It’s a trend that’s been (um) growing, getting (ahem) harder and harder to overlook, so I guess I’ll have to (blush) stiffen my resolve and, yes, plunge in: The preponderance of straight men making penis jokes in the movies and on TV has become a (sorry, can’t resist) full-blown epidemic. Unfortunately, the above sentence is about as sophisticated as things get. The bromances popularized by Judd Apatow and his ilk are expanding – verbally, anyway – into full-frontal crassness. Call it bronography.
Anyone who has seen a movie by Apatow ( Knocked Up), the Farrelly brothers ( Hall Pass, There’s Something about Mary) and their ilk, watched the documentary The Aristocrats, or gone to a comedy club in the last half-century, knows that dick jokes are nothing new. Comedies are written by comedians, and comedians are obsessed with their genitalia. Apatow himself once vowed to include a penis in every one of his films.
But I’m talking about something more than movies like The Hangover Part 2, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Borat, which use naked flapping penises as set-ups and punchlines. More than Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg’s instant classic, Dick in a Box, their mock video for Saturday Night Live. More than the dialogue in films like Superbad, where Michael Cera razzes Jonah Hill about performing oral sex on his dad, or Clerks II, where a drug dealer says he’s holding “everything but coke, heroin and your cock.” I’m talking about a dick-mance of a kind I’ve never seen before.
In the upcoming hockey comedy Goon, Seann William Scott plays a sweet but dim-witted soul who finds salvation in becoming an enforcer for a B-league team, and Jay Baruchel plays his best buddy. Throughout the film, Baruchel spouts a non-stop, high-octane stream of penis jokes, including an offer to cheer up his pal by – I’m paraphrasing here – inserting his member into Scott’s backside and “filling him up with cream.” I was startled, but Scott didn’t even look surprised.
Less frank but still notable is the upcoming action/romance This Means War, in which two studly CIA operatives (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) employ their covert skills and tactics to cock-block one another as they compete for Reese Witherspoon. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that the only relationship that matters is the one between the two men – and that they have at least a passing familiarity with one another’s equipment. After bugging Reese’s home, they hear her complain to her best pal (Chelsea Handler – more on her in a bit) about the smallness of Pine’s hands. We all know what that means. But the old joke takes a new bent when Pine turns to Hardy and pleads, “You’ve seen it. Tell her it’s not small.”
“You’ve seen it” ... really? That’s not a line Bob Hope would have said to Bing Crosby, no matter how many roads they went down.
The trend really crystallized for me at last month’s Golden Globe Awards. The evening was, yes, crammed with penis jokes. Ricky Gervais claimed to have a small one. Seth Rogen announced he had “a massive erection” from standing near his co-presenter, Kate Beckinsale. Tina Fey and Jane Lynch riffed about Hung star Thomas Jane’s package, then high-fived and crowed “Penis joke!” In an act of equal-opportunity razzing, Gervais also made a vagina joke, saying that few men in the room had seen Jodie Foster’s Beaver.
But it was when George Clooney joined in, comparing Michael Fassbender’s member to a golf club – actually acting out its swing – that the trend became officially alarming. George Clooney, King of Hollywood, the New Jack, giving a shout-out to a fellow actor’s statuette – well, blow me down, as it were.
I’m sure we could all speculate endlessly on why this is happening. Access to Internet pornography has created a world of sexters for whom nothing is off limits. The uncertainty of the job market, which has kept young adults from reaching economic maturity, has also kept them arrested in the genital stage of development. The record-breaking numbers of young men in U.S. prisons, as Adam Gopnik noted in a recent New Yorker, has contributed to making anal-sex jokes de rigueur. The current generation of twentysomethings, raised with less homophobia, is embracing Kinsey’s theory that all sexuality is on a continuum. Take your pick – but prepare yourselves for more.
As many have noted, it’s not only men making genital jokes. In Bridesmaids – I should say, the Oscar-nominated Bridesmaids – Kristen Wiig bends herself over a table and closes one eye to approximate a scary penis, Maya Rudolph mimes a blow job and Melissa McCarthy refers to her “steaming undercarriage.” Handler and Witherspoon crack nasty all through This Means War. The wives in Hall Pass are more potty-minded than their husbands.
And this season on network TV, it’s a foul-mouthed free-for-all – all genital jokes, all the time, with v-bombs added to the arsenal. Here the excuse is that network TV has to compete with the anything-goes nature of cable, and so far, the words “vagina” and “penis” haven’t been banned by the censors. Just a few examples: On 2 Broke Girls, co-created by the comedian Whitney Cummings, when a customer snaps his fingers at a waitress (Kat Dennings), she snaps back, “This is the sound that dries up my vagina.” When her sleep-deprived roommate says she needs a good nine hours, Dennings retorts, “What you need is a good nine inches.”
Characters on Are You There, Chelsea – based on Chelsea Handler’s ultra-frank memoirs – talk about “lady wood,” “mouth STDs,” pooping during childbirth and a 15-year-old’s “little boner.” In one scene, the title character, played by Laura Prepon, wants to ensure that a male colleague hears her, so she says she’ll “talk to his boss.” Then she leans over and talks to his crotch. When he replies, “I’m not sure he heard. You might want to slap him around a little,” she tosses back, “I’m sure you beat him enough.” Cummings, on her own sitcom, Whitney, talks about bedazzling her vagina (“vajazzling”). And on Last Man Standing, Tim Allen recently strode into a sports shop and announced, “Smells like balls in here!”
Chuck Lorre, the creator of the double-entendre-rich series Two and a Half Men and Mike & Molly, has summed up the climate: “One of the great things about broadcast TV is nobody really knows what’s appropriate any more. It’s a floating target.” So it’s no surprise that HBO has a new, explicit comedy about twentysomething women, Girls, coming in April, whose co-creator, Lena Dunham, has been quoted as saying, “I plan to say ‘vagina’ all the time.” And over on ABC, a new sitcom, Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, also due in April, features this charming scene: A neighbour who spies on the female roommates can be seen masturbating in his kitchen window.
The true shame here is that instead of using this new freedom to make a deeper comment on human relations, these jokes simply sit there and snigger at their own naughtiness. It’s a way to seem subversive without actually being subversive. (For an example of someone actually taking a joke somewhere, check out Wanda Sykes’s Detachable Puss routine on YouTube.) I’m all in favour of a jaw-dropping joke, as long as it means something. But the rawness and lack of sophistication of most of this humour is literally at the level of a toddler: It reminds me of the time my two-year-old daughter chose the occasion of her christening to dash around the party and say to each relative in turn, “You have a penis! You have a vagina!” Some of them were amused, some less so. If only I’d known, I would have consoled them with the thought that that level of humour would be all she’d need in 2012 to make a killing writing comedy.