- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Bathroom humor is continuing its move into the living room, as the entertainment industry pursues younger audiences eager for the outrageous. The hit NBC television game show "Fear Factor," where viewers can watch contestants ingest items ranging from cow eyeballs to pig brains, and spinoffs like "Jackass: The Movie" prove lowbrow can equal high ratings, especially among younger viewers attractive to advertisers.
TV and movies in this genre target a teenage audience, but the bigger purveyors of ickiness are often preteens.
The Maryland Science Center in Baltimore this month wrapped up "Grossology," an exhibit where children were invited to scale the "Zits, Blisters and Scabs Climbing Wall" or play "Gas Attack," a pinball game in which players would score points by hitting food items that were likely to cause flatulence.
"Kids were blasted by it," says Brenda Lewis, exhibit coordinator for the museum. "It was especially a hit with middle-schoolers, kids age 7 to 11."
On the West Coast, San Francisco company University Games has scored a hit with its board game "Totally Gross." In one part of the game, for instance, players describe their last bouts of vomiting.
Bob Moog, president and co-founder of University Games, says his wife had the idea of harnessing children's "core interests" as a way of teaching them biology, physics and chemistry. "We want kids to have as much fun in the classroom as they do in the bathroom," he says.
Going to the realm of the repulsive may not be the only way to hook American audiences, but a good belly laugh, however garnered, is a goal.
"One thing that keeps [gross humor] funny is that it's shocking," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"Shocking" may be the right way to describe the flavors of some new Harry Potter-inspired jelly beans from the Jelly Belly candy company.
Named after the Potter character Bertie Botts, the beans come in some unforgettable flavors, including dirt, black pepper, ear wax, sardine and vomit.
In the recent string of shock shows, the most popular is "Fear Factor." The prime-time program debuted in 2001 as a contest of physical and mental daring, but became better known as "that show where people touch their tongues to weird things," as CBS "Late Show" host David Letterman called it recently.
MTV's "I Bet You Will," its follow-up to "Jackass," has been more of a disappointment for the network. The show's hosts visit college campuses and pay students cash to eat items such as cow eyeballs or chicken that has been prepared in students' undergarments.
The relatively tame fare has done little to excite MTV's hip teen audience. Noah Gabriel-Landis, a freshman at the College of William and Mary, has watched portions of "I Bet You Will" but is unimpressed.
"You can always find someone to do something stupid," he said.
A spokeswoman at MTV said Jan. 15 that "I Bet You Will" has been canceled.
Mr. Thompson predicts interest in gross-out stunts will start to wane and that the antics will be integrated as one of many elements in TV's repertoire.
But if eyeball-eating fades into the background, it's not so clear scatological humor will.
The stars of "Jackass" are famous for baring their bottoms for the camera. In one episode, they taped a microphone to a teen's bottom and filmed him as he passed gas. In another, a cast member was tossed into an excrement-filled kiddie pool.
Some worry these stunts signal a dangerous coarsening of the culture. Mr. Thompson prefers to take the long view. He points to a long history of bathroom jokes in entertainment, noting Shakespeare is filled with skits about bodily functions and Francois Rabelais' celebrated 14th-century novel "Gargantua" features giants passing gas.
Now, TV game-show challenges like riding bulls or braving a pit of scorpions have taken a back seat to more segments involving bizarre foods.
In fact, "Fear Factor" enjoyed its highest rating since spring when it sat a statuesque blonde before the camera Jan. 6 to eat a piece of horse intestine.
The meat had been cleaned, but more than a few viewers cringed at the sight of contestant Holli Joi Lamb chowing down on an ingredient usually reserved for Alpo. Her eventual reward was $25,000.
"Two-and-a-half years ago, we couldn't believe people were eating bugs on 'Survivor,'#" Mr. Thompson said.
"Fear Factor" on Jan. 6 drew 15.1 million viewers.
It's hard to argue with numbers like that, but some have. Several hours before the episode was to air, NBC affiliate KYTV of Springfield, Mo., chose to pre-empt it.
"It crossed the line," says Mike Scott, president and general manager of KYTV. His station instead ran reruns of 1960s and '70s favorites "McHale's Navy" and "Dragnet."
"If they would just tone down the focus on eating disgusting things, the show would retain its appeal," Mr. Scott says. "How much more disgusting can you get?"
He says the station received more than 400 letters and e-mails about the decision, with about 70 percent supportive. Those same viewers might have been crestfallen when Mr. Scott gave a green light to "Fear Factor" the following Monday, when rats were on the menu.
"There's a certain line," Mr. Scott says.
For some, "Fear Factor" is objectionable not on aesthetic but ethical grounds; they see the show's habit of feeding contestants bugs or animal parts as unkind.
"Not only does this have nothing to do with the factoring of fear, but it also eliminates any vegetarians or vegans winning the show," writes Andria Mercurio, who has started an online campaign to reform "Fear Factor" so it will have more death-defying stunts and less restroom fare.
Mr. Thompson does find it remarkable that entire programs are devoted to bodily functions. In his view, TV and movies were playing catch-up from the 1950s, an era in which media offered an overly sanitized view of life.
"No one ever went to the bathroom on TV until Archie Bunker in the 1970s, and then you only heard the toilet flush," he says.
Mr. Thompson predicts children and adults will outgrow this kind of humor. "It's taken TV so long to catch up with the real world. In the early '70s it was playing catch-up, and now TV has gone from presenting a sanitized version of popular culture to passing it by."
Like 3-year-olds who think icky equals hilarious, he says, TV and movies are going through a stage. Mr. Thompson hesitates to call trashy humor high comedy but says it is a natural step in the growth of a medium that is still young.


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