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The Dick Joke’s Age of Enlightenment Is (Almost) Upon Us

From the ancient Romans to ‘American Vandal,’ a people’s history of the irrepressible rise of the lowest-hanging fruit of lowbrow comedy

A banana, a gun, a car, and a hot dog Ringer illustration

“Stop mooching dick-vape off me,” Seth Rogen snaps at Nick Kroll, and with that, Seth Rogen’s Hilarity for Charity, the recent star- and dick-studded Netflix variety show, begins in earnest. Released in April, the comedy gala’s goal was to raise money for the Rogen family’s six-year-old charity to combat Alzheimer’s disease, whilst also getting as many fake penises on screen as possible.

The opening bit thus involves Kroll bickering backstage with Rogen, who gets so flustered he retires to a bathroom to enjoy that time-honored relaxation technique wherein one endeavors to “smoke a vape pen through your pee hole.” Which Rogen does, in loving close-up. (It’s a mold.) (Presumably.) Then he jumps in a car, flies off a cliff, dies, goes to hell, gets sassed by the devil (“The Guilt Trip was a shitty movie”), and agrees to start a charity in return for a second chance at life, which activates his competitive spirit. “Everybody’s gonna be like, ‘Have you seen Seth Rogen’s charity? It’s the best charity I’ve ever seen,’” Rogen crows. “And they’ll all be sucking on my vape-pen-filled dick.”

That part of the bit ends, and the guy who brought you Sausage Party strides onstage in front of a monied and lightly grossed-out live audience at the Hollywood Palladium, introducing the night’s other comedians (god bless John Mulaney) and leading a literal procession of other dick molds, wheeled out onstage one by one so Rogen can poke them all with a vape pen. A circumcised penis. A smaller, “realistic” penis. A French penis. (“His monocle fell off,” Rogen notes, reattaching it. “There you go.”) An Australian penis. (A “down under” joke that doesn’t quite land.) A Guy Fieri penis. (It has bleached-blond pubic hair and is wearing sunglasses.) A Minion penis. (No comment.) “I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Rogen concludes. “I think I’ve reached my threshold on dick jokes.” Very brief pause. “I’m joking. There’s way more dick jokes throughout this night.”

The dick joke, that timeless and delightfully tasteless fount of lowbrow comedy—the lowest-hanging fruit of them all, if you will—is alive and well in 2018. You might call Hilarity for Charity the best recent example of the form streaming on Netflix, but that would be a grave insult to American Vandal, the eight-episode 2017 true-crime spoof that my Ringer colleague Mark Titus described, not unconvincingly, as “the best dick joke ever told.” More recently, there is Game Over, Man!, the lewd Netflix-original action comedy that premiered in late March, stars the brain trust behind the cult Comedy Central show Workaholics, and features multiple interlocking dick jokes, including a severed penis that pops up frequently enough to qualify as the movie’s dominant motif.

Game Over, Man! is not, in the classic sense, a good movie—the best you can say is it is neither significantly better nor significantly worse than the 900 other original movies Netflix has released so far this year. It is, however, the only Netflix movie to feature an extended scene featuring Adam Devine’s penis, in which the whole joke is that you’re forced to look at Adam DeVine’s penis for an uncomfortably long time. (Presumably.) (If Netflix has another movie like that, I ain’t watchin’ it, even for money.)

A question, though: Is Adam Devine’s penis, on its own, funny? Is it funnier in 2018, or far less so? Appalled reactions to the similarly crass 2017 Hulu comedy series Future Man—executive-produced by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who were also both producers on Game Over, Man!—suggest that given grim current affairs, we’ve reached a phallic crisis point. (“Do we really need more dicks right now?” asked The Daily Beast.) Male nudity, as a source of both comedy and drama, is somehow simultaneously the last taboo—Westworld, for one, is now very publicly trying to level a long-uneven gender playing field in that regard—and almost literally the oldest trick in the book. The time is nigh to assess both the dick joke’s illustrious past and its uncertain future. And it behooves us, as always, to start from the rear.

