No. 2 is topic No. 1
A new era in potty talk has dawned

MATT EHLERS, Staff Writer

It's primal enough to precede our knuckle-dragging days, so much so that the very first cell of the very first whatever probably did this first, just after its first meal.

Yet we never really spoke of it publicly.

But after eons of being camouflaged by lit matches, No. 2 has finally stepped out as a conversation topic. It has been the subject of a song on TV's "Scrubs" and multiple discussions on "Oprah."

More adults are embracing potty jokes. Check out this sample line from that musical episode of "Scrubs": "It may sound gross/you may say shush/but we need to see what comes out of your tush."

Toss in a couple of new books that include bonafide scientific and historical info, and we are living in the golden age -- and shamelessly so -- of poo.

All this attention differs from our traditional view of the sit-down, described this way by Dr. Anish Sheth, a gastroenterology fellow at Yale University: "Everybody knows that the next person is doing it, but nobody wants to talk about it."

Sheth is co-author of the new book, "What's Your Poo Telling You?" which describes in detail the different styles of end matter and the factors that lead to them.

Pairing humor with medical information, the book straddles a line between a joke book and textbook. It trades on the idea that poo is intrinsically funny, likening it to snowflakes. Each one is unique.

"We tried to capture some of the emotion or the underlying themes," Sheth says, "and not really make it a dictionary of poo, so to speak."

Poo has underlying themes?

"Oh, they're many-fold."

So Sheth, who co-wrote the book with old friend Josh Richman, included a piece on "poo-phoria," described as a post-poo "sense of euphoria and ecstasy that you feel throughout your body."

In researching the book, Sheth came across a number of pop culture references to his subject, and the book's Web site, drstool.com, contains links to the "Scrubs" musical and clips from appearances by Mr. Hankey, the talking poo from "South Park."

When the subject comes up on "Oprah," it is generally within episodes regarding medical questions. "Scrubs," which is set in a hospital, included the song during an episode that revolved around a patient's strange illness. In these contexts, poo talk is "emblematic of society in general wanting to know more about health," Sheth says.

He credits the proliferation of information with loosening some of our bathroom-issue hang-ups.

It's what we do

Before the Internet, there wasn't a lot of back and forth between doctors and patients. Now patients come to appointments armed with all sorts of information, which includes the lowdown on poo.

Dave Praeger wrote the new book, "Poop Culture: How America Is Shaped By Its Grossest National Product," and is the man behind poopreport.com, where users share their bathroom experiences.

He agrees with Sheth that the spread of information has influenced the way we discuss what goes on in the bathroom. If you're an author or a columnist, nearly everything you could write about has already been written. So people are turning to esoteric and the taboo, like poo.

He studies this subject from an academic viewpoint. When asked to describe "Poop Culture," Praeger said the book was about "the ideological origins of the toilet, and how those origins still influence us to this very day."

That's not to say he doesn't see its humor. A publicity campaign for his book included appearances with a comedian who told bathroom stories.

So why is poop funny?

"Poop is simultaneously you and not you. It's part of you, but it's also other. Do you treat it as an extension of your body? Or something that used to be?

"It's in such a confused place in society."

He's not the only one who has given a lot of thought to the humor of the scatological sort. Gene Weingarten, a writer for The Washington Post whose humor column also appears in The News & Observer, has been known to riff on what we flush.

Paraphrasing humorist Dave Barry, Weingarten says a sense of humor can be measured by the extent that one realizes we're trapped in a world almost devoid of reason. This is terrifying to us.

"Poop is funny because the central engine of humor, in general, is fear," he says. "I don't want to sound pompous here, but I've simply thought about this an awful lot."

Ahead of his time

Humans like to believe they're an exalted species, Weingarten says, on a higher plane than the other beasts of the field. Yet, we have to do this ridiculous thing. So everything about it becomes funny.

"It's a way we contain some elemental fears," he explains. "That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Because simply to say 'poop is funny' suggests one might be an adolescent."

Weingarten is 55.

He doesn't give much credence to the idea that a cultural spotlight has been shone on poo. He points out that his book, "The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death," was published in 1998 and included an entire chapter on poop and half a chapter on passing gas. He dismisses more recent published works as produced by "Johnny-come-latelys."

But he appreciates the opportunity to comment on the state of poop.

"I want to be recognized for all my important work in this area."



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