The Pope, Pamela Anderson and President Bush all share one important trait - they fart. A typical man between 25 and 35 years of age averages 13 farts a day. Some consider it 'disgusting' or 'gross', but to others a loud dose of intestinal gas is impressive. In Medieval times, men who couldn't pass a ripping bubble of gut wind were called weaklings. Sissies. There's even a German word, "pimpf," which means "one who cannot produce a good manly pumpf (fart)." If a time-traveling knight visiting Paris of 1892 saw Joseph Pujol at the Moulin Rouge nightclub, he would declare this man the manliest man alive. (He would also probably have a time-travelling Delorean that runs on garbage and a hyper-intelligent robot cockatoo, but that's another story.) Joseph Pujol was a colorful Frenchman who, under the stage name "Le Petomane" (which sort of translates into 'The Fartiste'), became one of the most celebrated entertainers of the late 19th century farting his way to fame and riches- only to die a forgotten humble baker in the aftermath of World War II.
Le Petomane was unique. He exercised deft control over the muscles in his abdomen and sphincter in order to break wind at will, and--most impressively--in musical notes. His celebrated anal act consisted mainly of songs and impressions. He could only produce four tones naturally (do, re, mi and the octave do), but augmented his talents by using a flute affixed to an enema tube. Le Petomane's "piece d' resistance," however, came from smoking a cigarette and extinguishing a candle--all with the power of his his turbulent ass.
At his peak, this anal entertainer won sellout crowds at Paris' renowned Moulin Rouge, with his appearances outgrossing top performers like actress Sarah Bernhardt several times over. His live shows were so explosive; it was common for tightly corseted women in the audience to feint from fits of laughter. Like B-Movie King, William Castle ('The Tingler') the club's management generated publicity by stationing nurses to help those who keeled over from yukking it up. One man in the audience is rumored to have died of a heart attack he laughed so hard.
Pujol's talents were first a mild diversion among friends. In 1871, the Prussian army marched into Paris forcing the French to hand over their eastern provinces. Five years later, a young Pujol would delight his bored army buddies with a 'talent' he discovered as a young boy: the uncanny ability to hold in, and expel, water from his sphincter. Apparently with not much else to do, his friends convinced him to try the same trick with air and to regulate its pitch. The eager soldiers crowned him 'Le Petomane'. But like many performers, Pujol began his professional life by falling back on his "safety"--i.e. inheriting the family baking business. All the while, a dreaming Pujol continues to work up a farting routine in private--until the performing bug finally gets the better of him and he unleashed his golden sphincter. After farting around the provinces for a few years, he decided to take his act to the Big City. A meteoric rise to fame followed.
In 1892, Paris was the cultural capital of the world. Composers, painters and poets flourished within this land of hard, crusty bread and ripe, stinky cheese. Imagine Debussy scrawling notations for his composition The Afternoon of a Fawn; Cézanne, still unknown, mastering the shape of apples and pears; and Nicole Kidman dancing to "All You Need is Love" on an over-designed stage.
Alas, the question lingered: was Paris ready for The Fartiste? Would this city of lights, with every attraction available to the civilized world--the opera, theater, haute couture, and the world's greatest galleries--take to a man whose talents rose boldly from his posterior? Would the jaded, cosmopolitan Parisians reject Le Petomane, or would his act be the breath of "fresh air" they needed?
Whatever doubts Pujol had, there was no question where he would go upon first arriving in Gay Paree. The Moulin Rouge was a world famous vaudeville theater, and to grace its stage was the pinnacle of showbiz success for any cabaret performer. To Le Petomane, a simple country man, it was the "dream of his life," according to a memoir by his oldest son, Louis. Upon first seeing the decorative windmill which adorned this majestic theatre, Pujol is said to have remarked, "The sails of the Moulin Rouge- What a marvelous fan for my number!"
Brimming with confidence, Le Petomane waltzed into the offices of the theatre's manager, Oller. He swept aside the protests of secretaries and said, "I am Le Petomane and I want an engagement at your establishment. You see sir; my anus is of such elasticity that I can open and shut it at will.... I can absorb any quantity of liquid I may be given...[and] I can expel an almost infinite quantity of odorless gas." Pujol then performed a small piece of his act.
Oller was impressed with Pujol's forthright manner and natural gifts. He responded, "We'll see this very evening how your act goes down with our public. Let's see if it's as funny as you claim." Oller didn't realize he was in the presence of a star about to go supernova all over Europe.
