Hollywood Stoops to Conquer

Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

When Adam Herz, the 26-year-old screenwriter of "American Pie," was asked to write a paper for a college film class at the University of Michigan, he picked a subject dear to his heart: "Porky's." His term paper, titled "The Gross-Out Cinema," was an analysis of one of the outrageously vulgar moments in modern film: the shower scene from "Porky's."

"In a lot of ways, 'American Pie' started as a joke with my friends and me in college because we kept thinking, 'Whatever happened to "Porky's"?' " he says. "When I decided to write a teenage party movie, I looked at a lot of movies like 'Animal House' and 'Revenge of the Nerds,' but the key movie was always 'Porky's.' It's the classic."

Classic might not be the first word you think of for "Porky's," but for anyone who's been to the movies lately, it's impossible not to have noticed that the spirit of that 1981 film lives on. The gross-out comedy is back, even more crude, lewd and infantile than ever.

Since 1994, when the back-to-back success of "Dumb and Dumber" and "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" made Jim Carrey an overnight star, a string of raucous films devoted to the celebration of stupidity has transformed youth comedies into a carnival of jokes about spit, vomit, farts, dildos, diarrhea, premature ejaculation, talking turds, semen in your hair, semen in your beer--let's just say that no bodily part, fluid or excretion is off limits.

Action guys may have dominated the '80s--remember Stallone and Schwarzenegger?--but now it's the kings of lowbrow comedy who rule. Carrey is now a $20-million-a-movie star; Adam Sandler and Mike Myers figure to make at least that much in the future. Sandler's "The Waterboy" grossed $160 million last year, while his new film, "Big Daddy," opened even bigger than "The Waterboy," with $41 million in its first weekend; it has taken in about $100 million so far.

Meanwhile, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the bad-boy creators of the scatological "South Park" TV series and its new spinoff film, "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," have been celebrated as "fin de siecle comics" by no less than Rolling Stone. And industry insiders have been abuzz for months about "American Pie," the raunchy teen comedy that revolves around the time-honored adolescent male ritual of trying to lose one's virginity.

The box-office payoff has been huge. The Farrelly brothers' "There's Something About Mary," last summer's breakout comedy hit, made $176 million, making it the highest-grossing R-rated comedy since "Beverly Hills Cop." Myers' "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" is expected to hit the $200-million mark at the box office.

A decade ago, it was the Hollywood action movie that created bigger-than-life heroes whose exploits were brash and outrageous, serving as fantasy fulfillments for the average young moviegoer. Now it's comedy that provides as much unbridled excess and cheap thrills as anything you could find in "Eraser."

"Kids want humor. Comedy is part of the zeitgeist today," says New Line Cinema production president Michael De Luca, whose studio made "Dumb and Dumber" and the "Austin Powers" films. "People want to see someone poke fun at authority, to take the wind out of the windbags of our society. The 1980s were very politically correct--the culture wasn't into irreverent satire or gross-out humor. But as the '90s developed, TV shows like 'The Simpsons' and the Farrellys' films signaled a new attitude. Suddenly you could make fun of a lot of sacred cows--everybody was fair game."

Virtually every major studio is scrambling to develop or revive any project that could be a pants-around-your-ankles comic hit.

* "Me, Myself and Irene," a Farrellys film starring Carrey, is due next summer from 20th Century Fox.

* New Line has a two-picture deal with Sandler and is already salivating over a third "Austin Powers" film.

* Stone and Parker are writing a prequel for "Dumb and Dumber."

* Disney is making "Deuce," starring "Big Daddy" supporting player Rob Schneider, who plays a fish-tank cleaner who becomes a reluctant gigolo.

* Paul and Chris Weitz, who respectively directed and co-produced "American Pie," are penning a sequel to "The Nutty Professor," while Herz is doing an update of "Smokey and the Bandit," both for Universal Pictures.

"Everybody wants a comedy with an edge," says Alan Gasmer, a top spec-script agent at the William Morris Agency. "Nobody's ever said, 'Get me another 'Mummy.' They all want another 'Something About Mary.' Everybody says, 'What have you got that's outrageous?' "

Gasmer recently sent out "Richard," a script about a guy who loses his penis--don't ask how--and can't get it back until he makes amends to women he's treated badly in the past. Said one studio executive, who passed: "We're already doing a penis movie."

And that's not all, folks. MGM has a comedy in development, "Special," about a guy who fakes being paraplegic to impress a girl. MGM is also developing "Munchies," a spoof about anorexic girls who turn into vampires and eat their classmates.

