raunchy (ron-che) Of poor quality, appearance, etc.;

dirty, cheap, sloppy.

--Webster's New World Dictionary

Good taste would suggest that this sort of newspaper would politely ignore the latest trend in American cinema.

We refer, of course, to the septic wave of sperm-drinking, diarrhea-ingesting, pie-raping, expletive-spewing toilet humor that has propelled hit after hit comedy in the summer of 1999, from "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" to "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" to "American Pie."

Ignore it? Not a chance.

We intend to get to the bottom of this barrel.

The sheer volume of gross-out humor has been overwhelming . . . ly funny.

Apparently.

Audiences have been roaring over characters like Fat Bastard, the obese, flatulent Scot in "Austin Powers," who receives a transmitter up the back end, if you catch the, um, drift. (Later, Austin sips the Scot's can't-even-bear-to-write-it emission.) Or they've been mock-groaning at "American Pie" when a teenager, bedside, drinks what he thinks is a glass of frothy beer (it contains the manly discharge from a friend's previous tryst). Audiences have loved the inventive new expletives coming from "South Park's" zany kids. Even Adam Sandler's most cuddly offering to date, "Big Daddy," has the star and his adopted kid urinating on some poor guy's door.

Some uptight filmgoers have been offended by this, but the president of Columbia Pictures, Amy Pascal, says they should chill out. "I don't understand why people were so upset about that," she says. "You can't see anything, and it's funny."

Funny? It's hysterical! And there's more: Singing poop! ("South Park.") It's the very soul of Aristophanes.

That was a joke.

Actually, some people find this sort of humor rather juvenile, and there's a very good reason for that.

"There's a lot of teenagers out there--that's who these movies are made for," Pascal says, ignoring the fact that several of the raunchiest films this summer are rated R. "And I don't think the audiences they're made for find them over the line. Those whom they're made for find them hilarious."

It's teenage boys and girls, after all, who fuel the box office blockbusters, seeing hit movies over and over. Thus, "Austin Powers" has so far grossed (and we do mean grossed) almost $200 million domestically. "Big Daddy" is at $152 million and counting. "American Pie," which was made for about $12.50 and all the McDonald's the cast could eat, has made $77 million so far. "South Park"--whose cast didn't eat at all--has made $50 million.

" 'Austin Powers' is not so much a movie for that audience as it is a social experience: 'Let's see "Austin Powers" again, and recite all the lines with it,' " says Nell Minow, who has written a book on which movies are suitable for children and who rates films on her Web site, The Movie Mom.

What does that have to do with sewer jokes going mainstream? Teens, it seems, are fascinated by bodily functions, and, experts say, they're no longer titillated by just plain sex. "Sex alone, the erotic, is not terribly appealing to young people," says Ron Gottesman, professor of American literature and culture at the University of Southern California. "They've been there, done that. Kids are more sexually active than they used to be, so it doesn't have the mystery or the taboo character that it once had. But talking dirty in public, and making those kinds of references that are sexual but not erotic--Hollywood seems to think that'll work."

He sighs. "I suppose it's a symptom of desperation."

The Comedy of Cruelty

Also, dough.

"It has to do with what Hollywood producers perceive about making money," says comedy writer Dennis Perrin, who recently wrote a book about "Saturday Night Live" satirist Michael O'Donoghue. "You'll have writers' meetings, story conferences, and some producer will say, 'Can't you put X in there? I saw this in this movie, the audience loved it. Can we stick that gag in this one?' It may have nothing to do with the story, but you better put it in."

Meanwhile, other forms of comedy have not been working as well as they once did. Political and social parody on the order of "Bulworth," "Primary Colors" or "Mad City" have been overtaken by real life. "You can't get ahead of the curve by doing social parody," says comedy writer Janet Roach, who teaches a course in sketch writing at Columbia University. "The world is far more absurd than social parody can make it. So that eliminates another form of comedy."

The young generation of comedy writers, it seems, is less interested in the gentle irony of comics like Steve Martin or the harsh social commentary of someone like Richard Pryor. Roach, who wrote "Prizzi's Honor," perceives this among the students she teaches. The upcoming generation's comedy is more cruel, she observes, less forgiving of human frailty and less hopeful about life. One sketch written by her students was a long debate about anal sex; it was funny, she says, but deeply cynical.

