Sex, Drugs, Shock and LOL: A Quick and Dirty History of the Raunch-Com
A glob of stray semen is slathered on as impromptu hair gel. A high school flutist describes all the graphic details of her “one time at band camp.” A slobbering frat boy climbs a ladder for a close look at disrobing co-eds — a glimpse so revelatory that he plummets backward without batting an eye. Raunch-comedy history is littered with off-color climaxes, and the genre hasn’t blown its load quite yet.
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From full-blown sex romps to softcore substitutes spruced up with gags, Hollywood’s history of “raunch” is a vast spectrum of blue. The new raunch-com Sex Tape, which opens today,may be a paler shade, but it’s a shade nonetheless: a Cameron Diaz side-boob shot here, a Jason Segel bare bum shot there, the requisite flinging of bodily fluids and several dozen F-bombs to ensure an R rating. Long gone are the days when industry censors cracked down on excessive amounts of kissing (!) and the nudie-cutie sexploitation era of men like Russ Meyers (maker of The Immoral Mr. Teas, which brought in $1 million profit on the independent circuit). Once the Motion Pictures Association of America instituted a rating system in 1968 and the lines began to blur regarding what was and wasn’t acceptable to show in theaters, the seeds for screen comedy’s anything-goes age had been planted.
The time was ripe for raunch in the early Seventies; enter Baltimore native, thin-mustache aficionado and trash connoisseur John Waters. The film-school dropout was a proto-punk purveyor of oddities and outrageousness, armed with a camera, a campy sense of humor and love of raw vulgarity; you could argue that most of his pre-Hairspray filmography can be filed under “comedy” because a viewer would react with laughter just to stomach it all. Pink Flamingos, Waters’ 1972 magnum opus, showcases the director’s drag-queen collaborator Divine as a mother vying for the title of “the filthiest person alive. (Spoiler alert: she wins!) There’s bestiality, mutilation, nudity, fellatio, diaper fetishism, dog-feces eating, and more on-screen egg consumption than Cool Hand Luke. The film become a midnight-movie classic among the post-hippie counterculture, operating as much as litmus test for how-low-can-you-go bad taste as something you laughed at. Pink Flamingos was gross — and vital. After building momentum on a college campus tour, a fledging New Line Cinema picked up and released the film to relative success, legitimizing an underground shock-value phenomenon. (It even earned a re-release — and an NC-17 rating — in 1997).
While Waters remained on the fringes for a majority of his career, the college-aged audiences who welcomed his films had their own on-campus comedic ventures. There’s no raunch comedy without The Harvard Lampoon, the university’s 130-year-old humor magazine that met the political maelstrom of the Sixties with a battalion of satirists. Race, gender, sexuality, war, literature, economics, buxom women — it was all on the table for Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, who turned the magazine into a marketable commodity by treating sophomoric humor as a serious craft. The editors were soon offered their own upstart, National Lampoon, where former Harvard Lampoon writers flexed even more muscle. Michael O’Donoghue, the Michelangelo of sick humor, weaponized parody for the magazine, happy to take on the Vietnam War with faux-ads one might catch in Playboy.
When National Lampoon took off in the early 1970s, it disseminated through the comedy world’s blood stream. The magazine exploded, hitting 12 million readers at its peak, spinning-off its brand with albums and live shows (its 1973 off-Broadway hit, Lemmings, would introduce many folks to John Belushi and Chevy Chase). Early writers soon exited to start their own ventures —notably O’Donoghue, who’d lend his warped sensibility to a new sketch comedy show named Saturday Night Live. While the TV series channeled Lampoon‘s caustic, boundary-pushing comedy for young viewers, while the magazine prepared to make its leap to the movies. In fact, it would also borrow SNL‘s key not-ready for primetime player for something far more anarchical, biting, and brilliantly infantile.
Written by Lampoon staffers Doug Kenney, Chris Miller, and Lampoon stage show player Harold Ramis, Animal House was rejected by every studio in town. It took a lowly, 23-year-old assistant, Thom Mount, to save the movie, largely by insisting to his bosses that the script’s non-stop hedonism and bad behavior could be sculpted into something palatable for the masses (in a recent interview, the executive says he had to massage “constant vomiting on fires” out of the script). The toned down version still made waves: Animal House was the collegiate id come to life, lashing out against order (the dean, the military, stuffed-shirt types) while luxuriating in booze, sex, and rock n’ roll. Toga parties were staged. Topless coeds were ogled. Four-letter words and the flagrant misuse of parade floats and cafeteria food reigned supreme. Critics like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael adored it (the latter saying when it came to Animal House‘s infantile behavior, she would “stand with the slobs.”) The movie was the third highest grossing picture of 1978, just under Superman. It turned raunch-comedy into a pop phenomenon.
