The trailer for the new Vacation movie was released last week, and one particular sight gag has drawn the attention of the internet: in one part of the clip, we see Chris Hemsworth standing in his underwear making conversation with a bewildered Ed Helms, his giant ding dong snaking down the leg of his boxer briefs like some kind of misplaced pool noodle.
Internet people have made comparisons between Hemsworth's penis in this scene and Mark Wahlberg's in Boogie Nights. But this is obviously wrong. Wahlberg's dick was a tragic character, the kind of dick that shows up at your house at 10 PM on a Tuesday to ask for a loan. Hemsworth's dick, meanwhile, is all sunshine and good times, like a Golden Retriever bounding over a green lawn after a tennis ball. You look at Chris Hemsworth's penis and just can't help but smile.
But it begs the question, ("it" being Chris Hemsworth's enormous member): What's so funny about dicks? Why would the very fact of a big dong be cause for laughter? As opposed to female genitals, penises seem always to be trotted out for comedic effect in films. A lot of junior high-level jokes, and your more sophisticated sex limericks, tend to revolve around the penis. Even ancient Pompeii had graffiti about dicks. So what's the deal?
Patriarchy, of course, is to blame for no small part of the weirdness. Historically speaking, men have been the architects of standard cultural response to, well, everything, including what's funny, and so men probably came to a consensus that their own junk is an occasion for giggles while vaginas should be relegated to the more serious business of procreation and pleasure. In short, dick jokes reinforce homosocial norms. They take the power that maleness confers within patriarchy for granted. On one level, men laugh at dick jokes as if to say "I have a penis. You have a penis, too? Isn't it nice to have a penis, and all that comes with it?" The dick becomes a coded object; if you're in on the joke, then you're on the inside of a powerful club.
It's also hard to deny that on a very basic human level, penises are just sort of funny. They flop around like a dog's ear and sometimes shrivel up in the cold like a cartoon snail. They seem to be always popping up at the wrong time and other times don't work when they're supposed to. They're a bit like a clown's big shoes or a rubber chicken, in that they generally just take up space in an unwieldy, unexpected way.
And dick jokes aren't really as low-brow as all that, either. Penises are usually more the subject of comedy of error or faux pas than slapstick. One is embarrassed by a dick, not grossed out. Good dick jokes work more on the level of a waiter accidentally dropping his pen in your teacup than a fat guy tripping over a coffee table.
If it had been socially acceptable at the time he was working, Oscar Wilde could have written the hell out of a dick joke. Both Shakespeare and Chaucer did, a lot. But probably the best dick joke ever was in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Here, we see a long, protracted scene with conventional dialogue, but with a big ol' dick just hanging out in the background. This dick joke works better than most, because it highlights their awkwardness. Penises are funny mostly because, in spite of what they signify, there is no real place for them in this world, and yet there they are.
It's hard to find fault with Chris Hemsworth and his giant member. It's about as threatening as a sunflower. But this may be the right cultural moment to give dick jokes, as a comedic sub-genre, a long, hard look. (See what I did there? Okay, I’m sorry.)
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