Snorkeling in the cesspool

Patrick J. Kiger is a freelance writer based in Takoma Park, Md. This is his first story for the magazine

Oh this age! How tasteless and ill-bred it is!" wrote the Roman poet Catullus in the 1st century BC. He wasn't complaining, mind you, so much as reveling: He was one of the most astonishingly rude and crude literati of all time, a guy whose verses were so explicitly raunchy and full of scatological insults toward his rivals that they make Howard Stern seem like a Care Bear.

* Still, I wish the old vulgarian could time travel forward to a television studio in Hollywood, where I'm attending a taping of Comedy Central's "The Man Show." Here he'd see what 2,000 years of human progress have wrought.

The cameras aren't rolling yet, but a burly staffer is soliciting volunteers for an upcoming skit, "Wheel of Destiny," with a warning that since this is national television, participating audience members must be prepared to deal with any and all eventualities.

"Let's say, if we want to give you a urine bath," he explains, "you have to be willing to take it like a man."

Daniel Kellison, one of the executive producers and the man running things on the set, says that won't really happen. This is, after all, a television show--not the back room of some leather bar. But the audience members don't seem particularly concerned. They're mostly male, 20- or 30-something, clad in jeans and sports regalia, quaffing free beers and hooting and stomping and banging their mitts together dutifully whenever the crew tests the red-lit sign that reads "Clap, you bastards." These fellas aren't here for a Martha Stewart lesson on making gelatin molds. They're here for brewskis, breasts and bodily functions--big time.

And "The Man Show," perhaps today's state of the art in vulgarity, isn't going to disappoint them. A few minutes later, the Juggy Dancers rush in from the wings clad in costumes that suggest the nation is facing a dire shortage of animal-print spandex. A few high-heeled wiggles later, they're followed by "The Man Show" hosts, Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla--two men in their 30s who are so clean-cut that either could play the yuppie dad in a life-insurance commercial. They banter about the need to Scotchgard the Juggy Dancers, and no one has to explain the joke to this crowd. One of the more remarkable aspects of "The Man Show" is that once the cameras start rolling, things get even more vulgar. The "Wheel of Destiny" segment, for example, is a game-show parody that offers lucky contestants the opportunity to win prizes such as a canoe filled with tube socks or a chance to watch two of the Juggy Dancers have a pillow fight. A losing contestant, on the other hand, has to submit to having his face licked by an obese woman dressed as Cher. (Fortunately for the contestants, no one's turn of the wheel stops on the ultimate misfortune: "Ten seconds in ice tub, then show Juggy your privates.")

Other segments vary from tee-hee to I-can't-believe-they're-showing-that. There's a phone-sex parody, penis-size jokes, PMS jokes and, last but not least, the inadvertently-eating-doggie-doo-because-he-thinks- it's-chocolate-ice-cream joke. There are no flatulence jokes this time, but hey, it's only a 30-minute show.

"It probably was our filthiest show ever," Kellison cheerfully notes later.

Rude? Crude? Outrageously, astonishingly, breathtakingly vulgar? You betcha. It's also a hit. After one season, "The Man Show" already is Comedy Central's second-most-popular show, surpassed only by the equally raunchy animated series "South Park." But "The Man Show" isn't an aberration. Rather, it's another sign of the times, a particularly pungent whiff of the millennial Zeitgeist. The '70s were the Me Decade, the '80s were the Reagan Decade, the '90s were the Wired Decade. Chances are, the '00s are going to be the Vulgar Decade. And don't look now, but ewwww, you're already stepping in it.

*

IN CASE YOU HAVEN'T NOTICED, VULGARITY HAS GONE FROM BEING sophomoric to hip to mainstream, and it's now on its way to becoming ubiquitous. At this point, the question is: Just how low can we go?

Here's how vulgar we are already:

Radio shock jocks slobbering daily over subjects that would make Lenny Bruce blush. Movies such as "There's Something About Mary" and "Road Trip," which, on the strength of comedian Tom Green's mouse-on-the-tongue scene alone, could well go down in history as the "Citizen Kane" of summer teen-gross-out comedies. "Lad" magazines such as Maxim and FHM, featuring cleavage that brings to mind the effects of a catastrophic windstorm at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Reality TV shows starring rampaging pets and surveillance footage of employees photocopying their privates and urinating on the boss's furniture. The planned October launch of Alltrue Networks, a lowbrow Web site featuring "extreme, horrific and bizarre" video clips intended, like "The Man Show," to attract 18- to 24-year-old men. "WWF Smackdown" and "The Jerry Springer Show," which have become difficult to tell apart. Porn stars as celebrities. USA Network's new late-night quiz show, "Strip Poker," in which buffed young hunks and potential bikini-contest winners doff successive layers of their already-revealing attire.

