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A Cultural History of the Plumber’s Crack

The ultimate low-down on those down-low jeans

A comedy staple like slipping on a banana peel or getting a pie in the face, the old plumber’s crack image is something that seems to have been around forever. Yet, over the past week I’ve been scouring the internet for plumber’s ass cracks — digging deep, deep into that crease to see just how far back the old gag goes — and I can’t seem to find anything that satisfies me in terms of an actual origin.

Perhaps it’s just my bad luck with plumbing-related topics. When looking into the puffy toilet seat, I found its origins surprisingly mysterious, and when I wanted to interview plumbers about Super Mario’s retirement from their profession, I was met with dozens of rejections until I ultimately determined that most plumbers don’t give a shit about Mario. As for the plumber’s crack itself, the farthest back things seem to go is 1978, a mere 40 years ago, but the joke has to be older than that, right? After all, Americans have had bathrooms since the 1910s, and butts themselves are just inherently funny, so I refuse to accept the idea that the plumber’s butt gag isn’t older than 1978. It just doesn’t make sense.

Now, I have found numerous older examples of butt cleavage throughout the ages, but generally, that’s been sexual and/or artistic, as opposed to funny. There’s the ancient Greek statue Venus de Milo, which has a bit of alluring butt cleavage in the rear. There’s also the work of French painter and photographer Julien Vallou de Villeneuve, who features butt cleavage in some of his work, and sometimes more. There are also literary examples of it being viewed in a sexual manner.

There’s also plenty of butt crack humor before 1978, especially in cartoons. You can find butt cracks in Tom and Jerry and even in notoriously conservative Disney cartoons, like Donald Duck. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio have some bum-related gags in them, too. One of the most enduring examples of butt-crack jokes comes from the Coppertone logo, which features a little girl getting her bathing suit pulled down by a dog. The logo — which started in the 1950s — was certainly created to be cute, though it does seem creepily sexualized in a modern context, which is likely why they changed it in recent years

Moving ahead to 1978 — the year I mentioned earlier — there’s finally a clear cut example of the plumber’s crack joke on an episode of Saturday Night Live. The sketch stars Gilda Radner and Bill Murray as their “nerd” characters, Jane Curtain as Gilda’s mother and Dan Aykroyd as the refrigerator repairman, who features a prominent plumber’s crack that Murray and Radner delight in making fun of. Aykroyd also caps off the joke by sneakily placing a pencil in his butt crack, something the censors explicitly told him not to do. 

While I don’t personally believe that SNL originated the plumber’s crack joke, that doesn’t make this sketch any less significant. The piece is badly dated now — I don’t know about you, but I didn’t even (plumber’s) crack a smile from it — but it helps to put it in the context of the day. For one, in its first five years, Saturday Night Live was more popular than it would ever be again — back then, SNL was a brand new kind of show and a brand new kind of humor. Its cast members (Murray, Radner, Akyroyd et al) were superstars

Part of the appeal of SNL was the unpredictability that came from a live show regularly pushing the envelope, and while that sketch seems pretty tame today, back then it was downright groundbreaking. As Rolling Stone wrote in 2014, “‘The censor said, ‘Don’t put that pencil in there,’ Dan Aykroyd says in Live From New York, recalling a sketch that racily revealed some male posterior on network TV years before David Caruso.” Aykroyd continued, saying, “‘I was checking this fridge and I had [to] put the pencil somewhere. ‘Don’t put the pencil there!’ And of course I said I wouldn’t, but then on the air, I did. And you know — massive laugh.’” Because of this huge reaction, the sketch has proven to be one of the show’s most enduring of all time — e.g., Rolling Stone ranked it number 34 in its list of the 50 greatest SNL sketches ever.

I grew up in the Chris Farley era when there were ass cracks aplenty, but at the time this was one of the dirtiest things to ever appear on TV, done by TV’s biggest stars, so while it may not carry today, the sketch is nevertheless nothing short of monumental, and Aykroyd’s ass crack should get the reverence it deserves. 

