The Fine Art of the Fart Joke
Has there ever been a comedian more obsessed with the human body than Rob Delaney?
Comedian Rob Delaney
A word of warning: If you decide to download Rob Delaney’s new online-only standup special, you should be prepared to listen to a great many reflections on, and observations about, the subject of semen. Delaney does tackle a variety of other (mostly autobiographical) topics throughout the course of the 60 minute special—unsuccessful experiments in anal sex, the methodology of masturbation, torrential public diarrhea, flatulence as a weapon of class warfare—but it’s to semen that he most frequently returns. It’s the conspicuous leitmotif of his work. All That Jizz probably wouldn’t be a commercially viable title to give a comedy special (even a self-released download-only comedy special), but it would have been no less accurate than the brusquely utilitarian Live at the Bowery Ballroom.
It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise to anyone who follows Delaney on Twitter that his stand-up draws heavily from the darker end of the smut spectrum, but the relentless intensity of his focus on the human body as a source of comedic capital is still pretty striking here. Even when the material isn’t directly sexual, it’s still characterized by an unflagging preoccupation with corporeal concerns. There are stretches when this monomaniacal emphasis can be overpowering—I felt a definite jizz-fatigue setting in before the 60 minute running time was up—but it’s impressive just how broad a range of subjects he covers without ever really deviating from his fleshy aesthetic principles.
At one point, for instance, he riffs compellingly on the crazy intensity of his love for his infant son, expressing it in viscerally animalistic terms. He sniffs the baby so hard and so often, he says, that the poor child “has little nubbins on his head from my nostrils just sucking his scalp off,” and later complains that “I hate my wife that she got to have him inside her; I envy that so bad.” This quickly devolves into a disturbingly graphic—but still, somehow, slightly touching—fantasy about literally eating the child. Elsewhere, when discussing the increased awareness of mortality brought about by becoming a parent, his approach to the notion that his wife might die before him is marked by a rare combination of the uxorious and the fondly scatological: “If she died, my butthole would dilate, and I would shit out everything inside of me. I would shit so much that the gravity of it would weigh my pants down and they would just settle down around my ankles. And I would step out of them, and I would be the worst thing in the world, which is a man in a shirt with no bottom.” There is clearly not much that this guy can’t reduce the level of bodily function.
An obvious point of comparison with Delaney’s comedy is Louis CK, who gets an inexhaustible supply of material from the in-built indignity of the middle-aged male body, with all its irredeemable cravings and weaknesses. Probably no one since Philip Roth has done as much as CK (single-handedly, as it were) to put the theme of masturbation on top of the artistic agenda. CK is clearly an influence on Delaney’s comedy—not least in his pioneering the digitally self-distributed stand-up special—and he is name-checked in a “Special Thanks” list in the end credits of Live at the Bowery Ballroom. But there’s a fundamental difference between how Delaney and CK approach the body as a source of humor. When CK riffs about jerking off, there’s always some larger point being made about the inescapable misery of insatiable male sexuality, along with a deepening sense of his own self-loathing as the purgatorial source of his autobiographical comedy. There’s a confessional sincerity to his work, in other words, that you don’t get with Delaney, who is basically a filth-for-filth’s-sake man—an aesthete of dick jokes. Delaney’s comedy is all about going there, whereas for CK, it’s about what he does when he gets there. The essential difference between the two comedians is one of affect: The motivating force of CK’s comic persona is shame, whereas for Delaney it’s pure glee.
In this sense, his most immediately identifiable predecessors might be Derek and Clive, the groundbreakingly foul-mouthed personae created by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the late ’70s (emboldened by the punk insurrection in British culture) as an outlet for their more transgressive material. Their modus operandi was to come up with the filthiest possible premise and then take it as far as comedically possible; their best stuff—or, depending on your tastes, their worst—was always grounded in a meticulous relish for the squalid absurdity of the human body. But watching Live at the Bowery Ballroom, I started to think about Delaney as fitting into something like a tradition of corporeal comedy that stretches back much further than Derek and Clive, to Swift and Rabelais and beyond, and which probably has its origins with the first Paleolithic Homo sapiens who ever farted in the presence of a hunting companion.
Because of the sustained focus on the body—on its emissions and eructations, its functions and malfunctions—Delaney’s standup raises some interesting questions about why, exactly, we find the basic physical conditions of our humanity such a reliable source of amusement. My guess is that the exaggerated self-loathing you get with CK and the transgressive glee you get with Delaney both come from the same place: the alienation from our own basic human nature that seems, paradoxically, to be a fundamental condition of that nature. The Judeo-Christian myth of Genesis—the business with the snake and the fruit and the sudden disastrous manifestation of sexual self-consciousness—dramatizes, among other things, the ongoing psychological crisis whereby we’ve never been at ease with our bodies. Even a phrase like “at ease with our bodies” hints at the extent to which we see a separation between “ourselves” and the absurd, fleshy encumbrances we have no choice but to live with. The Cartesian mind/body division is basically your classic vaudeville double act: the long-suffering straight man and the clumsy knucklehead locked in a relationship of mutual dependency and antagonism. Delaney’s got a great bit about coming down with an urgent case of diarrhea while jogging that dramatizes the abrupt reversals this relationship can undergo. Just as he’s finished humiliating himself at the behest of his innards (insufficiently concealed by a piece of plywood in someone’s driveway), his body officiously informs him that “you’re gonna do that one more time.”
In that notorious “Why Women Aren’t Funny” essay he published in Vanity Fair in 2007, Christopher Hitchens argued that men tend to derive amusement from their own bodies, with their standard predicaments and decrepitudes, in a way that women don’t, because of a certain “seriousness and solemnity” their reproductive functions imbue them with. “The plain fact is that the physical structure of the human being is a joke in itself,” he wrote. “The reproductive and eliminating functions (the closeness of which is the origin of all obscenity) were obviously wired together in hell by some subcommittee that was giggling cruelly as it went about its work.” The resulting confusion, he argued, is the source of half of all comedy, which is essentially filth—“what the customers want, as we occasional stand-up performers all know.”
Rob Delaney certainly gives his customers plenty of what they want. Live at the Bowery Ballroom is a high-end emporium of low comedy, stocking every kind of filth on the market (absurdist filth, gritty-realist filth, offensive filth, romantic filth, heartwarming filth, unsettling filth, ironic filth, sincere filth). At times, he is so fully invested in his corporeal theme that he gives the impression of having discovered for the first time the basic facts of human physicality. At one point, he describes what it’s like to have sex with his wife as though he’s extolling the benefits of some new leisure activity that has yet to catch on with the wider public. (“I don’t know if any of you guys have ever done that, but it is such a nice feeling to put your penis inside a friend’s body like that. If feels so pleasant. You gotta do it if you haven’t.”) He then goes on to describe the experience of an orgasm in vivid detail, as though to convince anyone who might still be on the fence about the benefits of this undervalued pursuit. The effect is like a stand-up version of what the literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky referred to as “defamiliarization,” the prose technique aimed at forcing readers to see the strange in the familiar, on the principle that art’s purpose was “to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” The human body might be the oldest, most decrepit joke in the book, but when he’s at his best, Delaney still finds ways to make it new.
Mark O'Connell is a staff writer for the Millions and an IRCHSS postdoctoral research fellow in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.