If you drove around L.A. this spring, you saw billboards depicting two radio hosts at urinals flanking ex-pro basketballer and recreational cross-dresser Dennis Rodman. The corresponding television ad has the pair marveling at the size of Rodman's . . . NBA championship ring. If you shopped on Melrose Avenue around Easter, you could have commemorated the holiday with a candy Easter bunny hammered to a candy crucifix.

You catch my drift. We're in the midst of a veritable Renaissance of Vulgarity, a gross-out of historic proportions. The culture is becoming ruder and cruder at an astonishing, almost exponential, rate. Some find this alarming--"the coarsening of our culture" has become a mantra for politicians, to the tune of nearly 400 citations in the Nexis electronic news database in the past two years. Radio pioneer and former "Tonight Show" host Steve Allen, as spokesman for the Parents Television Council, regularly runs newspaper ads denouncing TV as a "moral sewer."

"Is this vulgar, degraded and coarse material absolutely necessary?" virtue czar Bill Bennett asked in the conservative Weekly Standard.

Well, perhaps. I could launch into a tedious dissertation on the Freudian concepts of infantile sexuality and repression-versus-sublimation, but instead let's assume the obvious: Vulgarity apparently satisfies some deep-seated, ancient human urge. After all, we're the latest in a long succession of societies to laugh at flatulence jokes. The Romans actually had verbs for both "to fart" and "to fart softly." And they had Catullus, who in verse invited rivals to perform certain acts later described in the Starr Report. And what was Christians versus the Lions in the Roman Coliseum if not a non-electronic presaging of "When Animals Attack?"

The term "vulgar" comes originally from the Latin vulgus, which means "the mob" or "the common people"--even though the Roman upper classes were as crude and rude as anybody, and in Elizabethan England, the notoriously ribald William Shakespeare, that paragon of culture, included a flatulence pun in "Othello." In 1796, an aptly named British Navy officer, Capt. Francis Grose, compiled "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue." It contains such then-shocking terms as "bum" and "fusty luggs" (which meant "a beastly, sluttish woman"). In Germany, the pious Martin Luther candidly noted that he came up with theological tenets in the privy and complained of being mooned by the devil's apparition.

Yet, admittedly, Bill Bennett is on to something. In America, the crude and rude used to be the property of bohemians, fringe subcultures and adolescent detention-hall denizens. Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, it's out in the mainstream. What used to be edgy is now ordinary. When the late Divine munched doggie doo in John Waters' 1972 cult-trash classic "Pink Flamingos," it provoked outrage. Twenty-eight years later, "The Man Show" indulges in the same excretory shtick, and it slips by almost unnoticed.

*

"HAVE THINGS CHANGED CULTURALLY? THE ANSWER IS YES, BOLDLY and dramatically, over the last 20, 30, 40 years," says Richard Zien, a partner in the Los Angeles advertising firm of Mendelsohn/Zien. He posits an example. "When Ward Cleaver asked his wife, June, 'Have you seen the Beaver?' nobody snickered and smiled the way you did just now. That question in 1960 didn't have the same sexual overtones or undertones that it has today."

We've gone from that, Zien notes, to HBO's hit series "Sex in the City," in which four young women spend most of each episode discussing every conceivable aspect of their sex lives, and to L.A.-based, nationally syndicated radio host Tom Leykis. "I was driving home the other night, listening to Leykis," Zien explains, "and the subject matter was the clitoris--the location, how to find it, how to turn it on, how to manipulate it. Women were calling up and saying, 'Tom, I need your help. I'm married to a guy and he couldn't find the clitoris if it were a beacon in a lighthouse.' That's the year 2000, where this is subject matter on talk radio."

Of course, vulgarity is in the eye, or ear, of the beholder. Depending upon your value system, such explicitness could be interpreted either as a sign of liberation from puritanical inhibitions or as another indication of the decline in family values and worsening moral decay--if not a sign of the impending apocalypse. But Zien, who makes his living in large part by understanding the public's attitudes and desires, offers a less ominous explanation.

In 1960, he notes, the Cleaver-ideal American family watched whatever was on one of the three TV networks. Today, the Cleaver ideal has been replaced by myriad lifestyle choices, and hundreds of media and entertainment options compete for attention. "In this town, for example, there are 72 different radio stations. You've got television and newspapers and a bevy of magazines, and of course there's the Internet," Zien says. Each medium is locked in a death match for our eyes and ears. "Never before has it been as difficult to find who you want to talk to, and to influence them and hold their attention," he says.

