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Analysis of a Poop Joke

Comedy is difficult.  It's the only thing that remains a mystery to me.

I can figure out story structure.  I can create a character with an internal conflict that is pertinent to an overall thematic arc.  I can think of ways to subtly introduce an element in the first act that pays off in the third.  Mystery, suspense, action, drama, horror - these are all things that make sense.  But comedy is just this ambiguous Thing that people enjoy for reasons unknown.

There are some things that I know about comedy.  Some of it I've learned from failed attempts to win over new friends, some of it I've learned from writing, some if it I've learned by listening and then re-listening to episodes of WTF.

But there's one thing that I just have no clue about.  How do you know when a poop joke will work or not?

I can start by looking at poop jokes that aren't funny.  For example, Nacho Libre has a scene where, apropos of nothing, Jack Black's character picks up a cow pie and shoves it in his sidekick's face.  Then the movie cuts to a different scene and continues.  I don't think this one works at all.  But why?

Is it because the scene is too cruel?  Maybe the ol' cow pie in the face is needlessly mean and so the scene ends up being unintentionally sad?  Is it because face-to-poop contact is too grotesque to be funny?  Is it because the poop is introduced too suddenly?  Is it because of the consistency of the poop? Would the scene have worked better if the cow pie was more solid, or maybe a different shape?  Would it have worked if it was goat poop instead?

Or maybe it's just that the punchline is simply, "Look!  It's poop!" and that's not funny by itself.  Or is it?  I'm tempted to think that a "Look!  It's poop!" t-shirt would probably sell pretty nicely.

But would that sell because people think that the poop itself is funny, or would it sell because the poop is a non sequitur?  The joke in the t-shirt would be more that you start with "Look!" and imply as if there's something worth looking at, and then you follow it up with, "It's poop!" which is something not worth looking at.  The ol' bait and switcheroo.  Classic.

Ah, but this contradicts our premise, because the Nacho Libre scene is also a non sequitur.  So I'm back to square one.

So maybe let's look at a poop joke that does work.  What about the Poo Guy sketch from Kids in the Hall?

I always thought this was one was pretty funny.  But the premise here is not simply that poop exists - the premise is that Bruce McCulloch is playing a character who is famous for having been in a commercial for poop.  Thus there are really two jokes that intertwine:

1) Bruce is in an absurd world where poop is a marketable thing - so marketable, in fact, that it justifies the production of commercials to advertise it to potential new buyers; and

2) Bruce is a tortured soul who is frustrated that his artistic integrity is reduced to simple brand association instead of a deeper understanding of the context of his performance as The Poo Guy.

So is the conclusion that a poop joke is only funny if it isn't actually about poop?  Perhaps poop is only meant to be a springboard for a more incisive social commentary.  Poop is a readily-understandable and concrete visual, a cultural constant in that it is a thing frequently produced and undesirable, an ever-present source of distress and disgust that immediately and naturally elicits reaction from the viewer.

Thus, by introducing poop into a scene, the story-teller is asking his audience to share in a mutual rejection, through which we can create a bonding experience to the character who has to deal with the poop.  What they end up doing next is less important than the fact that they are now a sympathetic audience surrogate, and so their misadventures become an extension of our own meager lives.

Perhaps the failure of Nacho Libre is that his act is that of a miscreant; his use of the poop as a face-planting device and the mistreatment of his friend is anathema and thus we are forced to reject not only his actions but ourselves.

So now I'm hung up on how you could keep the scene in the movie and make it funny.  Maybe it would work if there was a whole training montage where Nacho and his sidekick keep stumbling across cow pies.  Like, they're practicing some moves, and then Nacho steps in one and he's like, "Curses!  I didn't even think there were any cows in this field!"  And so then they do their training in a different field, but there's still a cow pie, and they still step in it.  So then they go to town square - yup, still a cow pie, somehow.  So then they go into a gym, and they're practicing in an actual wrestling ring, and they check it out before they even start - and it seems okay, but as soon as they start wrestling... BAM!  Cow pie.  And finally Nacho is just like, "Where are alla these cow-pies coming from?"

And then you cut to one of the other monks who work with Nacho, and he's pushing around a cart full of cow pies.  He throws a blanket over top of the cart and walks away whistling nonchalantly.

What d'ya say, Internet?  Better or worse?  Or about the same?