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From The Vault Of Art Shay: Potty Humor

By Art Shay in News on Jul 11, 2013 6:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week, Art shares his take on the current state of comedy with some classic—and discretion advised—snapshots.)

Middle of the night: I tire of reading Nabokov, then the New York Review of Books' disquisition on the economy—how we began to ape the 1929 Depression in 2008.

I pick up a book by my newly-discovered favorite author, the Portuguese genius Paulo Coehlo, and he tells me, "When everything I have experienced has been told and retold countless times, the steps I have taken because of her are all transformed into distant memories, nothing will remain but pure love.''

I'd been pointedly missing my wife Florence, dead these past 10 months, since I parried two calls for her this morning- one wondering if she would once again be willing to help raise money to fight cancer, the other a very late medical bill for $475. "May I speak to her?" asked the first. "I called the second, whose office manager also didn't realize she had died. The kind of gallows humor Florence would have liked. Her last joke to me: She was laboriously making out checks just before her death. "Must you do that now?" I asked. "What then?" she said, lapsing into the Brooklynese of her aunts, "After I die?" She added, with a twinkle, "Why not? It's my funeral, isn’t it?" Then, with no kids around, we laughed together then hugged.

She would have loved the joke Pat Wirtz sent me, perhaps transliterated to the Cubs: An old Cubs fan leaves a note to his family explaining why he chose six Cubs as pall bearers. "So they can let me down one last time."

The above preamble is by way of complaining about the new potty humor of the Comedy Central team sporadically absent, filling in for the equally absent Jon Stewart: Daniel Tosh and Anthony Jeselnik ,who properly uses the word "Offensive" in his title. Both comics are handsome all-American looking goys in their 30s who compulsively yell "Theater!" in a crowded fire to nervous , uncertain or explosive laughter by their thirtyish audiences.

So I turned on the TV and found myself face to face, so to speak, with one of them, or one of their assigns, dropping his pants, revealing his blur-censored crack. And then producing a beige-colored flute or piccolo and shoving it up his ass—seemingly producing music from his spheres. Interminably.

They also have a fixation on giant penises and contrivances that seem to elicit fluid from these penal institutions, to great laughter from their delighted fans.

Another night I listened to a limping Toshian disquisition on dead kids in an unlucky family. Death is a frequent flier on this, I'm afraid, oncoming new trend in comedy. Compulsive mass vomiting and booger extractions are also popular. The other night (while failing to find Stewart's pleasant replacement John Oliver on the tube) there was a close-up of what purported to be a nasalectomy, but turned out to be the snotty extraction of two sliced red-hot dog boogers. This brought back memories of some great comic shows of the 50s, especially the ones showing sweaty Sid Caesar or Howard Morris as surgeons operating on the invisible foreground patient, surgical and carpentry tools passing from the nurses , the doctors hacking away in the foreground.

Of course it's easy to trace the provenance of this kind of humor; it goes back to Mel Brooks’ hilarious band of cowboys farting after eating beans around an open fire in Blazing Saddles. A movie which had fun with nearly all the conventions of Westerns: Alex Karras punching out a horse; an old lady using the N word on the new gentle sheriff, Cleavon Little, who kept the townspeople and the audience hysterical with a gun aimed at his own head and his implicit threat to pull out his penis and shame the white cowboys.

Of course the comic Sacha Baron Cohen opened the Hollywood underwear to modern potty humor, adding fake faggery , a cruel comic discipline now long gone, and the spurious interview with unsuspecting hosts- which John Oliver and others on Jon Stewart's crew do with occasional astuteness. All of which reminds one that humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

I think my wise grandfatherly friend Jeff Dembo nailed it. "My grandson, Adan, age 6, would love the toilet stuff—kids love ca-ca humor—but we wouldn't let him stay up that late to see it. Me-I'd rather read my newspaper than watch some guy play the flute with his asshole."

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.