“Pistol’s cock is up,” declares Pistol, a soldier character in Shakespeare’s Henry V, “and flashing fire will follow.” There is some debate as to whether the word cock yet carried that particular meaning in the late 16th century, but let’s give the “beast with two backs” guy the benefit of the doubt.

As far as ye olde dick jokes go, the visual gags are naturally far easier to grasp these days than the verbal ones. Most of the Bard’s penis humor relied on now-archaic quirks of pronunciation and vowel-based trickery, as patiently explained by Atlas Obscura in a piece headlined “You’re Missing Shakespeare’s Best, Most Sophisticated Boner Jokes.” Some textual jibes still translate, of course. There is even a dick joke of sorts in the Old Testament, specifically the Book of Kings, in which King Rehoboam, intent on proving himself a harsher ruler than his late father, King Solomon, is advised by his old buddies to declare, “My little finger shall be thicker than my father’s loins.” And then there is the Exeter Book, a 10th-century tome hailed as “the largest extant collection of Old English poetry,” though it sneaks in a few riddles, too. For example:

A curiosity hangs by the thigh of a man, under its master’s cloak. It is pierced through in the front; it is stiff and hard and it has a good standing-place. When the man pulls up his own robe above his knee, he means to poke with the head of his hanging thing the familiar hole of matching length which he has often filled before.

The answer is a key, thank you. If you find this too sophisticated and prefer a plain old picture of a dick, get a load of the cover to Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.- A.D. 250, John Clarke’s 2007 book. The ancient Romans, it turns out, had some vivid ideas about how to ward off the evil eye, and also some alarmingly progressive designs for wind chimes. Fast-forward to the 13th-century Tuscan fresco known as The Tree of Fertility, which Cracked once described, not inaccurately, as “the Medieval Dick Tree.” That one raised a ruckus anew back in 2011, when prudish art restorers were accused of “castrating” it.

The 1700s brought us ribald joke books that offer such delightful punch lines as, “Then Sir, says the Lady, I desire you to take down your Breeches, and let your Cock Stand.” The 1800s brought us the high-literary and suspiciously phallic bromance between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as elucidated in an L.A. Review of Books essay titled “History’s Dick Jokes: On Melville and Hawthorne.” And the 20th century, gloriously, gave us Bernie Mac on Def Comedy Jam.

“If I pull my shit out, this whole room get dark” is worthy of Moby-Dick, of Macbeth, of the Book of Kings. As vivid wordplay, it eclipses all the groaner puns and general high-literary ribaldry served up by WTF connoisseur Thomas Pynchon, or Philip Roth and his “superabundance of cock,” or David Foster Wallace, whose idea of a sick critical burn was to describe John Updike as “a penis with a thesaurus.” It beats any old penis-centric New Yorker cover, and boy there are a lot of those. It is both goofier and raunchier than anything on offer in 1978’s Animal House or 1979’s Meatballs and all the beloved ’80s sex comedies that followed it, from Police Academy to Fast Times at Ridgemont High and beyond. (I have a vivid memory of blurting out, “What’s a dildo?” while watching 1988’s The Naked Gun with my parents, which was pretty much the end of that.) If one line can get you etched into the Dick Joke Mount Rushmore, Bernie Mac said it. And there he remains to this day, right next to Mike Judge.

The jerkoff-algorithm scene in the 2014 Season 1 finale of Judge’s HBO comedy, Silicon Valley, is often hailed as the single greatest dick joke of all time, inspiring oral histories, and equation-rich explainers, and loving encomiums to Judge himself. With its talk of “mean jerk time,” “orgasm threshold,” and “girth similarity,” it is as profound and scientifically accurate as this realm will ever get, which is doubly impressive coming from the guy who brought us ’90s MTV titan Beavis and Butt-Head, a show that was nearly as ingenious despite being 20 times dumber. Chatting with a military recruiter, Beavis and Butt-Head assign themselves ranks—“Major Woody” and “Private Parts”—and inquire, of Fort Dix, “Is that anywhere near Fort Nuts?”

