The Frenchman Whose Art Was a Total Gas

The Frenchman Whose Art Was a Total Gas
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Why you should care

Because Pujol did with his ass what Bronx DJs did with turntables: Made it his own, brought down the house.

It was 1894. Joseph Pujol was raking in a kingly sum performing at the Moulin Rouge (one source says 20,000 francs a day, which could translate to $104,000 in today’s money), but he wanted a raise. He also wanted the club to quit threatening to sue him for breach of contract. No dice on either demand, so he founded his own company, leaving behind the most coveted performance spot in Paris. It was like Kobe Bryant quitting the NBA in a contract-negotiation huff and doing a cross-country tour of his dunking skills in his SUV.

But Joseph Pujol didn’t play basketball. He was more of a musician. Definitely a comedian — medics stood by at the Moulin Rouge to aid patrons felled by hysterical laughter. Pujol was a flatulist. No, not a flautist. He got on stage and farted.

We’re not talking about the simple passing of gas. Pujol played the French national anthem and did animal-sound impersonations. He shot pellets through a pea shooter — all with his anus. Jim Dawson, the author of three books about the history of farts, says people have grown jaded because “flatulence is everywhere,” but the absurdity of a person who made a stage career in farting once had the power to captivate.

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An advertisement for Joseph Pujol’s performances.

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There was nothing abnormal about Pujol’s body. Many doctors examined him at various points. This was merely his grand talent, and for a time, a raison d’être. Pujol first figured out what he could do as a little boy visiting the beach, when he’d take in water through his rectum and then expel it at will. He honed his skill through an unorthodox use of muscles, using his stomach as a bellows to force air out of his rectum while controlling the tone and vibrato with his sphincter. For audiences across Europe, Le Pétomane (“Fartomaniac”) was a revelation.

But as anyone with a little brother knows, farting isn’t funny forever. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the audiences who got bored — they could never get enough of Le Pétomane smoking cigarettes with not-his-mouth. It was the artist himself who seems to have wanted something more. “To me, it’s the story of every comedian,” says Michael Roberts, who wrote the score for The Fartiste, an off-Broadway musical about Pujol. He points to Steve Martin, who “started out doing any kind of crazy shit to get you to laugh” but matured into “a very serious guy with a very serious novel and a very serious Broadway play.” When the silliest guys become successful, Roberts says, “they want to be taken seriously.”

Pujol also wanted to be his own boss. “Maybe I’ll fart less loudly, but I shall be free,” Pujol reportedly said of his plan to create Theatre Pompadour, his traveling theater — for which the Moulin Rouge successfully sued him for about $600 over a broken contract. He sued them back for stealing his act when they premiered one exactly like Le Pétomane’s. When that performer turned out to be a fraud (she used a bellows beneath her skirt), the case never went to court. Pujol was as free as — oh, yes — the wind, and he pulled in steady crowds until World War I. At that point, his act petered out, and he became a baker. Decades later, upon his passing, there was an offer of about $5,000 to study Pujol’s famous anus, which his sons declined.

Others have followed in Pujol’s footsteps, including a modern performance artist who goes by Mr. Methane. Le Pétomane is the subject of two films and a documentary. An off-Broadway musical used a mouth artist to mimic Pujol’s anal stylings and imagined a fictional “Concerto for Wind” that Pujol might have written as serious art. (“Probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing,” Roberts says.) Le Pétomane was an artist who operated on his own terms — and worked his way up from the bottom. What a gas.

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