Hollywood was quick to mine the fervor, releasing slapdash sexploitation comedies ranging from quickies like 1979’s H.O.T.S., starring three Playboy playmates and Danny Bonaduce, to 1982’s Porky’s, the cinematic equivalent of a smutty joke involving horny high-school students female locker-room showers. Subsequent Eighties clones upped the naughtiness but delivered diminishing returns in all other aspects; for every half decent effort like Revenge of the Nerds (1984), you had dozens of movies like Spring Break, Losin’ It (starring a young Tom Cruise), The Hollywood Knights, Joysticks and Fraternity Vacation. The factory production of these goofballs-and-sexpots farces during the VCR era was shameless: This was a decade that saw both Hot Dog: The Movie (hook-ups at a ski lodge!) and Hamburger: The Motion Picture (hook-ups in the fast food industry!) being foisted on an unsuspecting public. Tantalizing R-rated imagery started to take precedent over the comedy that the Lampoon writers cherished.
By the end of the Eighties, the teen sex comedy overstayed its welcome… and the combo of changing tastes and the growing AIDS crisis only made Hollywood wary of producing more lustful Porky’s-lite clones. The dry spell lasted for nearly a decade, until two guys from Rhode Island, Bobby and Peter Farrelly, posited that gross-out humor wasn’t only for teenagers looking to get laid. Adults would flock to a movie where a woman french kisses a bulldog, a man catches his scrotum in a pants zipper, and the aforementioned ejaculate-turned-hair-gel too, as long as it came with a little heart. The result, There’s Something About Mary (1998), helped sell Cameron Diaz as a comedienne, made Ben Stiller a star and proved that romcoms larded with outrageousness and dick jokes was a winning formula. Raunch had been resurrected from the dead.
The next few years saw old-fashioned T&A teen comedies (1999’s American Pie, now practically a cottage straight-to-DVD industry) and old-school party-hearty college comedies (2003’s appropriately named Old School) stage comebacks, but it was the work of a former TV showrunner that would signal where the genre was going. Judd Apatow has built an empire off energizing his sensitive everydude tales with Animal House spirit, introducing the notion of a kinder, gentler style of raunch-com that still revolve around sexed-up humor. The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) may revolve around Steve Carrell searching for Ms. Right and romance in addition to first-hand carnal knowledge, but it also opens with a morning-wood visual gag. During a speed dating session, Carrell’s character squirms as he watches his partner’s boob slip out from a low-cut shirt; a drunk make-out scene turns into a sloppy kiss-barfing mess. (It’s telling that an extended, vintage raunch-com scene involving Carrell visiting a prostitute was cut from the final film; Apatow was more interested in the awkwardness that comes from shock humor rather than just going for the shocks.)
Movies now raunched it up largely by recruiting an Apatow player and letting the foul-mouthed dialogue and humiliation-based outrageousness fly. Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, She’s Out of My League — some featured more nudity and profanity than others, but all of them merged cringe-comedy and bromance fixations with the sort of Lampoon-flavored laughs of gross-out comedy’s heyday. Then two interesting happened as the redband-trailer era of raunch started to peak: Raunch-coms both doubled down on the dudeness and switched up the gender dynamics. The Hangover (2009) may relegate a lot of its genuinely jaw-dropping moments to the end credits sequence, but its testosterone-saturated take on a bachelor weekend gone wrong channels the Animal House vibe of men behaving badly in the name of gonzo hilarity. (The sequel, set in Thailand, would put more raunch elements front and center.)
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Its counterpart, Bridesmaids (2011), flipped the script and let women indulge in the sort of scatological and sex-crazed behavior usually associated with guys. Few could have predicted one of the most memorable scenes of the last 10 years would involve Melissa McCarthy defecating into a bathroom sink, and at a time when statistics told Hollywood that female-driven comedies don’t perform, the raunchy Bridesmaids violently exploded its way to victory. A whole wave of XX-chromosome raunch-comedies spewed forth, ranging from the somewhat quaint (The To-Do List, in which goody-two-shoes Aubrey Plaza tries to gain sexual experience the summer before college starts) to aggressively in-your-face — see Bad Teacher (2011), in which Cameron Diaz swears in front of kids, smokes doobies in the school parking lot and talks trash about a fellow female educator “not liking cock.”
Which brings us to Sex Tape, in which Diaz and Segel try to spice up their marriage by recording themselves getting it on, only to have their escapades disseminated across the Internet. Shenanigans — the kinds involving full-frontal nudity, f-bombs and inappropriate-for-the-whole-family gags — ensue, as will, one assumes, big box-office receipts. We may be a long way from Divine eating dog shit and Bluto Blutarski peeping at bare breasts, but like the cockroach, the raunch-com has adapted just enough to survive no matter what. Sex and shock still sells. Grossing people out still brings in the grosses.