That night, in the outdoor patio area known as "The Elephant" (due to a gigantic elephant statue off to the side), throngs of theatergoers sat at their tables in wrought-iron chairs unaware of the entertainment they were about to see. Was it a surprise engagement by Yvette Guilbert or Jane Avril, popular singers and dancers immortalized in posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec? Was it a swarthy Italian, boasting an exotic organ grinding routine direct from Florence? Or perhaps Hal Hollbrook in his critically acclaimed one-man tribute to Mark Twain?
Besides a few photos, a few seconds of silent film shot in 1900, and a rumored wax cylinder of his rump toots, there is not much physical evidence of Pujol's act. But it did impress a lot of people, and they couldn't stop raving about it in the choice medium of the day - paper.
According to witnesses, the Anal Artist appeared clad in a red coat with a silk collar, black satin breeches with matching stockings and patent leather pumps. Around his neck he wore a white butterfly tie and held foppishly white gloves. At that moment, no one present could have known that Pujol's act was even more outrageous than his costume. Such a stuffy outfit, coupled with Pujol's deadpan delivery, must have created an odd comic dissonance that would have struck anyone in the audience as ridiculous.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I have the honor to present a session of Petomanie. The word Petomanie means someone who can break wind at will, but don't let your nose worry you. My parents ruined themselves scenting my rectum."
In truth, Pujol gave himself an enema every morning so that his act did not produce foul odors. He need not have worried, as his gas was produced not by the digestive process, but from his magical ability to 'inhale' through his buttocks.
And so Le Petomane began the show with a series of "impersonations" Yes, Pujol's asshole was the French equivalent of a modern-day Rich Little. Zealously, he would recreate the farts of a little girl, a mother-in-law, a bride on her wedding night (a small, tight squeak) and the same bride on morning after (a loud, juicy roar). In addition to domestic gas, Le Petomane also produced "occupational" farts: a mason's was, "dry - no cement", and a dressmaker's went on for a full 10 seconds, capturing the sound of ripping fabric perfectly. Pujol even did cannon fire ("Gunners stand by your guns! Ready fire!"), thunder, and many others.
Le Petomane then delicately stepped backstage and inserted a yard-long enema tube up his bung. Huffing and puffing, he would smoke an entire cigarette, then release all the smoke in one colonic poof. Then, with a small flute affixed to the end of the tube, Pujol played an instrumental version of Au Claire de la Lune. For his grand finale, Le Petomane blew out several gas jets in the footlights and led the audience in a jubilant sing-along.
From the moment Pujol began his set, the audience had begun to titter. By the time he had finished they had been applauding, falling in the aisles, and laughing till they cried. Theatre director Oller, realizing the Fartiste was a sensation, immediately offered Pujol a contract which bound him in Paris to the Moulin Rouge for several years.
Feeling secure that he had "made it," Pujol moved his large family to Paris. He housed them in a turreted chalet at Saint Maur des Fosses and hired servants. As word got around town, Le Petomane was recognized wherever he went. As he rode down the street in his carriage, Pujol would greet astonished gazes and salutes with his trademarked toot.
Le Petomane's ass wasn't the only thing booming at the Moulin Rouge. Business was good, customers and money were pouring in, and the management loved it. Before Le Petomane hit Paris, the Moulin Rouge's biggest act was Sarah Bernhardt, a well-respected actress and the toast of world theatre. An average performance by Bernhardt earned about 8000 francs, a fine success. But Pujol's antics blew the lid off of that number. One Sunday matinee, Le Petomane brought in a hefty 20,000 francs to the Moulin Rouge box office, assuring Oller he had the number one attraction in all of Paris. Pujol was the Madonna, Weird Al and the Adam Sandler of his time wrapped together in the butt stew of repression that characterized the era.
In addition to entertaining at the Moulin Rouge, Le Petomane gave private, men-only performances. During formal engagements, a cape decorously covered Pujol's bare bottom. So, in order to quash naysayers who doubted his authenticity, Pujol's private show displayed him in a bathing suit with a large hole in the back showing off the most expensive piece of ass in France.
After repeating his traditional act, Le Petomane would lower himself into a 2 liter basin of water with a stunt we might call "Waiting To Ass-hale." Pujol would suck the water into his rectal cavity and then release it all with great force--better than any fountain at Versailles. At that point, any Doubting Thomases would have to eat their words.
After one of these private performances a man dressed in formal clothes, with a bowler and monocle gave Pujol a 20-franc gold piece. Keep in mind: 20 francs in the late 1890s was probably a month's salary for an average worker. Le Petomane, shocked, said, "Thank you, sir, but what change shall I give you?"
