It was one of those scenes a showrunner takes great care to get just right.
The script called for “My Name Is Earl’s” Jaime Pressly to insert her comically enlarged big toe — a gangrenous-looking, tomato-sized piece of latex introduced as being a horribly infected appendage just several scenes earlier — firmly into the mouth of her co-star.
Like other visual creatives working in the San Fernando Valley that hot summer day, series creator and exec producer Gregory Thomas Garcia was, er, seeking to maximize the effect.
“Whoa, whoa!” he recalls shouting from behind the camera. “She’s got to really shove that thing in her mouth.”
For the “Earl” scribe staff, and many of their brethren on other primetime series these days, such questionable taste is a good thing.
“People like gross shit,” says Garcia, who in another recent episode, fitted guest star Jenna Elfman with an oozing, disfigured eye (the result of a badger attack). “People are drawn to it. It’s shocking. It’s fun to watch.”
Garcia dismisses the notion that getting grody to the max is a brand new comedy tool, citing such examples as John Belushi spitting food all over a co-ed in “Animal House” and Cameron Diaz sporting, er, organic hair gel in “There’s Something About Mary.”
Of course, those examples are in feature films. And while gross didn’t just make its broadcast premiere this season — “The X-Files,” for one, had plenty of explosive boils and flesh-disolving malodies in its day, while reality skeins like “Fear Factor” have often touted the protein benefits of insects — Garcia concedes that the repugnant may be more proliferate across the primetime spectrum than ever.
It’s not just single-cam comedies like “Earl” and “The Office,” which recently featured a vending machine full of fly-infested rotten fruit and veggies (series co-star Rainn Wilson supplied the coup de grace to this scene by dousing the whole thing with bug spray).
Or FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which showed the slacker gang trying to glue pubic hair to the face of a homeless man.
Or the premiere episode of new CBS comedy “The Ex List,” where series star Elizabeth Reaser uses a possibly cancerous skin growth (never actually shown) to ward off unwanted suitors.
Indeed, the yuck factor can be used for more than just yuks.
In the second episode of Fox’s rookie sci-fi hourlong “Fringe,” for example, the eyeball of a cadaver dangled freely from a corpse, the producers creatively working it into the background of several scenes.
And on FX’s new biker drama “Sons of Anarchy” producers aren’t squeamish about showing just how ruthless the eponymous “motorcycle club” really is. One recent scene featured the gang castrating a carnival worker accused of rape (although they did stop short of showing the actual deed).
Another scene had the bikers removing the club tattoo of an ousted member with a blowtorch (brief 20- to 30-frame bits of the third-degree burning are interspersed with the reactions of the perpetrators).
“Anarchy” creator and exec producer Kurt Sutter cut his teeth on such graphic violence while working on FX’s first original series, “The Shield,” which he says “proved you could go to those dark places and people would be willing to ride with you.”
Scenes like these, he explains, are only included if it’s believed that they advance the story. In the case of “Anarchy,” he says, the hardcore elements establish the ruthlessness of gang leader Clay Morrow (played by Ron Perlman) while simultaneously illustrating the growing unease with life choices being experienced by club No. 2 Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam).
“No matter how graphic or outlandish it might be, it always comes out of character,” Sutter says.
He adds that scenes like these are carefully worked through with the network, both in script and edit phases, to address possible viewer and advertiser skittishness.
Garcia says he pays careful attention to network notes about such scenes, too. But with the effect of many gags not fully realized until after they’re shot, vetting can be an imperfect process.
“It’s kind of hit and miss,” he says with a hint of playful jest. “Sometimes I’ll get a note that says, ‘Eww, does he have to swallow a bug?’ But we just shoved an infected toe into a woman’s mouth, and I don’t think we even got a note on that one. It’s tough to tell what the standards are.”