From the advertising perspective, outrageousness for outrageousness' sake doesn't cut it; it works only if it influences people to try a new product or to keep buying an old one. A message has to be provocative enough to grab a consumer's attention, but not so vulgar that it distracts them from the message or leaves a yucky taste in their mouths.

"It's a very delicate line. It's called the edge of the table," Zien says. "If it doesn't get to the edge of the table, nobody notices. If it falls off the edge of the table, the headline is 'Idiot Streaks Dodger Stadium.' "

Mendelsohn/Zien's edge-of-the-table masterpiece was its campaign earlier this year for the new L.A. Avengers arena football team. Angelenos were startled by the sudden appearance of 1,380 billboards with seemingly prurient and sometimes disturbing messages: "A MAN WILL PUT HIS HANDS BETWEEN ANOTHER MAN'S LEGS AND BARK LIKE A DOG," "HUNDREDS OF MEN WILL LEAVE THEIR WIVES FOR OTHER MEN," "TWELVE MEN WILL GO BOTH WAYS," "SIXTY-NINE WON'T BE OUT OF THE QUESTION," "EIGHT OKLAHOMA TOURISTS WILL BE BEATEN IN DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES," "SIX BEAUTIFUL WOMEN WILL SHOW YOU THEIR PANTIES," and so on. It was a "tease and reveal," a standard advertising ploy in which the first wave of billboards didn't identify the advertiser; they only indicated that the events in question would occur on April 9, the date of the Avengers' first game at Staples Center.

Mendelsohn/Zien chose the crude double-entendre route because the Avengers account presented an unusually difficult challenge: to introduce Los Angeles to the unknown sport of arena football. "If we'd have just put up billboards saying, 'Come to Staples Center on Sunday, April 9, because you'll see lots of high-scoring action with the L.A. Avengers,' people would drive by and go to sleep in their cars," Zien says.

The plan for a gradual reveal was preempted when a local TV station almost immediately outed the Avengers as the source of the billboards and a city official in Azusa took offense to the panties billboard and commandeered a government cherry picker to deface it. But it worked out even better that way because the resulting brouhaha not only captivated local talk radio but also made it into the national media. The Avengers received exposure the team probably couldn't have bought at any price.

It worked. An Avengers spokesman says that 15,928 people attended the April 9 game--an Arena Football League record for a preseason game--and attendance averaged 11,644 during eight home games. "The billboard campaign was resoundingly effective," says John Tamanaha, the team's vice president of communications. With its 3-11 record, the Avengers, he says, "did better at the gate than on the field, obviously."

"We don't need to be risque for risque's sake," Zien insists. "We're not doing gratuitous anything because it's not smart and [it] doesn't sell."

*

BY CONTRAST, THE CREATORS OF "The Man Show" maintain--rather gleefully--that they have no intellectual aspirations whatsoever. "Do you know what 'blatantly meretricious means?' " executive producer Kellison asks. I settle into a seat in the cluttered office where he and the show's two stars, Carolla and Kimmel, munch on chips and salsa as they hammer out scripts on their Toshiba laptops. "That's how The New York Times described us recently . . . It's along the lines of 'unnecessarily vulgar.' We're going to make a joke about it, treat it like a compliment and act like we still don't know what it means."

I consider mentioning that F. Scott Fitzgerald used the same word to describe Jay Gatsby. But I don't think the analogy to one of literature's great doomed romantics would earn me points with the auteur of a film short called "Jimmy's Monkey Wife," in which the protagonist replaces his spouse with a chimpanzee who screeches in appreciation of his jokes and dutifully cleans the windows with her tongue. (We'll skip the details of the Zalman King-style slow-mo erotic interlude.)

"This is unquestionably the most horrifying thing I've ever done," Kimmel concludes.

Kimmel came up with the idea for "The Man Show" a few years ago, but getting the show on the air was a struggle. ABC executives green-lighted the concept but deep-sixed the idea after watching the pilot. Despite its reputation for edgy fare, Fox also passed on it before Comedy Central took the dare. Critics have accused "The Man Show" of being a calculated attempt to attract 20-something male viewers, a demographic slice that watches less TV than the rest of America and thus is relatively virgin turf for advertisers.

