Trying to explain what makes something funny can be difficult. This is a revelation that we all come to at an early age, whether we’re trying to explain a joke to someone who just can’t get it, or trying to introduce a stoic second-party to something that we, personally, find hilarious.
I think this is why there’s a common tendency to associate lowbrow humour with low-quality humour. It can prove difficult to justify simple jokes on their own terms. At the best of times, a sense of humour is a hard thing to quantify or validate – without some greater thematic substance (see Withnail and I), or some genre crossover (for example, the dramatic element in many of the late Robin Williams’ acclaimed comedies), genuine praise can be hard to express. We—both as critics and as humans—will naturally berate that which we can’t understand.
This is the reason why mass-market comedy so rarely gets a serious critical look-in, or why unproven comedies are rarely met with anticipation. These are crimes of which I’m as guilty as anyone else: one look at the contents of this site should tell you that I’ve devoted very little time—and even less praise—to lowbrow comedies. There are many I like, but few that I could reliably justify.
Perhaps this is why I’m happy to have come away from a viewing of 1997’s Orgazmo. The long-forgotten pet project of South Park’s Trey Parker, it succinctly proves why even the lowest of the lowbrow needn’t, necessarily, be kept at the bottom of the pile.
Orgazmo is a simple film. It thrives on the sort of comedy that dictates that bums are funny, and willies even more so. Over a brief 90 minutes, it charts the experiences of Joe Young, a Mormon cast as the lead role in a superhero porn parody called ‘Orgazmo’. Cheated by his sleazy director, and cast into unwanted sequels, Young enlists the help of his on-screen sidekick ‘Choder Boy’ to adopt his film persona, and together they fight the crimes of sexploitation, one porn producer at a time. It’s dumb, sure, but it’s also surprisingly entertaining.
Love them or hate them, Trey Parker and his long-time collaborator Matt Stone have always been interesting for the ways in which they innovate within the traditionally low-effort realm of the lowbrow. At a time when Little Nicky and Big Daddy were testing their audience’s patience by asking them to laugh at the same crass homophobia and scat-jokes regurgitated since the 70s, Parker was blowing up Ron Jeremy’s prosthetic head and exploring the comic potential of the ‘O-face’, long before The Lonely Island started racking up views on YouTube. Stood alongside its contemporaries, Orgazmo is a confident statement of intent.
One of the clearest problems with low-brow humour is that it often supports the status quo. Films like the late-2000’s American Pie sequels, or Adam Sandler vehicles, are berated not for their production value, nor, necessarily, because scat-humour isn’t funny, but because they refuse to challenge their viewers while using it. In doing so, they often only reinforce tired stereotypes and tropes and insult their viewer’s aptitude for basic cognition (see Dumb and Dumber To). This is one of the core reasons why the commercial rise of alternative, ‘high-brow’ comedy in the 80’s was such a revolution: it cemented the idea of comedy as a force for change—as a chance to air out grievances—not just as a means of solidifying existent structures.
Orgazmo, although far from perfect, stands as a monument to Parker and Stone’s commitment to challenging their audience, albeit while continually finding new ways to sink lower. There’s a sense that Orgazmo was shot in spite of its target audience just as much as it was to pander to them: shots of naked women (a tacky staple of lowbrow fare) are consistently disrupted by naked men’s asses, while comedic cheap-shots like the dumb sound of Young’s ‘Orgazmorator’ are played so frequently that they find new meaning in repetition. Orgazmo rarely patronises its viewer, but remains content to play in the dirt, and benefits wholly from it.
Admittedly, films like this date easily. A side-effect of lowbrow humour’s simplicity is that it often finds itself supplanted by its imitators. In this case, Parker and Stone’s second film, Team America, presents a lot of the same humour in a shinier package, while the porn industry that Orgazmo lampoons is long-gone. Funnily enough, although it might be good for a few laughs, it may find more appeal as an academic piece: a time-capsule of a time and a place in American comedy, when low made a stand against high.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a revisit, of course, especially if you’re a Stone and Parker newcomer turned off by the obnoxious topicality of South Park. Orgazmo will always make for a fun night in, if just for the untapped charm of watching a diminutive actor with a dildo strapped to his head fight crime.
For that, the lowbrow should never need to justify itself.