For the next decade or so, the plumber’s crack joke didn’t seem to appear all that much, perhaps because it was still a bit too vulgar for TV, though it did show up on a 1987 episode of Married… with Children. In the 1990s, however, the joke reached its zenith, with ass cracks suddenly everywhere. It’s hard to say exactly why this was the case, but it’s interesting to note that the phrase “plumber’s butt” seems to first appear in print in 1988 in Brian Bosworth’s autobiography The Boz, while “plumber’s crack” seems to originate in print in 1991 in an issue of Cincinnati Magazine. In both cases, it’s clear this is already a well-established trope. While I found a couple of earlier examples, this is pretty close to when says the phrase originated — 1992. Additionally, the British equivalent of this term — “builder’s bum” — seems to have come about at around the same time, as puts its origins at 1988, though I did find one example from 1987.  

To be honest, I don’t think plumber’s cracks were suddenly everywhere in the 1990s just because we finally put a name to them. Instead, I’m guessing it has a bit more to do with The Simpsons, which would make cartoon asses mainstream starting in 1988, thanks to their first bit of nudity on The Tracey Ullman Show (the series proper would premiere the next year).

Butt cracks didn’t just show up on adult cartoons, either. When Nickelodeon launched its Nicktoons in the early 1990s, while Doug was busy being the first mainstream sadboi, Ren and Stimpy were busy getting their asses out. Soon after those shows premiered came Rocko’s Modern Life, which featured possibly the most memorable example ever of the plumber’s crack joke for any 1990s kid. 

I reached out to Carlos Alazraqui — the voice of Rocko — about that classic moment, who had this to say about it and about the plumber’s crack joke in general: “You can’t go wrong with a classic gag, and the plumber joke has been around forever — it’s like vaudeville. As for Rocko, it works for him because his character plays it straight — he never tries to add to the existing comedy — he just experiences life as it comes.”

Live-action 1990s TV and movies got in on the joke, too, with the plumber’s crack being referenced in Happy Gilmore, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and strangely enough, playing a major role in an episode of The X-Files (Mulder figures out that a shapeshifting plumber with sagging pants has been raping and impregnating women in a small town and — as a result — they give birth to babies with tails). So yeah, in case you didn’t experience the 1990s quite the same way I did, they were chock-full of ass cracks (and overall, they were just plain weird).

After the 1990s, the plumber’s crack joke would carry on in stuff like Ted 2, and appropriately enough, a few plumbing commercials, but it doesn’t seem to have quite the cachet it did back in the 1990s. Perhaps it was simply — pun intended — overexposed during that influential decade, and since then it’s settled into its present role: a familiar (and predictable) comedy standby.

As for how plumbers themselves feel about the joke, well, that varies. Back when I did my Mario piece, one plumber called the joke a “bad stereotype” and similarly, The Washington Post interviewed a plumber who seemed rather bent out of shape about it. However, Doug Peterman, a third-generation plumber with Peterman Heating, Cooling & Plumbing, says “it’s kind of a trademark” and that he’s fine with it. Todd, a commercial plumber from northwest New Jersey, adds, “I’m not offended by it in any way. I actually think it’s still kind of amusing and still get a chuckle out of it. Also, if you see plumber’s crack on the job site, there will be no doubt someone who will try to throw something into it.” 

In the trade, it seems like the objective of throwing something into the crack or “playing nickel slots” is fairly common, as this series of interviews with plumbers recounts:

I guess due to the nature of the work — manual labor being done by a dude who has to bend over — the plumber’s crack is a fairly common workplace hazard, which is likely why the joke has become such a staple: It’s true. Unless a plumber is wearing some sort of coverall, the nature of his job may indeed run the risk of crack exposure. 

Fortunately there are options for those surly plumbers who find it to be a bad stereotype, and even the good-natured ones who maybe don’t want their ass crack to end up with a nickel in it. There is, for example, this underwear or these ones, both of which promise to keep the waistband in place. There’s also this thing, which is kind of like a tube top for your hips. There are even long-tailed T-shirts that hang extra long in the back. Any of these should hide that plumber’s crack pretty effectively (although really, where’s the fun in that?).

On the other hand, if you frequently suffer from plumber’s crack and are totally cool with it, that’s fine too — after all, the 1990s are hot again, so it’s just a matter of time before plumber’s crack comes back as well.

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