In 1892 Joseph Pujol walked onto the stage of the Moulin Rouge, muttered a brief and apologetic introduction, and proceeded to emit a series of farts which shook Paris to its foundations. The performance commenced with his ‘little girl’, followed by the nervous squeak of his ‘bride on her wedding night’, and the flapping yawn of the same bride the next week. As he jumped from one caricatured exhalation to another, the audience’s gasps and groans were soon drowned out by its twitters. Before long the sounds of thunderstorms and cannon fire were coming from Pujol’s behind. The crowd exploded. It is said that women in the audience fainted as their tight corsets suffocated their hysterical laughter. Pujol rallied on to rapturous applause, blowing out candles and smoking cigarettes through his trouser seat. A peculiarly specific sound effect, and his longest, was titled ‘the dressmaker tearing two yards of calico.’ But nothing could top Pujol’s grand finale, his renditions of “O Sole Mio” and “La Marseille” on an ocarina, played through a tube which he had surreptitiously inserted into himself. He was known to his audiences as Le Petomane, which loosely translates into English as ‘fart maniac,’ and the news of his unnatural talent spread throughout Europe. Pujol remained a fixture at the Moulin Rouge for three years and it is said that he was the highest paid entertainer in France of the time. His act drew audiences from every corner of society. When he wasn’t orchestrating atrocities in the Congo, King Leopold II of Belgium liked to don a disguise and settle down in the front row. Sigmund Freud was also a fan. A photograph of Le Petomane hung in his consulting room.
Pujol’s talent has not been matched since his death in 1945. It is probable that his skill was partly the product of a unique physiology. We will never know for sure. His family fended off the requests of medical schools to examine his anus stating, ‘there are some things in life which must simply be treated with reverence.’ However, Pujol was certainly not the first to make a career out of trouser coughing. As it happens, it is a well established profession. In the fifth century AD Augustine of Hippo mentioned in his great work ‘City of God’ that ‘some men have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing.’ By the twelfth century bands of the fellows known as braigetori were roaming medieval Ireland, apparently they were highly sought after entertainers at banquets. And of course we must not forget our very own Roland the Farter, the English performer who let it rip every Christmas for King Henry II in the appropriately named ceremony ‘unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum’ or ‘one jump, one whistle and one fart.’
Of course, there were some who couldn’t see the funny side of all this. John of Salisbury took a particularly dim view of the entertainment on offer at King Henry II’s Christmas knees up moaning that, ‘the clowns are not ejected even when the racket of their bottoms befouls the air with repeated noise, more shamefully emitting what is shamefully held in.’ Even the great Le Petomane had his critics, one of whom noted acerbically in an obituary, ‘His act cannot be described properly in a public journal. Is it enough to say he made a great clamour, yet never raised his voice?’ Now it is tempting to dismiss these pooh poohers as prudish philistines. But whilst sitting through the videos of a man who claims to be the last ‘fartiste,’ Macclesfield born Mr Methane, who performs whilst dressed in a mask and cape, I found myself taking the side of that old trout John of Salisbury. No matter how hard I tried to appreciate Mr Methane’s mellifluous and meandering boomings I couldn’t escape the nagging, uncomfortable realisation that I was watching someone farting on purpose, for me. There was something about his well honed, professional guffs that just didn’t feel right.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to suggest that stepping on a duck isn’t funny. It is just that I would rather that everyone stuck to the hilarious and convoluted ritual that surrounds passing wind in public. As we all know there are unwritten rules. You must outrightly deny that you are the source of the malodour; you must pass on the blame to the nearest animal if it is brought up in conversation etc. etc. We have this system to thank for much of the brilliantly unsophisticated (and quite often awful) comedy of the seventies and eighties. Decades which produced Last of the Summer Wine, Blazing Saddles, Aeroplane and The Pink Panther. The colossal Leslie Nielson built his whole career around passing wind in awkward situations. No one could drum up fart induced nervous tension like Nielson. He was so reliant on the things that he took a fart machine to every one of his live interviews. Nielsen owed his fame and fortune to the delicate wind ritual and he knew it—he made sure that the words ‘Let ‘er rip’ were inscribed into his gravestone. Le Petomane and his ilk broke these unwritten rules by trying to refine flatulence into something to be appreciated. In a particularly nauseating video showing Mr Methane’s Britain’s Got Talent audition, he brazenly declares to Simon Cowell that he is ‘putting the art into fart.’ The problem with all this is that it sidesteps everything that makes the things funny: all the awkwardness, surprise and denial which surrounds them. This rather disgusting train of thought should probably be concluded with a limerick. Here’s one by somebody called Suzanne Parry that I found in The Independent.
Dear Ruth, to you I’ll explain
What means the word “petomane”.
It’s a term rather smarter
Than “trumper” or “farter”
But, sadly, it smells just the same.