"I don't think there's a whole lot of hope in what cracks up 20-year-olds, and that makes me very sad," she says. "They don't make a human investment. It's hope versus despair--that's a generational difference. I'm not sure they would call it despair, but I know that the kind of comedy that draws young people into theaters, as opposed to 'Waking Ned Devine' or 'Analyze This,' is emotionally very cold."

Maybe what's really shocking is not just seeing toilet humor--which has, after all, been around probably as long as toilets--but seeing it projected on the big screen in major Hollywood movies.

Thomas Fleming, editor of the conservative journal Chronicles, says: "There are two extremes in America. One is people saying, 'Gee, whatever sells is fine. It's just entertainment; why bother.' The other extreme says that the slightest off-color joke is inappropriate all the time. What we used to understand is there's a kind of humor for burlesque clubs and nightclubs and a different humor that the pastor tells in church. And we seem to be losing the ability to distinguish between them."

Phantom Taboos

Still, plenty of people think the trend toward gross humor is something to worry about, particularly since it is directed toward kids. "Children do come away from those movies thinking that this is the way people behave," says Minow, a mother of two teenagers. So far, she has not let her 13-year-old see "Austin Powers." "It's not that girls are going to have sex with flutes after seeing 'American Pie,' but they may have a more complicated time determining the level of sexual activity they should have."

She adds, "Parents drop their kids off at these movies and don't realize just how raunchy they are."

But libertarian Jesse Walker, the associate editor of Reason magazine, opposes limiting access to this stuff, even for kids. His problem with gross-out humor is that it's stupid. "What's offensive about these movies has nothing to do with raunchiness. It has to do with a lack of concern for the craft of writing," he says. "I'd be much more worried about having kids sitting there watching this for lack of something better to do, and finding this funny because they've never been exposed to better humor."

Comedy writer Perrin agrees. He says the gross-out comedies do nothing more than breach "phantom taboos," and distract society from taking on the real sacred cows in politics and society. "You'd swear we were in this boom of nasty, raunchy comedy that was somehow going against all decency and morality. I only wish that were true," he says. "I can't think of a culture that needs a more swift kick in the pants than this one, not a pantomime kick."

Instead, he says, what we get is humor that pretends to push the envelope. "It's a matter of playing it safe, of finding out what the approved taboos are and going after them," he says. "People in Hollywood are like, 'I like it if you like it.' "

The latest comedies, Perrin says, are not so much a sign of laziness as further proof of the political and moral decline of American society in 1999. "If we had a real political debate in this country, you could do more political satire," he says. "I wish there were more political films, but it's box office poison."

'The Problem Is Us'

An argument could be made that raunchy humor found a toehold in mainstream culture with John Belushi and "Animal House" in 1978. Remember when he put a scoop of mashed potatoes in his mouth and pretended to be a zit? Or one could reach back a bit further, to Mel Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" in 1974, with the farting-round-the-campfire scene.

Film historians, however, will go back to vaudevillian Mack Sennett, a specialist in lowbrow humor in the era of silent pictures. Literature professors will point to the Rabelais novel "Gargantua and Pantagruel" and Chaucer's "Tale of the Wife." Even conservative critic Fleming notes that the Greeks were big on bawdy humor, though they banned performances before women or children.

Whatever the tradition, there seems to be some general agreement that a new low has been set in the canon of cinematic taste. Says Post film critic Stephen Hunter: "It marks the death of the adult sensibility." But he adds, "Bad taste should be witty. If it's witty, I'll laugh at it."

Pascal, for one, won't think twice before green-lighting a raunchy sequel to Sandler's "Big Daddy" or anyone else's. "I like them," she says. "I'm gonna keep making them, and I'm gonna keep making money for this studio."

Says Fleming: "I don't think there's a quick-fix solution to the grossness of our society because the problem is us, not Hollywood. We tolerate this stuff." He adds, "There's a general coarsening that's gone on. When we look in the mirror, we have to say, 'What's the last dirty joke we laughed at?' "