The first vulgar pop-culture jokes we understood
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Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the “awkward pop-culture experiences with parents” AVQ&A, Phil Dyess-Nugent told a story about his mother’s horror when he laughed at a fellatio joke in Airplane!, demonstrating that he knew what it meant. That reminded us of a topic Claire Zulkey suggested some time back: What’s the first sexual joke in pop culture you remember really understanding?
My knowledge of sex via prime-time sitcoms is strangely clearly delineated in my memory. I remember watching the Seinfeld episode “The Contest” in 1992 and doing that thing where you laugh along with the laugh track even though you don’t really understand what’s funny. Thinly veiled references to masturbation went way over my head at age 13. But three years later, I was 16 and much more worldly. In the 1996 Friends episode “The One Where Ross And Rachel… You Know,” Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer are going at it hot and heavy on a picnic blanket when Aniston gasps and reassures Schwimmer, “It’s okay.” “Oh no,” Schwimmer says. “You just rolled over the juice box.” “Oh thank God!” Aniston says, and a light bulb went off in my head. This was a joke about premature ejaculation! I got it! My pride at understanding the gag significantly overshadowed how funny I actually found the joke.
This kind of overlaps a bit with the embarrassing experiences with parents, but here it is. Growing up, I was a huge Walter Matthau fan. Still am! My walls are lined with Charley Varrick and Laughing Policeman posters. But back then, by “huge” I mean I liked Dennis The Menace: The Movie and maybe the original Odd Couple. Point is, I was a huge enough Walter Matthau fan to want to go see Grumpy Old Men in theatres for my 8th birthday. It was great. Still is. But what I remember most is my father’s apparent terror at my friends and I howling at all of Burgess Meredith’s copulation jokes, a bunch of which were assembled for a sizzle reel running over the end credits: “Looks like Chuck’s taking the skin boat to tuna town!” “Looks like Chuck’s gonna put the hot dog in the bun!” and so on. Maybe it was the steady run of thing-entering-another-thing jokes, but it was the first time I remember really knowing that someone in a movie was talking about sex, crude blue metaphors and all. Maybe my ol’ dad didn’t guess that his son’s generation would have a rudimentary knowledge of how intercourse works at such a young age, but whatever the case, I can remember his tight, tomato-red face as if it were yesterday. I also remember him telling me not to yell “I’m taking the log to the beaver!” apropos of nothing for weeks after.
The arrival of a zillion cheesy ’80s comedies on VHS coincided with the sudden expansion of video-rental stores, and the combination suddenly meant that we watched a lot of pretty crappy movies at home… including anything Dad spotted that looked like science fiction, action, or both. Sometimes this resulted in us watching Dark Star, and sometimes it was accidentally softcore exploitation like The Perils Of Gwendoline In The Land of The Yik-Yak or Ice Pirates. The latter in particular was crammed with double entendres, single entendres, and sexual situations, from a rampaging “space herpe” to the scene where protagonists Robert Urich and Mary Crosby get it on while playing an environmental program that mimics a raging storm. I most distinctly remember the scene where she tries to get his pants off and gasps ”It feels so stiff… the belt, I mean.” With all due adolescent contempt, I thought “Oh. I get it. She actually means his penis. That’s really stupid.”
My first pop-cultural exposure to sex also came via the deluge of cheesy ’80s comedies, although in my case it was through the wonder of cable-TV movie channels. The first “a-ha” moment I got on the sexual front came from the abysmal Ringo Starr film Caveman. I haven’t seen it since, but I remember it as full of not-particularly-clever or veiled references to sex, including a vulgar slapstick bit centered around an attempted rape via sedatives. The real “Oh, I get it” moment I remember is from the scene where the Asian caveman is trying to teach the others the English words for various things (I did mention this movie is abysmally stupid, right?) and finally gives up in the face of their insistence that “zug zug” is the proper term for sex. I must have been about 10, but even I was able to parse that particular term, based on how often it came up in the movie.
As with many children of my generation, Three’s Company introduced me to a whole new world of sexual innuendo and leering double entendres. The show had a weirdly bifurcated dynamic: It was “adult” in the sense that it was relentlessly smutty, and child-like in the sense that it was too stupid for anyone but very small kids. I’m sure most of the smutty stuff flew over my head. I have vague memories of asking my dad why the landlord played by Norman Fell (who eventually got his own little-loved spin-off, The Ropers) always seemed weirded out by John Ritter’s swinging bachelor, at which point the concept of homosexuality (and, I imagine, the concept of feigning homosexuality for nonsensical reasons) was explained to me. In its own juvenile way, Three’s Company wasn’t theoretically just funny, it was also informative.
A dirty joke doesn’t leap to mind, but a dirty word does. On car trips, my family would pile into the station wagon and my dad would pop in a tape, often Peter, Paul & Mary or Bill Cosby, or some other callback to his days frequenting Greenwich Village clubs in college. Somehow, West Side Story worked itself into the mix, and I happily soaked up the words, belting out the songs on my own until I got to the conclusion of “Officer Krupke”: “Gee, Officer Krupke, fuck you!” The parental rebuke was instant, and initially baffling, since as far as I knew, I was just repeating the song my parents had deliberately exposed me to. It took some explanation for me to understand that the song ends with a PG-rated pun on profanity and not profanity itself, which I accepted without really understanding. “Krup you”? What the fuck does that mean?
When I discussed my brother bringing home an Eddie Murphy album in a previous AVQA, I also mentioned that my dad had been playing George Carlin’s classic Occupation: Foole for us for many years before that. And he never played an edited version, either, mainly because editing early-’70s George Carlin was kind of missing the point. Anyway, the album had the classic bit “Filthy Words,” the follow-up to the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” and in it, Carlin dove in-depth into why some words didn’t make the original list, and why others should have been included. The funniest one to me was always his explanation for the word “twat,” mainly that it was one of the only words for the female anatomy that didn’t have any other meaning. The way he explained that, though, was what floored me, even as a kid. “Snatch, box and pussy all have other meanings, man. Even in a Walt Disney movie, you can say ‘We’re going to snatch that pussy and put him in a box and bring him on the airplane!’ and it would be cool and everybody loves it. But twat stands alone. As it should.” My guess is that the word “cunt” wasn’t in vogue back in 1973, else Carlin would have mentioned that, too. It would have blown the joke and been a little too much for my kiddie ears to take.
After skipping the better part of second grade, I spent the rest of my public-school career as the youngest kid in my class, so I always felt behind the curve as far as getting why dirty jokes were dirty, let alone funny. In fact, I am still haunted by a painful childhood memory of reading my mother a joke from what turned out to be a decidedly adult-oriented joke book, not having any clue quite how obscene the punchline was. Once in a while, though, I actually did get why something was supposed to be dirty and therefore was ostensibly funny, and the first occasion I can remember really thinking I was getting away with something was when I was listening to the Westwood One Radio Network late one Sunday night and heard Dr. Demento’s “Shaving Cream.” There’s absolutely nothing highbrow about the song, but being not yet out of my teens, I felt like a real rebel listening to the good Doctor repeatedly come within an inch of saying “shit,” but instead singing, “Shaving cream / Be nice and clean / Shave every day and you’ll always look keen.”