Structuring the Gaze in Lowbrow Comedy

Curator's Note

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.


What an interesting take on the shock cut and its horror parallel. I wonder what you might make of the fact that I haven’t seen this scene in years, and my memory of the close up was one much more graphic and repellent. Maybe because of the timing of the cut, all the build-up, it was frozen in my mind as something horrific? Or because of the moviegoer chatter about the scene (this one and the famous hair gel scene, too!) when the film first came out and all the references to the image. (Or something else about me that might be better not to speculate on?) I wonder how this memory issue plays out in similar horror shock cuts.

Hi Kathleen! You raise a fascinating issue about memory and spectatorship. I'm reminded here of the peak-end rule, which by my Wikipedia-derived understanding explains the psychological phenomenon of remembering an experience as fully characterized by its emotional "peak." The zipper scene is an interesting case since, as you suggest, most of the scene is just more deferral. Perhaps this is a classic instance of that old horror truism, that we can never be shown anything as scary as what we can imagine. After so much build-up, it's almost inevitable that the pay-off will fall short. The fireman's laughter could even be read as the Farrellys acknowledging as much. In horror, after all, that's precisely how we respond when cut-rate special effects sabotage our prurient high hopes. Gross-out comedy simply incorporates that into the text. Your point about the scene's mythologization and how that affects your memory of it also really resonates with me, because the novelty and spectacle of particular moments that can then be isolated and circulated via word of mouth is clearly so central to how "There's Something About Mary," and films like it, succeed as popular culture. Same with horror: is any discussion of "The Exorcist," for example, NOT articulated through its iconic images?

Great analysis of the scene, you really capture the mechanics of why we're surprised when we finally, and unexpectedly, see the image of Ted's zipped genitals, and I appreciate the parallel you draw between this technique and horror film editing. I also have to agree with Kathleen that my memory of the scene from seeing it when the movie first came out was of something more graphic. I remembered laughing a lot at this scene then, and found I still wanted to laugh now. But I'm wondering why? What are all of the signals that take something that could be horrific and disfiguring, and allow us to laugh? We are laughing, after all, at someone's pain. Certainly the fireman's reaction helps to give us permission to laugh, but Keith David's reaction to bring in Markie Post (as well as the clear set up for W. Earl Brown's misunderstanding about masturbation) have already clearly signaled to us that this is a spectacle worthy of an audience. Is that sufficient to translate a moment of private trauma into public comedy?

Hi Aaron! I read in your comment an ethical question: How do we permit ourselves to laugh at trauma? William Paul observed of the "low" films of the 80s that "the horror films often become farcical in the extremity of their devices, while the comedies often move into nightmare sequences." Gross-out comedies have a tendency to realize worst-case scenarios, particularly of the bodily stratum. "There's Something About Mary" seemed to inaugurate a second wind for this logic, giving rise to parade of embarrassment in American comedy. I would identify a number of ways the Farrellys make this work in the zipper scene. In my view most of the comedy is produced by the ever-accelerating abject humiliation - a humiliation that is very much drawn from the violation of the public/private divide you identify - that piles on to the uncommon but easily imaginable original dilemma. By the time the cop pops his head through the window, the gag begins to take the shape of a shaggy dog story, or "the Aristocrats": the duration of the buildup becomes part of the joke. It helps, I think, that the scene is framed as the prelude to the main narrative, allowing it to play as a spoof of psychosexual origin narratives (e.g. "Marnie"). If Ted experienced the same dilemma as an adult, the gag might just feel contrived.

Again, you're highlighting a fruitful parallel. I guess there is an embedded ethical question in there, but I think it is more about the logistical dimension of how we can find something traumatic--though humiliation seems to in some ways be a better fit--so funny. It seems like you are saying that this scene serves as a contrived catharsis for the audience, who may be able to use the moment to feel relief from their own feared humiliation. Does that make sense?

This post has shown me new connections between comedy and horror. I initially thought of the 5-minute scene as quintessential tension and relief. It's not until about 4 minutes into the scene that we see the frank and beans. Even in a movie, that's a long time to spend on one gag. Benjamin's shock cut analysis is very insightful. And the temporality would match horror, too. Are there other genres that will tolerate, support, or encourage such a long period of tension before the grotesque shot?

Thanks for your comment, Lisa - Since tension and release are so closely associated with the genre functions of horror and comedy I always assume that any film that would build up before revealing a shocking image is borrowing from them, if not of those genres as a whole. But certainly other types of films contain shocking images. A very serious-minded drama might generally avoid manipulative tactics with gruesome subject matter, since facing harsh realities directly is more closely aligned with serious/difficult's an interesting question!

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