Everyone remembers those fun rhyming songs from the playground that were silly and almost wrong to say in front of adults. Like “Ms. Susie Had a Steamboat” and that part when she, wait, was it sat on a piece of glass? It’s funny to think that many of us have these songs stored away in our own childhood minds.
In Poetry's Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children's Poetry by Dr. Joseph T. Thomas, the idea arises that potty words are so much more than that—begging the question: where does The Adventures of Captain Underpants lie in all this?
In his prologue, Thomas discusses the ideas of laughter in reference to Bakhtin’s theories behind what makes Carnival so magical. He states that there are two types of laughter. One type would represent the lying, fake, and deceiving laughter that is tied to judgment, done out of fear or habit. The other type would be this free spirit and not-judged laughter that is allowed in this exclusive space of Carnival (11).
Going back to those fun yet “gross” playground rhymes that children sing only to one another links a mechanism to avoid punishment from the adults—a space where laughter can really be seen as the childhood experience suppressed and hidden away from the adult world. Since free laughter, or “carnival laughter,” comes in when ideological forces are at bay, it creates its own images and symbols away from the rational and structured “real” world (11). However, this idea of free laughter is restricted to spaces where everyone enjoys a sense of non-judgment, which is perhaps what makes the child reader so curious and enthralled by The Adventures of Captain Underpants.
Written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey, The Adventures of Captain Underpants is a series about two fourth graders that live in a very Carnivalesque world, filled with words like poopie pants, great granny girdle, and turbo toilet. Here it appears that there is a sort of satire that exists in a place where kids are encouraged to read and are also allowed to read “naughty” things that shouldn’t be said in the adult world.
But, as Bakhtin brings up, satirical laughter might actually have negative connotations that come along with it (12). Since children express themselves and learn to read through these funny words, they must still learn when and where adults will find these potty topics appropriate and when not. Children, perhaps unknowing of what they are really saying, will experience a time where they may say, “You’re a poopie pants,” in the wrong place and feel an embarrassment that comes with it. Here is where a satirical laughter is used—a way that allows passage into the “mature world.” So then Professor Pippy P. Poopypants can adultly be equated to those who brown nose to get people to do what they want—adult appropriate humor.
When we really think about it, containing the Carnivalesque to a space of free expression only allowed at Halloween, Marti Gras, Pride, and Disneyland, suggests that adults feel compelled to still experience things that are deemed childish and grotesque. Like The Adventures of Captain Underpants, these children’s playground rhymes may display grossness, but on the other hand, seem to be a symbol of free expression before judgment and suppression take over that adults swoon over.
Poetry's Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children's Poetry. Wayne State University Press: Landscapes of Childhood Series, 2007.