Of 2014’s Dumb and Dumber sequel, Manohla Dargis quipped, “The Farrellys are still not much interested in film as a visual medium…you might as well be listening to a radio play.” Surely there’s some truth here, but there’s also a touch of Bourdieu: gross-out comedy is too low a form for serious aesthetic attention. By way of counterexample let us consider the painstaking formal logic hidden in plain sight amid the unsubtle, wincing rhythms of one of Peter and Bobby’s more infamous gags: the zipper scene of There's Something About Mary.
Visual evidence of Ted’s ensnared genitalia is the scene’s structuring absence: the lack of corresponding eyeline matches as the adults pile in, A Night at the Opera-style, to be simultaneously repulsed and fascinated, instills a false sense of security, much like the graphic match of a cloud bisecting the moon that replaces the razor blade hovering over an eyeball in Buñuel’s Un chien andalou. But then the eyeball is sliced, and so, too, is the viewer subjected to an extreme close-up of Ted’s compromised “frank and beans” to match the fireman’s look.
This is a textbook instance of a “shock cut,” that is, the sudden insertion of a graphic image into a film scene’s established editing scheme. This sort of tactic is most closely associated with horror films, but then, the kinship between horror and comedy has been long been noted, by William Paul and Noël Carroll among others. Tension, rhythm, and surprise are vital components of both genres, and gross-out comedy in particular shares an affinity with horror’s more lurid forays for testing gag reflexes.
David Scott Diffrient contends that the rhythmic and visual excess of shock cuts take us momentarily outside the text.1 If the first order of laughter would be directed at the compromised phallus (and with the fireman, who finds humor where others see only horror), the second is extra-diegetic, directed at the Farrellys' masterful bait-and-switch: only once visual evidence has been rendered thoroughly unnecessary, through sound effects, descriptive dialogue, and expressive performance – not unlike a radio play – do they finally shove our noses in it.
1 David Scott Diffrient, "A Film is Being Beaten: Notes on the Shock Cut and the Material Violence of Horror," ed. Steffen Hantke, Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), 52-81.