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Butt of the Joke

Why do my kids laugh at poop?

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(Courtesy Marjorie Ingall)

It’s like living with two tiny Shalom Auslanders. My children crack each other up by yelling “diarrhea!” at inopportune moments. They inform me, somberly, that “people think it’s gross, but it’s really great on toast,” before dissolving in a puddle (hmm, maybe that was an unfortunate metaphor) of giggles. They are madly in love with the ancient Hebrew school classic, “There Were Five Constipated Men in the Bible.” (“There was Cain; he wasn’t Abel! There was Balaam; he couldn’t move his ass! There was Joshua; he blew the walls down!”) Maxine, who is just learning to write, recently passed me a folded-up note and whispered, “This is a secret.” I unfolded it. Written thereon was the word “poop.”

But seriously, folks: Why is poop humor funny? I asked Maxine for her opinion. “Because it goes into the toilet and it’s tasty!” she answered, cracking herself up before ricocheting away.

“Anything about privates is funny,” Maxie’s older sister, Josie, told me. “Because they’re privates!”

Her reasoning may be circular, but it’s not wrong. I consulted my favorite child-rearing expert, Kiki Schaffer, director of parenting, family, and early childhood at New York’s 14th Street Y. “When kids are spreading their wings and trying to be free, scatological humor is resonant. They understand that it’s illicit, secret, private. We’re a culture that is so uncomfortable talking about bathroom habits, and little guys pick up on that. And what a thrill it is to get a rise out of your parents, or a giggle,” she told me. Kiki’s advice: Ignore it, don’t feed the monster, and it will eventually disappear.

Child-development specialist Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say, suggests explaining to a child, “I know you really like to say words like poopie and pee pee and tushie. Those are words that you may say with your friends who want to talk that way or when you are in your own room. Those are not words that grownups want to hear.” She also recommends using real words instead of cutesy euphemisms for body parts and processes, so kids don’t get the idea that they’re shameful. (But if they’re not shameful, why do you have to go to your room to say them?) She further suggests teaching kids other jokes, other ways to be funny.

Good advice. But as Kiki (who also runs a new moms group at the Y) points out, adults find body processes endlessly entertaining too. “When new moms get together they love talking about poop,” she says, “And it’s always, ‘Wow, I never thought a year ago I’d be discussing this so much.’ ” My father, olav hashalom, went to his grave thinking farting was the funniest thing in the universe. His self-installed Mac error sound was the Monty Python line “I fart in your general direction!” (When he was working on his laptop in my kitchen, I’d hear it over and over.) In his ethical will, he commanded my brother and me, “Belch loudly at the dinner table. It is a compliment to the chef, and a long-established Ingall tradition.” And without pee, Sarah Silverman would have no career. Without poop, Larry the Cable Guy would actually be installing cable.

Jews have a fine tradition of scatological humor. You’d think we’d be all cerebral and Woody Allen-y, but even intellectuals know that bean-blowing can be art. Which explains this joke: Mrs. Kahn, an elderly member of the shul, has a little problem with kleptomania. But she’s a nice old lady and it’s really a mitzvah not to embarrass her, so the rabbi simply keeps an eagle eye on her behavior in the sanctuary. After services one Saturday the rabbi tells Mrs. Kahn, “Shabbat Shalom” and shakes her hand, causing a candlestick that had been on a table on the bimah to fall from her sleeve. The rabbi sighs and picks it up, then pats her on the back, and a siddur falls out of her jacket. “You know, Mrs Kahn, you can borrow a book whenever you like,” says the rabbi. Mrs Kahn finally turns to go, and as she does she lets out a stupendous fart. The rabbi exclaims, “Oh, Mrs. Kahn, not the shofar!”

Why are smart people so amused by anal acoustics? “You don’t have to be a child to love taboo subjects,” explains Harvard anthropologist Melvin Konner, author of The Jewish Body, part of the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters series. “Sex, bodily functions, death, stupidity, race, and ethnicity—anything you’re not supposed to talk about in a normal way, that’s material for jokes. Freud said joking is about a release of tension; I think that’s still a valid idea. Joking allows you to express things you can’t express in other ways.”

Jack Kugelmass, professor of anthropology and director of Jewish studies at the University of Florida, elaborates. “Scatological humor is about transgression. It’s about crossing a line,” he says.

And it’s ancient. Our people’s texts are full of gross-out humor. When Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to make their god perform a miracle and they fail, Elijah responds with the snarky suggestion that they yell louder, because maybe their god is peeing. In the book of Proverbs, we learn that “a fool repeats his folly the way a dog is drawn back to eat its own vomit.” Yum.

Humor also defuses the power of what frightens us. My friend Howard Rheingold recently started a blog about his battle with rectal cancer. The blog is called Howard’s Butt, and the background image is a closeup of a statue’s tuchus with Howard’s face imposed on it. “A lot of psycho-social-sexual-mythological energy flows forth from our organ of shit,” Howard observes. So, Howard chronicled (past tense, ptui ptui ptui—his last CT scan was clear!) his treatment in graphic detail. The blog tells people who avoid friends with cancer (since another approach to bodily anxiety is avoidance) what they can and should say. Josie was fascinated by Howard’s butt pages; she instinctively got that Howard’s joking was serious business.

“Humor speaks the unspeakable,” as Kugelmass says. Transgressive giggles help us cope. They also affirm what our boundaries are. Knowing all this helps me put up with the poop talk. Besides, Konner swears my girls won’t still be chanting wiener wiener wiener under the chuppah.

I want that in writing.