More? Another studio is developing a comedy about a gay man who gets amnesia and forgets he's homosexual. Alcon Entertainment is developing "Dude, Where's My Car?," a comedy about two stoners who lose their car in New York City. Universal is developing "Rufus the Slave," with comic Dave Chappelle in a raunchy comedy set in the South during slavery.

Whether it's sex, smutty language or just plain yucky stuff, in times of prosperity and complacency, audiences seem to prefer comedy that aims for the gut and the groin, not the head. "Our lives are so safe now that we don't look to entertainment for answers, we look for shock," says director Andy Fleming, whose new film, "Dick," is a spoof about two teenage girls in the '70s who stumble onto the Watergate burglary. "There's so much comfortable entertainment on TV that when we go to the movies, we want something extreme or new."

Dumb comedies have been around forever, from the Three Stooges to "Police Academy." But until recently, they were for the most part forgettable low-budget, B-movie fare that turned a fast buck and vanished. Today's lowbrow comedies are box-office bonanzas. The difference is that with the arrival of a huge new teen generation, most major studio films are now geared to Hollywood's most loyal customers: 14-year-old boys. Adults are fickle, harder to sell to and easily distracted by other interests. Teens have tons of leisure time, plenty of spending money and a burning desire to be first in line for the hot new pop sensation. "It's the triumph of the salesman in the movie business," says satirist Harry Shearer, who also voices several "Simpsons" characters. "They want the surest bet possible, and when it comes to comedy, the surest best is the gross-out comedy. But it's wrong to say our culture is being run by 12-year-old boys. It's being run by the guys in their 40s who are pandering to the taste of 12-year-olds. Even 12-year-old boys have broader tastes than the people who pander to them these days."

*

Now it's comedy that's the extreme sport, full of enough testosterone to satisfy any video game-crazed 12-year-old boy.

One of the few recent action films that hit pay dirt, "Rush Hour," found a huge audience by deftly mixing car wrecks with comedy. Expect more hybrids to follow: Steve Oedekerk, who wrote "The Nutty Professor" and "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls," is doing "Dubbed Action Movie," a comedy in which he digitally inserts himself into a 1950s Asian martial-arts film. There's no "Batman" this summer; instead there's "Mystery Men," a film based on a cartoon about comically inept superheroes.

It's hardly a coincidence that gross-out comedy has returned at a time when action movies are at a low ebb. With the exception of "The Matrix," a hit earlier this year, action films have lost much of their following, hampered by aging stars, increasing costs and political heat from Congress, which is pressuring Hollywood to tone down the violence in the wake of the Littleton, Colo., high school shootings.

Big action movies also have traditionally been Hollywood's most potent export. But comedy may be catching up. The foreign performance of "There's Something About Mary" has surpassed its U.S. gross, taking in $188 million to date.

For now, studio chiefs would prefer to take their chances on making people laugh.

"From an economic standpoint, comedy makes a lot more sense right now," says Fox Chairman Bill Mechanic. "The whole action genre has gotten old. The stars are old, the form is tired--you felt like you were seeing characters in situations you'd seen too many times before. Even if you're using one of the big comic stars, there's a huge difference in cost between a big comedy and big action movie. You can save anywhere between $50 million and $75 million."

But the comedy boom is driven by more than just economics. In many ways, it's simply Hollywood playing catch-up with the rest of today's cutting-edge pop culture. "There's Something About Mary's" box-office triumph came just months after a lurid White House sex scandal. One of "American Pie's" most outrageous scenes involves the botched seduction of a foxy foreign exchange student that is surreptitiously broadcast over the Internet. If it sounds familiar, perhaps it's because "The Jerry Springer Show" recently aired an episode in which a woman learned her boyfriend had been secretly broadcasting their sexual encounters on the Internet.

In Washington, politicians are pushing the Ten Commandments, but if TV ratings and movie box office are any indication, audiences are voting for semen and stupidity. For much of the '90s, vulgarity has been in vogue, making kingpins out of Springer, Howard Stern, Beavis and Butt-head, professional wrestling and Maxim magazine, the men's magazine obsessed with big breasts and sex fantasies (this month's cover tag: "Never Beg Again--Get the Best Sex of Your Life!").

"The new comedy is more in-your-face because it's a more in-your-face world," says Brillstein-Grey founder Bernie Brillstein, a leading comedy manager for four decades. "In the 1940s, Stan Kenton was shocking. In the 1950s, Elvis was shocking. In the 1960s, it was the Rolling Stones. People romanticize 'Saturday Night Live,' but John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner did plenty of gross humor. Now it's the Farrellys and Adam Sandler.

