This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart
As greet as it had been a thonder-dent
That with the strook he was almoost yblent
–Geoffrey Chaucer, The Miller’s Tale
“Oh, relax! It’s a fart! Some people think they’re funny!”
–Margo Martindale, The Millers
Tomorrow night, CBS premieres The Millers, a sitcom starring Will Arnett and Margo Martindale, about a divorced man whose mother moves in with him after her own marriage ends. I am guessing most critics will pan it. I’m guessing this because the pilot, at least, is not good–a braying, clunky, assembly-line sitcom–and because there’s a special pain in seeing actors like Arnett and Martindale, fantastic in better shows, stuck here.
I am also guessing, because it’s been mentioned in just about every piece I’ve read about the show since this summer, that you will hear a lot about the fart jokes. It’s true: there are a bunch of fart jokes in The Millers, mostly centered on Martindale’s character–who gets gassy after popping a sleeping pill–and the fact that farts just “slip out” when you get older, which, the usual take goes, is a humiliation for an actress who created indelible characters in Justified and The Americans.
There are plenty of reasons not to watch The Millers–the shticky insult humor, the studio audience laughter that feels like it was pumped out of a bellows–but this is not one of them.
You know who else uses fart jokes? Uses the hell out of them, in fact? A certain Louis CK, whom critics like me hail rightfully as not just a comedic genius but a humane, insightful storyteller. (SELF-PROMOTION ALERT: Tomorrow night–exactly when The Millers premieres, actually–I’m moderating a panel with him and his producer Blair Breard at the Paley Center in New York. Get your tickets here!)
I interviewed Louis CK for TIME in 2011, before the premiere of Louie’s second season, and we talked about fart jokes. Well, he did: I asked him about the material about aging and bodily decay in Louie, and he transitioned thus:
I did a lot of things I didn’t used to do this season. I think there’s like four episodes that have fart jokes in them somewhere. I realize that and I didn’t notice it. I just noticed okay, I fart in this episode.
Farts are—I just refuse to be snobbish about certain shit with comedy. You know, farts come out of your ass and they make a fucking trumpet sound. That shit smelling gas comes out of your ass and it makes a toot sound. What the fuck is not funny about that? It’s perfect, it’s a perfect joke. It has all the elements. [Want to hear more Louis CK on farts? Here he is on Jon Stewart.]
Which is not to say that all fart jokes are created equal, or that it’s as simple as “farts are funny.” I mean, they are, and when you build them into an absurd symphony of tooting, like Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, you have to be made of stone not to laugh.
The problem, maybe, is that they’re too easy, so when a show like The Millers simply throws them in to boost a scene–literally, as laughing gas–the desperation is just obvious. Fart jokes are to comedy what giant fireballs are to action movies: great if you build to the explosion creatively, weak if you just detonate them Michael Bay-style for their own sake.
Take Louis CK again. The day I interviewed him, he had been filming the season 2 episode “Pregnant,” which culminates in a fantastic fart joke. Louie’s extremely pregnant sister comes to visit him, and while sleeping over at his apartment comes down with excruciating abdominal pains. Louie is terrified and overcome; they’re sure she’s sick and might lose the baby. He has to figure out how to help her, turning for assistance to a neighbor couple he’s never interacted with, and in turn confronting his anxieties about being a competent single father. He finally rushes his sister to the hospital, where under doctors’ care, she lets out a massive blast of flatulence.
It’s a great deflating (so to speak) moment. Louie is faced with a terrifying situation outside his comfort zone, has to take responsibility for another life, and then: BRRRRRRAAAAAAP! It’s a great fart joke, and a necessary fart joke. (Would a burp have been as funny? I daresay not!) And it works because it’s about more than “Somebody farted.” Like South Park’s Terrence and Philip, whose shtick is not just about how funny fart jokes are, but how funny people who love to laugh at fart jokes are.
Or like, yes, Geoffrey Chaucer, whose The Miller’s Tale paints a slapstick ruckus in a few lines of verse: After Nicholas lets fly his “thonder-dent” at his romantic rival Absalom, Absalom smites him “amydde the ers” (right between the cheeks) with a red-hot blacksmith’s tool. “Help! Water! Water! Help for Goddes herte!” That’s comedy! That’s literature! They teach it on college seminars, and you could get the Farrelly Brothers to direct it.
OK, The Millers is not exactly The Miller’s Tale, but its much-derided flatulence jokes do have something of a point: Arnett’s character, getting on in years himself, is seeing his own ungraceful aging in the form of his gassy mom. The pilot doesn’t manage to do much funny with it, true, but it’s no more of a crime against taste than an unfunny lawyer joke. I cannot really defend spending a half-hour with The Millers. But I shall defend to the death its right to pass gas.