"People think that we were in some laboratory doing research, trying to come up with a show that was this and that," Kimmel says. "We had no idea what the network executives were looking for. We just thought, 'Hey, it would be fun if we had midgets.' "

Scott Stone and David Stanley, who produce "The Man Show," say the standard of what's acceptable to do and say on TV has shifted dramatically in the past few years. As they explain it, there's a sort of rude, crude arms race in which premium cable (such as HBO) pushes basic cable (such as MTV) to be raunchier, and cable in turn pushes the broadcast networks.

"There was a time when the airwaves were a public trust, and the television code was enforcing it," Stanley says. "People were worried about losing their licenses. Today, if there's a real difference, the line is being drawn almost exclusively by the advertising industry. [If] advertisers are willing to buy time on shows with more risque content, they will go ahead and [sell] it."

While the trio likes to give the impression that the show's episodes are dreamed up over Slurpees and barbecue Doritos at the mini-mart an hour before taping, I notice that Kimmel and Kellison, even as they talk, are clicking their keyboards and stealing frequent glances at their computer screens. Next to Carolla's desk, there's a board covered with index cards denoting skit ideas in various stages of development. The sad truth is that being vulgar for a living is a tough job, requiring a deft, delicate touch.

"People may think it's a half-hour of chicks jumping on trampolines," Carolla explains, "but it's first and foremost a comedy."

So here's something funny: Your assumption that the show's sexist, chimpanzees-in-lingerie humor appeals only to men is a bit sexist in itself; as it turns out, a third of the show's viewers are women.

*

"IT'S FUN TO WALLOW IN WHAT Nabokov called 'the exhilaration of Philistine vulgarity,' " explains Erik Nelson, the creator of such "reality" TV classics as "World's Most Dangerous Animals I & II" and "Busted on the Job." Nelson has long led what could be called a double life: His Termite Art Productions produces plenty of highbrow documentaries for media such as public television, but he clearly relishes the lowbrow "shockumentary" style as well. "In a twisted way, some of these shows inadvertently do more to promote honest talk on moral values than anything William Bennett has said, done or promoted," he says.

He's got a point. Even the widely maligned "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" (which, as Nelson is careful to point out, isn't a shockumentary but rather a variation of the classic "Queen for a Day" game-show format) got people talking about the shallowness of society's obsession with materialism and beauty.

Nelson advances an even more provocative theory: the highbrow and the lowbrow, the vulgar and the respectable, are melding into the same thing. "My feeling is that all popular culture today, especially television, is basically wrestling. [With] TV news programs, you have the corporate guy with the sweaty upper lip who's the bad wrestler and the correspondent who's the good wrestler. Politics is the same way. Everything is a cartoon level of discourse. It's completely a symptom of a far more dysfunctional trend in society . . . The line between junk culture and real culture is being erased."

As the mainstream becomes increasingly vulgar, there's the possibility that we'll reach a point--"future schlock," as Alvin Toffler might put it--where the rude and the respectable collide and it's no longer possible to shock or offend.

I might have dismissed the notion as an impossible extreme, but one evening I attend a debate about Internet porn at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in the Wilshire District. The featured speakers are Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of the book "Kosher Sex," TV comedienne and daytime talk-show host Roseanne and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt. The rabbi advises the audience about sex toys and tells a story about how Napoleon preferred that Josephine didn't bathe so that he could enjoy her body odors. Roseanne proclaims that genetic engineering will benefit women because "we'll breed them [men] to have large penises and be really docile."

In contrast, Flynt, with a slightly exasperated look, talks about the importance of the 1st Amendment. It's a glimpse into a strange and disturbing post-vulgar future in which holy men are prurient and pornographers are decorous.

That impression is reinforced a few days later when I meet with Flynt at Hustler Hollywood, the high-gloss $2-million porn emporium he has built on Sunset Boulevard. Flynt earned his fame as a rascally mass-market purveyor of gynecological close-ups, and as the libertine who not only admitted to having a youthful sexual experience with a chicken, but commemorated it with a statue of the fowl in his mansion. I had hoped that he would be my ultimate commentator on vulgarity.

Instead I find an impeccably groomed middle-aged man in a medium-blue suit, which comes off as understated despite his gold-plated wheelchair and the hulking, black-clad bodyguard who brings him a paper cup of coffee. He politely listens to my questions and strains to make his gravelly voice heard over the scream of the cappuccino machine. He offers opinions no more provocative than those of Dr. Joyce Brothers. "As I explained to the rabbi, if you're in love with your partner, that makes sex great," he offers. "But it's not a perfect world."

