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COVER STORY

Snorkeling in the cesspool

A Search for the Bottom in the Rising Tide of Vulgarity

August 20, 2000|PATRICK J. KIGER | Patrick J. Kiger is a freelance writer based in Takoma Park, Md. This is his first story for the magazine

Oh this age! How tasteless and ill-bred it is!" wrote the Roman poet Catullus in the 1st century BC. He wasn't complaining, mind you, so much as reveling: He was one of the most astonishingly rude and crude literati of all time, a guy whose verses were so explicitly raunchy and full of scatological insults toward his rivals that they make Howard Stern seem like a Care Bear.

* Still, I wish the old vulgarian could time travel forward to a television studio in Hollywood, where I'm attending a taping of Comedy Central's "The Man Show." Here he'd see what 2,000 years of human progress have wrought.

The cameras aren't rolling yet, but a burly staffer is soliciting volunteers for an upcoming skit, "Wheel of Destiny," with a warning that since this is national television, participating audience members must be prepared to deal with any and all eventualities.

"Let's say, if we want to give you a urine bath," he explains, "you have to be willing to take it like a man."

Daniel Kellison, one of the executive producers and the man running things on the set, says that won't really happen. This is, after all, a television show--not the back room of some leather bar. But the audience members don't seem particularly concerned. They're mostly male, 20- or 30-something, clad in jeans and sports regalia, quaffing free beers and hooting and stomping and banging their mitts together dutifully whenever the crew tests the red-lit sign that reads "Clap, you bastards." These fellas aren't here for a Martha Stewart lesson on making gelatin molds. They're here for brewskis, breasts and bodily functions--big time.

And "The Man Show," perhaps today's state of the art in vulgarity, isn't going to disappoint them. A few minutes later, the Juggy Dancers rush in from the wings clad in costumes that suggest the nation is facing a dire shortage of animal-print spandex. A few high-heeled wiggles later, they're followed by "The Man Show" hosts, Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla--two men in their 30s who are so clean-cut that either could play the yuppie dad in a life-insurance commercial. They banter about the need to Scotchgard the Juggy Dancers, and no one has to explain the joke to this crowd. One of the more remarkable aspects of "The Man Show" is that once the cameras start rolling, things get even more vulgar. The "Wheel of Destiny" segment, for example, is a game-show parody that offers lucky contestants the opportunity to win prizes such as a canoe filled with tube socks or a chance to watch two of the Juggy Dancers have a pillow fight. A losing contestant, on the other hand, has to submit to having his face licked by an obese woman dressed as Cher. (Fortunately for the contestants, no one's turn of the wheel stops on the ultimate misfortune: "Ten seconds in ice tub, then show Juggy your privates.")

Other segments vary from tee-hee to I-can't-believe-they're-showing-that. There's a phone-sex parody, penis-size jokes, PMS jokes and, last but not least, the inadvertently-eating-doggie-doo-because-he-thinks- it's-chocolate-ice-cream joke. There are no flatulence jokes this time, but hey, it's only a 30-minute show.

"It probably was our filthiest show ever," Kellison cheerfully notes later.

Rude? Crude? Outrageously, astonishingly, breathtakingly vulgar? You betcha. It's also a hit. After one season, "The Man Show" already is Comedy Central's second-most-popular show, surpassed only by the equally raunchy animated series "South Park." But "The Man Show" isn't an aberration. Rather, it's another sign of the times, a particularly pungent whiff of the millennial Zeitgeist. The '70s were the Me Decade, the '80s were the Reagan Decade, the '90s were the Wired Decade. Chances are, the '00s are going to be the Vulgar Decade. And don't look now, but ewwww, you're already stepping in it.

*

IN CASE YOU HAVEN'T NOTICED, VULGARITY HAS GONE FROM BEING sophomoric to hip to mainstream, and it's now on its way to becoming ubiquitous. At this point, the question is: Just how low can we go?

Here's how vulgar we are already:

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