"Go to theater on Broadway, and you can see people simulating [sex]. Turn on the TV, and you can hear Jay Leno do nice [penis] jokes. If you go to the movies, you can hear more blatant [penis] jokes. But you tell me what's more gross: Adam Sandler peeing on a wall, or turning on CNN and seeing us dropping bombs on people half a world away?"

*

The success of Sandler, Carrey and Myers also points to a generational shift in comedy talent. The funnymen who came of age in the 1970s--Bill Murray, Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Billy Crystal--are considered graybeards by young moviegoers. "Kids who are in high school today stopped relating to that group--they're too old to be in sync with what kids want," Oedekerk says. "The new films offer a great opportunity for a new generation of comics to take over."

Each generation of moviegoers wants comics who embody the spirit of the age. Sandler's class clown is as different from Murray's misfit hipster as Murray's hipster was from Jerry Lewis' rubber-limbed buffoon. But older comics, as they reluctantly pass the torch, invariably belittle the new comics' crassness and lack of originality. As Albert Brooks bluntly puts it: "The beauty of these comedies is that you don't have to see them to hate them."

Brooks' new movie, "The Muse," is due next month, but he admits he would have difficulty breaking into film today. "On my first record, I did a routine about how saying the word [excrement] saved my life," he recalls. "I was doing concerts as an opening act, and no one knew who I was. But when they booed me, I'd pull out the big gun, this special word that was a gift from God and you kept in a jewel box. In 1971, you could say that word, and the audience would cheer and throw you a parade. But here we are, almost 30 years later, and everyone uses it. Our movies are so enamored by bodily functions that even when you die and go to heaven, I bet God will have a great [excrement] joke for you."

The tidal wave of gross humor has overwhelmed the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which lost considerable credibility in recent months by giving the same R rating to both "Shakespeare in Love" and "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," even though one film is an elegant romantic comedy and the other a deliberately crude satire.

To hear "Porky's" director Bob Clark tell it, nothing has changed. In 1981, the MPAA made him trim several scenes that showed penises, "which outraged [then Fox production executive] Sherry Lansing because they let us show the pubic hair of the girls but we couldn't show the boys' penises."

The MPAA had an unusual barometer for vulgar language. "They counted the number of vulgar words in 'Raging Bull' and said you have to cut yours to half that," Clark recalls. "So that's why 'Porky's' has less than 55 dirty words, because 'Raging Bull' had 110."

The Weitz brothers, who submitted "American Pie" to the MPAA four times before they received an R rating, were struck by the arbitrary nature of the process. "They [the MPAA ratings board] focused on things that required a certain amount of imagination on their part, that were basically an accumulation of lewd details," Paul Weitz says. "But as we're cutting things out, they kept telling our post-production supervisor how much they were laughing at our material."

Chris Weitz adds: "They just don't like teenagers being associated with sex, even though that seems like a fairly obvious assumption. It wasn't the sex, it was the thought of kids having sex--the same scene would've been fine if it had involved hookers or prostitutes instead of kids."

If the MPAA seems bewildered by how to react, the critical establishment--largely made up of white, middle-aged males--has been openly hostile to gross-out comics. Reviewing "Big Daddy" for New Times, critic Hal Hinson said Sandler's whole career "appears to have come to pass less by design than by divine fluke." Most critics were appalled by the single-digit IQ humor of "Dumb and Dumber." The Halliwell "Film Guide" dismissed Carrey's first "Ace Ventura" film as "extraordinarily inept--Carrey makes Jerry Lewis seem as restrained as Buster Keaton." To be sure, comedy has always stooped to conquer. "The fart joke will always workit's basic to human consciousness," Brooks says. "It's just fascinating only because it's become such a big way to make money today. Maybe as a species, we have to be able to say 'pee-pee' before we can move on. Let's see what the next generation thinks. Maybe everyone will wake up someday and say, 'No, 'testicle' isn't that funny.' "

Still, gross-out comedy has its supporters. Amy Heckerling, director of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Clueless," says she's "gaga" over Sandler, while her 13-year-old daughter is determined to marry "South Park" co-creator Trey Parker. "The humor in these movies is silly, not sexual," she explains. "That famous penis-in-the-zipper scene . . . it made me laugh. It was my second husband who wrote the scene where a guy goes flying into a horse's ass in 'Police Academy,' and I loved it because it made me say, 'I can't believe you're doing that!' "

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