In Flynt's store--the first of a series of boutiques that he envisions opening across the nation--the vibrators and X-rated videos are tucked in a back section, unseen by patrons of the coffee bar and bookshop that sells works by Jean Cocteau and various fine-art photographers. "I wanted to create a cross between Barnes & Noble and Neiman Marcus," Flynt explains. His aspirations seem almost bourgeois compared to the billboard across the street, which advertises the latest album by Pantera with the slogan "tough f***ing metal."

Flynt's legal battles made possible the flowering of mass-media vulgarity. Without his 1988 Supreme Court victory establishing the right to crudely parody public figures such as minister Jerry Falwell, for example, "South Park" might be tediously tame. But he seems almost puzzled by today's gross-out culture. There are trends that even Flynt finds vulgar. "Well, I can't relate to Marilyn Manson at all," he acknowledges. "But the people who want to go see him and enjoy his show, that's fine with me."

It could be that Flynt has grasped the principle that the world is kinder to likable rogues. But there may be another explanation: Compared to the world he helped pioneer, Larry Flynt no longer really qualifies as vulgar. It's as sure a sign as any that we've gone careening right off the edge of the table. Perhaps it was inevitable. As Erik Nelson, slightly rephrasing the poet T.S. Eliot, puts it, "Until you go too far, you don't know how far you can go."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Great Moments in the History of Vulgarity

Circa 1450-1550: The codpiece reigns as a popular male fashion accessory.

1500s: Following the fashion of French King Henry IV, nobles begin carrying handkerchiefs rather than wipe their noses on their sleeves.

1749: John Cleland publishes the first great trashy novel, "Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure."

1829: Supporters of President Andrew Jackson trash the White House after Jackson's inauguration.

1879: Author Mark Twain gives a gentleman's club after-dinner speech, "Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism."

Circa 1900: French music-hall performer Le Petomane entertains audiences with melodic flatulence.

1943: Engineer Howard Hughes designs a custom bra to display cleavage of starlet Jane "The Outlaw" Russell.

Late 1940s: Heyday of Gorgeous George, the quasi-cross-dressing wrestler who paved the way for Dennis Rodman.

1949: French author Jean Genet describes the pleasure of picking lice from his lover's body in "The Thief's Journal."

1960: NBC censors an on-air reference to "the W.C." made by "Tonight Show" host Jack Paar.

1966: "The Dean Martin Show," using an alcohol abuse-and-cleavage-joke motif, makes the Nielsen Top 20.

1971: The Who releases album "Who's Next," the cover of which depicts the band members around an obelisk upon which they've just urinated.

1972: Chuck Berry releases sophomoric single "My Ding-a-Ling" --his only chart-topping hit.

Circa 1973: The Nixon tapes revealed.

1974: Cowboys-eating-beans scene in "Blazing Saddles" breaks new ground in cinematic comedy.

1978: Saudi Sheik Mohammad al-Fassi paints nipples and pubic hair on faux-classical statuary outside his 38-room Beverly Hills mansion.

1979: Weekly World News is founded by the National Enquirer Co. as vehicle for alien presidential endorsements and dispatches on escaped "half-human Bat Boy."

Early 1980s: Heyday of The Solid Gold Dancers.

Mid-1980s: Mr. T sets standard in understated sartorial elegance.

Mid-1980s: Donald Trump immortalized by Spy magazine as "a short-fingered vulgarian."

1985: Television ads for Vanish toilet-bowl cleaner feature

talking toilets.

1989: Vulgar tabloid TV pioneer Morton Downey Jr. brawls with vulgar publicity-seeking artist and La Habra native Mark Kostabi during the taping of Downey's show.

1989: "Saturday Night Live" skit mentions the word "penis" 28 times.

1991: Movie title "Long Dong Silver"

enters the American lexicon during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Early 1990s: Comedian Andrew Dice Clay reaches height of popularity.

1995: New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd

Whitman names a rest stop in honor of shock jock Howard Stern.

1996: Dennis Rodman publishes "Bad as I Wanna Be."

1998: Monica Lewinsky turns over blue Gap dress to the Office of Independent Counsel.

1998: "There's Something About Mary" revolutionizes modern hair care.

1998: Toned-down version of "The Jerry Springer Show" debuts; ratings drop 7% from previous week.

Late 1990s: The Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee homemade sex video reaches global audience through the Internet.

Late 1990s: Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog puppet, debuts on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."

2000: "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?"

2000: animated super-models are stripped of their underwear in new video game "Panty Raider."

2000: Paula Jones reportedly in negotiations to pose for Penthouse magazine.

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