Friday, June 1, 2012

The man who put the "f" in art

Today we celebrate the 155th birthday of Joseph Pujol, the extraordinary Frenchman who made a fine living as a professional flatulist. His stage name, Le Petomane, comes from the combination of the French verb "to fart" and the suffix for "maniac." Yes, that's right: He made up to 20,000 francs per show by pooting.

At the height of his popularity (roughly 1890 to 1910), he could recreate cannon fire and earthquakes, render all the sounds from a barnyard full of animals or play "O Sole Mio" and "La Marseillaise" on an ocarina, through a rubber tube inserted -- well, you get the idea. He did this not simply by breaking wind but by "inhaling" air into his derriere and then expelling it again at will, modulating pitch and duration.

Nor was he alone. He had imitators at the time, including Edgar Grootna (who posthumously lent his last name to a 1970s rock band), and has had some since: Mr. Methane paid homage to him on "Britain's Got Talent" a few years back, before unreceptive judges and a stunned audience. But Pujol stood at the pinnacle of his profession. His "nom de boom" endures today: Mel Brooks played Governor Lepetomane in "Blazing Saddles," and Pujol appears as a character in Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!"

Random thoughts about this astonishing man, whose biography can be found at

1) On some level, this explains why the French love Jerry Lewis.

2) A combination of true uniqueness and self-promotion (plus willingness to endure initial abuse) always pays off in show business. Pujol was still popular when the devastation of World War I forced him into retirement, and he resumed his first career as a baker. But the uniqueness is crucial: Does anyone imagine we'll be talking about Britney Spears or the Kardashians after 27 years?

3) His concerts were attended by high and low: Edward, Prince of Wales and Sigmund Freud were among the celebrities who saw him perform. One of the definitions of a great artist is someone who takes a universal idea or action and shows it to us in a different light. On that scale, Pujol was great indeed.


Anonymous said...

This column is nothing to sniff at.