultural phenomenon.” By spring 2009 he had increased his arsenal of arse-squeak options to nearly one hundred. In July he bragged to the San Francisco Chronicle
that his sales had passed the million mark to reach “flatulence superiority” over all the other farting apps.
Yes, there were dozens of others in iFart’s wake, including Fart Button, Mr. Poot, iToot, iFartz, FartBox, Whoopee Cushion, Who Farted? and Pull My Finger, which presented a virtual index finger on the touch screen that produced a fart noise when “pulled.” There was even a game with flatulent sounds called iLightFarts, challenging the player to burn them off as quickly as they happen or else be overwhelmed by gas. According to David Chartier in a February 2009 ArsTechnica.com blog post, “You may not believe it, but fart tools are among the largest categories of iPhone apps. In fact, outside of games—the most popular apps—fart apps may very well take the lead. A quick search for ‘fart’ in the App Store produced well over one hundred results.”
But by mid-2009, fart fatigue was setting in. Alex Miro, whose Krapps.com covered the exponential growth of iPhone’s apps, told the Chronicle
in July, “Some of this stuff is funny, and I’m no prude, but where is Apple going with all this? It gets to the point, after the first ten farting apps, I stop writing about it. It’s old and idiotic.” Comedian Bill Maher concurred by coming up with one of his trademark New Rules: “If your phone can fart, you’re part of the problem.”
Clearly all this electronic flatulence was turning out to be too much of a good thing. When Joel Comm began using the phrase “pull my finger” in his iFart ads, he yanked the crank of Pull My Finger’s creator, Eric Stratton of Air-o-Matic. Stratton threatened Comm with a lawsuit for trademark infringement and unfair business practices and wanted $50,000 to settle the dispute. The combustible Comm preempted him by filing a formal complaint in federal court asking for a declaratory judgment that “pull my finger” was a colloquialism that couldn’t be trademarked. “The phrase ‘pull my finger,’ and derivations thereof, are generally known and widely understood in American society to be a joke or prank regarding flatulence,” Comm said in his filing. “The prank begins when the prankster senses the deep stirrings of flatulence.” (For a more detailed history of the pull-my-finger gag, see the “Fickle Finger of Farts” chapter in Blame It on the Dog
In February, FoxNews.com billed the brouhaha as an “iPhone Flatulence Fakers Feud” and noted, “It’s a real stinky situation.” Fox had its fingers crossed that “the case will go all the way to the Supreme Court, just so we can hear the nine highest jurists in the land read aloud passages such as . . . ‘Butt Socket.’”
By April the methane-like flare-up was history. (Comm and Stratton would later take their case to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
and make up in a flurry of air kisses.) Public outrage had already moved elsewhere, thanks to iPhone’s new “Baby Shaker” app that let the user shake a crying infant until its eyes changed from lively Os to brain-dead Xs. GottaBeMobile.com summed up the outcry in an April 22 entry: “After things seemed to settle down from the obnoxious cloud of apps featuring . . . the sounds of flatulence, Apple seems to be once again approving apps that have questionable value and taste.” Apple pulled Baby Shaker off the market after only two days. Suddenly the idea of making your phone fart like a young Marine after a night of sucking down pickled eggs with cheap beer seemed innocent and fun. So goes the demise of Western civilization. 2. Bush-League Butt Burps
In mid-August 2006 U.S. News & World Report
columnist Paul Bedard ran an innocent little item titled “Animal House in the West Wing” in which he claimed that George W. Bush was “a funny, earthy guy who, for example, can’t get enough of fart jokes. He’s also known to cut a few for laughs, especially when greeting new young aides, but forget about getting people to gas [complain] about that.”
Coming from a respected conservative newsstand magazine, Bedard’s revelation sent a mega-blast wave through Washington, even though it wasn’t the first time news had leaked out that the “first frat boy” had a penchant for poot pranks. Five years earlier, in 2001, United Press International, in its Capital Comment column, had noted, “A source tells UPI the president ended a recent energy policy meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney and others by jokingly offering his own personal stores of ‘natural gas’ to help alleviate the energy crisis.”
That same year, when Nancy Bagley, Washington Life
magazine’s editor in chief, interviewed former columnist Lloyd Grove for the September 2001 issue, he told her about one item the Washington Post
wouldn’t let him print: “About halfway through the general election campaign of 2000, I got word or shall I say, got wind of the fact that George W. Bush thought it was funny to punctuate a joke by breaking wind in groups of people. I first heard a story that during the campaign he called a new desk aide of Karl Rove’s into his office to give him an ‘Austin Welcome.’”
“Oh, you’re kidding,” Bagley exclaimed.
Grove wasn’t. “It finally got to the point,” he continued, “where [White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer was calling to deny it up and down, after some rather nondenial denials from the principal himself. And then later on, [Bush] was doing an interview on [Air Force One] with a news-magazine reporter where he ended up adjusting the air nozzle on the plane. He said he had just broken wind and that part is off the record.” Grove added that during one of Dick Cheney’s secret meetings with energy leaders, “Bush joked that perhaps his own natural gas was meant to be harnessed to solve the energy problem.” But even though Grove had “multiple witnesses to various [similar] behaviors,” his editors at the Post
“thought it was pushing the envelope a little too far, and I can’t quarrel with that.”
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a Bush nemesis, created a media uproar when he addressed the United Nations in New York City on September 20, 2006, the day after Bush had spoken at the same podium. “The devil came here yesterday,” Chavez said. “And it smells of sulfur still today.” The press took it as a figurative attack, but maybe the U.S. president had actually left a lingering air bomb for him.
Excerpted from Did Somebody Step on a Duck? by Jim Dawson. Copyright © 2010 by Jim Dawson. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.