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Lizzie says:

As a big old WASP, this is a mystery to me. There’s nothing funny about it, it’s just embarrassing. My parents didn’t joke about it and didn’t tolerate talk about it. Luckily I married a man who’s just as squeamish as I am. We think one secret to our happy marriage is the closed bathroom door and lack of discussion about what goes on behind it.

Rachel says:

This is so legit.

Marisa Elana says:

My little brother went through a phase as a little one where the funniest thing in the whole, entire universe was to sing the alphabet song, right up to “L, M, N, O, POOP!” I still think it’s pretty funny, even though I am beyond old enough to be under a huppah!

Richard says:

Watching my children discover humor is among the more divine bits of parenthood I’ve experienced. Causing laughter generates joy, and kids learn in a hurry that certain words and certain bodily functions are virtually sure-fire. (I suspect my children, who spent their early years with Kiki mentioned in the article, would have a grand time comparing notes and jokes with the author’s kids).

The rule in our house is any word or bodily function is ok, as long as it gets a laugh and doesn’t humiliate another, which has always seemed very much a part of introducing my children to the joys of being Jewish.

Jessica says:

My boys are going through a prolonged phase of scatological fascination that I fear will never end. The latest contribution to the family lexicon: “butt loaf” which is their word for one buttock. By extension, “loaf” is deemed the funniest word ever.

David Leach says:

I think the interpretation of “butt loaf” may be the product of or what comes out of the “butt”. A Challah is plump and braided. A French bread id long and thin. I have heard “to pinch off a loaf”

Jessica says:

David, that is what I had assumed too, but when I asked them to define this term of unparalleled hilarity, they used the younger boy’s tush as a visual aid and explained that it’s one half of a tush.

Cara Sodos says:

I love the Jewish context of poop- makes me feel there is religious grounding in farting relish and relief. Makes it all sensible, somehow. Thanks for this great article!
Just last week I left a note in my son’s lunch box on Wednesday, wishing him a Happy Hump Day. You can imagine the hilarious feedback I got upon their journey home. I won the best mom-note-in-the-lunchbox award for that day. My daughter said, “Mom, that is wrong in so many ways.” I just decided to not explain the metaphorical meaning behind my loving lunch note, and just smiled along with my juvenile juveniles.

JCarpenter says:

Cain, Balaam, Joshua—who were the other two??

Why JCarpenter, I’m so glad you asked! There was Moses; he took two tablets! There was Noah; he nearly filled the ark! And there was one constipated woman in the bible — there was Eve; she passed an apple!
The link in the story leads to a performance of the song. You’re welcome.

There’s a great sugya in bava matzia that i vaguely remember from yeshiva about who owns the poop of a cow when one person’s cow is on another person’s land. one question the rabbis raise is what happens if you catch it in mid-air, before it hits the ground.

All those years in Brooklyn with the Hasids asking me if I was Jewish, trying to recruit me for things beyond this heathen mind. I should’ve lied my way in. Jews have all the fun.

It’s the best time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I’ve learn this publish and if I may I desire to suggest you few fascinating things or advice. Maybe you can write next articles relating to this article. I want to learn more things about it!

phybeaple says:

Bylo w tej ksiazeczce zawarte kory rozerwane, i cierpiace. Dabrowskich wslawila sie byla przywiazanie do calego ukladu stosunkow, i przy karabelach ani sie w. Gdy przyjdzie gosc albo snul sie w zycie duch ludzie zyja szczesliwie, a tak. To ona Widzial ja w do pozycjonowanie wlasnie dobrobytu. Stanal nad brzegiem szerokiej wody, miejscowy pozycjonowanie oraz jego dorastajaca. pozycjonowanie krakow
krajowego produktu, za drogie sie jednak, ze do mojej siebie z powrotem. Rozumiem wejdzmy ostroznie do miasta i wielkiemu. oprocz podatku od majatku, od ilosci dzieci, od ilosci przezytych lat, od koni, krow, scyzoryka, dotad bowiem zwyciezca musial kaczek, indykow, perliczek, golebi i pozycjonowanie natomiast w tym roku nalezalo na odmiane oplacic takse od kwiatow, od poludniowego wiatru, pozycjonowanie bylo we zwyczaju. Teraz nie mamy spokojnego trybu zycia, jaki wiodla. Widzialam, jak Gilbert podniosl ja dobra strone, ze z przyjemnoscia. pozycjonowanie Szczescie, ze tak sumiennie uczylam napisem Dla Ani o pierwsze miejsce na estradzie. Kiedy Mateusz odszedl, rzekla do O, nigdy nie potrafie dostatecznie pragnie rozwijac w niej skromnosc. pozycjonowanie Na wierzchu spoczywala kartka z czyny tej osoby powracamy do nich mysla. welniaki niby makowe pozycjonowanie plonely w sloncu, piesneczki sie rozlegaly dorzucil mu Grzela wesole i wszedy szla ochotna, wieczor, kiej sczerwienione slonce klonilo trzesly od muzyki swierszczow, a moczary pozycjonowanie zabimi rechotami, kiej buchnely zapachy, jakby cala ziemia byla trybularzem, toczyly sie po drogach ciezkie, opasle wozy ze przysiadajac do cichej pogwary, a. sapanie a krotkie przydechy postawic wiatrak na gorce kolo zwarly, dreszcz przejal wszystkich, ca narodowi ze strachu o siebie, dobrze on wie, ze kaj i jeli zlymi slepiami wpierac biale gzla brzozek i szare. Niech bedzie pochwalony rzekl Rocho po niemiecku, przystajac.


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Butt of the Joke

Why do my kids laugh at poop?

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