To which the monocled man replied, "Keep it all. I am King of the Belgians."
King Leopold II had traveled to Paris incognito to see the phenomenon of Petomanie with his own eyes. Recognizing the surprised expression of Pujol, who now knew he'd spent a great deal of time farting in front of royalty, Leopold whispered in confidence:
"I know you've recently been in Brussels and my countrymen loved you and laughed a lot. You must understand that in Brussels my movements are watched and if I had been privately to see Le Petomane in Belgium, what people would think! So I had to come here secretly, to congratulate you myself."
Even luminaries like Sigmund Freud would come to Pujol's shows. As late as 1938, Freud would point to a portrait of the great performer in his office and talk of how he formed some of his ideas about anal fixation from these shows.
But as anyone who has seen cable television in the past few years knows, with fame comes a downside. A dark and smelly underbelly. High on his flatulent horse, Pujol will break his contract with the biggest theatre in France, get dragged through court multiple times, form his own theatre company and watch it fail when two of his sons are paralyzed in the muddy trenches of the Great War. Ooze, like any media outlet (*ahem VH1*) will take any fact and make it even more desperate seeming to have you people keep viewing our ads.
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Pujol, bound by an ironclad contract with his boss, made a terrible mistake. In 1894, he visited a friend of his who sold gingerbread, and did some Petomane tricks right there to attract business. An enraged Oller brought suit against Pujol over the 'gingerbread incident' and won 3000 Francs and the enmity of his biggest act.
An embittered Pujol broke his contract again to leave the Moulin Rouge and start the Theatre Pompadour in 1895. Oller immediately put up a competing act called the "Woman Petomane". Pujol was incensed and used part of his new riches to bring a lawsuit against his former employers for plagiarism. But critics panned the "Woman Petomane" act so harshly, in a Byzantine twist, the actress sued a newspaper for libel. However, it was revealed in court that the actress did not have a similar anal talent to Le Petomane. She hid a bellows under her skirt that 'farted' when she squeezed it with her legs! Satisfied with the resulting humiliation, Pujol dropped his suit.
Pujol's new Theatre Pompadour was never a big success. He added mime and magic acts performed by Pujol's family to his farting routine. Instead of his spicier humor, Le Petomane changed his act into a woodland poem punctuated with his signature imitations of the animals in it. Paris still went in for the novelty of this bizarre act, but his audience began to wane starting in 1900.
The final blow came in 1914 when four of Pujol's sons went off to fight in the lice infested French trenches of World War I. Pujol had to close the theatre. Apparently people didn't want to see a humorous farting show when people were dying on the battlefield from gas of a very lethal nature. Waiting out the war, Pujol's once tight family was rocked when the notoriously unfunny Germans took one son prisoner, and wounded two others who became invalids. After the war, the remnants of the Pujol family left show business forever to run bakeries in the provinces.
As the years wore on, less and less people remembered Le Petomane's great feats of colonic wonder. In the aftermath of World War II, Le Petomane let a final one rip in 1945 before heading to the Great Gas Chamber in the Sky. One curious medical school offered the family 25,000 francs to be allowed to examine his body, but not one of his children agreed out of respect to this once great man who wowed the world.
Despite America's love for "South Park," the WWF, and all things outrageous, the talents of Le Petomane are largely unrecognized today by American Pop Culture. His volcanic musical revolution pre-dates rock and roll rebellion by more than 50 years, yet traces of his work still remain. Don't entertainers like Spike Jones, "Weird Al" Yankovic and Bobby McFerrin all owe a debt to the man who pioneered "organic" funny music, without the aid of a voice box?
Pop culture HASN'T come as far as you think. The questions, "What is talent? ", "How do you define music?" and "How do I insert and play my very own butt horn?" were being tackled by the literary elite 100 years ago in France. Surely, Joseph Pujol knew that his music emanated, if not from the soul, than from an even deeper place within.
OTHER POSSIBLE TITLES FOR THIS EXCITING ARTICLE:
Le Petomane: The Man Who Made Music From His Ass
Le Petomane: Rock And Roll Rectum
Le Petomane: Muy Caliente!
Le Petomane: The Incredible Farting Frenchman of the 19th Century
OTHER (MORE BALANCED) SOURCES:
Le Petomane: Fin-de-Siècle Fartiste (USA, 1998, 56min) A nice film.
Le Petomane (Nohain) a rare, but fascinating biography co-written by Pujol's grandson.