The flourishing and wildly popular genre of trash comedy is not one with which film critics like to spend much time.
For most of the ‘90s, it was enough to make a dismissive joke about all those Pauly Shore – or, later, Adam Sandler – vehicles: artless movies with endless, low, gross jokes about bodily functions, the kind of anonymous films that quickly ended up on video shelves.
But There’s Something About Mary (1998) was a trash comedy success that no commentator could afford to ignore. The Farrelly brothers carefully blended sweetness with romance, grossness with old-fashioned slapstick, nerdiness with cool: suddenly, the set-pieces about that curious gel in Cameron Diaz’s hair, or Ben Stiller’s traumatic memory of having his member caught in the zipper of his trousers, found their place in a proudly mainstream movie.
At the dawn of the new millennium, the trash genre clocked up several more box-office milestones: Scary Movie (2000), probably the most popular comedy of Afro-American origin in cinema history, and Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000). Even Sandler jumped on the bandwagon, swapping the sentimentality of Big Daddy (1999) for the messy antics of Little Nicky (2000).
It is almost axiomatic that trash comedy is a very male, indeed boyish genre. Bring It On (2000), about ruthless cheerleaders, offers some vigorously vulgar moments for the girls, and Superstar (1999) is a cult favourite among fans of Saturday Night Live alumnus Molly Shannon. But, generally, trash comedies veer towards all things mucky and masculine. Indeed, even a later inspired attempt at star-powered female trash, the Cameron Diaz vehicle The Sweetest Thing (2002), was – very sadly – unable to spawn a box-office trend; while girl-centred teen films with a dark and mucky edge, like Ghost World (2001) and Juno (2007), wisely went a cooler, droller route, separating themselves delicately from the trash.
But back to the boys. In particular – and this fact seems to have gone politely unnoticed by many – trash comedies are mainly about asses, and the many horridly wonderful trials to which they can be subjected. The long-forgotten Pauly Shore prophesised the trend in Jury Duty (1995) – a saga in which, despite the unsubtle protestation supplied by a theme song titled “I’m a Heterosexual”, our hero is raped by a burly cell mate whilst dressed as a woman. He eventually decides to shrug and go with the flow, doubtless following the lead of Joe E. Brown at the end of Some Like it Hot (1959) and his immortal line: “Nobody’s perfect”.
Trash comedies are – in their own twisted way – the gayest genre in popular cinema. Consider this checklist. In The Klumps, a particularly unpleasant character is raped by a giant hamster (whom he eventually learns to love). Little Nicky frequently returns to a gag concerning the many objects that can be inserted in Hitler’s anus during his eternal spell in Hell. Scary Movie offers a veritable inventory of jokes involving every kind of sexual penetration. And A Night at the Roxbury (1998), with its foppish male buddies who can hardly bear to be separated, unfolds like one long, crypto-gay giggle.
Indeed, that last film gave birth to a true comic Superstar – Will Ferrell – who would go on to make the comic convolutions of gay-but-not his A-1 speciality in the likes of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and Blades of Glory (2007). And then, just as trash comedy began to die – much to the delight of many tut-tutting commentators – along came Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and the crew with Knocked Up (2007), Superbad (2007), The Pineapple Express (2008), up-fronting boyishness with a vengeance … The history of this genre remains to be written in all its trashy glory.
© Adrian Martin February 2001/January 2009