Judge’s long, thrilling journey from king of lowbrow to king of highbrow corresponds with both the often quite literal rise of South Park (shout-out to Saddam Hussein) and the late 1990s’ own sex-comedy craze, as exemplified by consecutive summers featuring the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary (dick provides hair gel) and the Weitz brothers’ American Pie (dick defiles pastry). Peter and Bobby Farrelly, in particular, deserve credit for pushing the dick-joke envelope forward in terms of pure chutzpah: The Ben Stiller’s–nuts-stuck-in-a-zipper scene in There’s Something About Mary is perhaps the single greatest example of the Unexpected Dick Shot subgenre.

The Farrellys, of course, broke out with 1994’s Dumb and Dumber, starring Jim Carrey, whose touch with dick jokes borders on the virtuosic—“How’s it hangin’?” “Short, shriveled, and always to the left”—even if his long and sordid history in the genre has its uglier moments, too. Carrey’s own breakout, 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, climaxes with one of the more blatant examples of transphobia in the slapstick-comedy pantheon, a precursor to the gay-panic-heavy and bromance-obsessed comedies that came to define the early 2000s.

That period, of course, was owned by Judd Apatow, whether he was heavily involved in the movie (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Pineapple Express) or not (I Love You, Man). These are teen sex comedies that just happen to star men-children on the cusp of middle age, their various dick jokes both mired in and elevated by midlife-crisis desperation. Which is to say that Jason Segel is very sad in 2008’s Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and you get to see his dick. At its best (Funny People, maybe), this approach imbues lowbrow humor with genuine pathos; at its worst, as with Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart’s feature-length (and Apatow-free) 2015 prison-rape joke Get Hard, it veers into plain old homophobia.

On second thought, the single best film from the Bromance Era, for both dick jokes and genuine pathos, is 2007’s Superbad, which brings us back to Seth Rogen, as actor, coscreenwriter (alongside Evan Goldberg), and thus coarchitect of the “Jonah Hill can’t stop drawing dicks” scene, which nowadays has a whole lot to answer for.

What this scene principally has to answer for is American Vandal, which proved that a perfectly executed dick joke can sustain itself literally forever, or at least for more than five hours. That show’s endless repetition of the phrase “did the dicks” was both numbing and thrilling, the way it gradually slipped into matter-of-fact mundanity without ever quite losing its audacity. (“The hairs … the tip … the ball size? They’re different.”) That show and Silicon Valley alone constituted a miniature dick-joke Enlightenment, a radical and long-overdue mutation. No more prurience just for prurience’s sake. No more gay-panic bullshit. We are sophisticated. We have evolved. Bridesmaids and Girls Trip proved that the female equivalent to the dick joke is often even cruder (and funnier). It’s a brave new world, right?

Well, maybe. For the moment we’re back in a holding pattern. Maybe for now we’ve gotten as much radical innovation as we can handle. For its part, Game Over, Man! feels more like a greatest-hits collection, combining several reliable subgenres—the Surprise Dick Shot, the Uncomfortably Long Nude Scene, a healthy dose of Gay Panic—to diminishing returns. Suffice it to say that Daniel Stern, as a creepy hotel manager, gets his dick cut off by a lady assassin, but then reemerges late in the movie to throw his severed penis at the lady assassin, who in the interim was dosed with sativa and had a penis or two drawn directly on her face. Don’t watch this movie with your parents, no matter how cool they think they are.

Its worthy cause aside, Seth Rogen’s Hilarity for Charity doesn’t have much to recommend it either, at least after its gala dick-vaping opener. Halfway through the show, Rogen introduces an animated short from Rick and Morty cocreator Justin Roiland, which very quickly devolves into two crudely drawn cartoon characters furiously flapping their cartoon penises back and forth, before one of them poops on the floor. That’s the whole bit. The live audience at the Hollywood Palladium sounds none too thrilled, but Rogen laughs loudly and hoarsely enough for everyone, as he always has. “That makes me happy,” he concedes. Let him have this.