What a Gas

Novelty Items Go High-Tech

Late one night in Del Ray Beach, Florida, 56-year-old textile magnate Fred Jarow awoke with a vision. "I was laughing so hard, but I didn't know why," he says. Then it came to him. Something futuristic. For the whole family. A sound. In the distance. A remote . . . control . . . whoopee cushion. Now, seven years later, Jarow is creating a big stink, so to speak, with his invention, the Fart Machine: the latest entry in the technological evolution of novelties.

Jarow's device, a sleek, black, FCC-compliant unit which contains computerized recordings of various toots, earns a mention in the annals of pop culture history as one of the first gags to utilize a microchip. The novelty business has long been a bastion for techno-weenies and mischievous chemists, but never one for prurient digerati.

S.S. Adams Co., a nearly century-old company in Neptune, New Jersey, has limited itself to shrewd mechanical gadgets. Many of these— the joy buzzer, the jumping snake— are still designed around the spool-and-wire premise; pressing a button, say, or opening a can causes the wire-bound object to unwind, surprise, shimmy, and shake. S.S. Adams's vice president, Chris Adams, the founder's grandson, says that keeping gags relatively low-tech has always been cost-effective. Most of the science used at the company is a matter of home-brewed synthetics, such as those used in what Adams calls the "grossology" products. "We make all our fake vomit here," he explains.

illustration: Limbert Fabian

Electronics, until recently, has been used almost exclusively in the nonprank side of the novelty biz. Fortune Products Inc., a distributor and importer in Washington State, specializes in stoner mainstays like strobes and the "plasma ball',' which spews out blue streaks of light in response to the position of its fondler's hands. Bob Kocher Jr., Fortune's owner, says that the majority of these products are made overseas. But around the world, disco-inspired gadgetry remains in vogue. The devices continue to improve in quality, Kocher explains, but some things are better left untouched. As he says, "What can you do to make a mirror ball look better?"

One would think, too, that a whoopee cushion couldn't be improved. For the most part, there has been little innovation. In the late 1980s, there was a shortage of latex due to the AIDS crisis, Chris Adams explains, resulting in some lackluster vinyl cushions ("they just didn't have that wet, obnoxious sound," he says).

It was Fred Jarow who ultimately decided to take the classic bag into the future. To produce the Machine, Jarow teamed up with an old friend who was a ham radio enthusiast. Holed up in a studio in south Florida, Jarow and his partner consumed inordinate amounts of cabbage and beans with the hopes of digitizing some authentic ripples. Unfortunately, they soon discovered, the audio frequency of their eager blasts simply did not transfer adequately onto the computer chip. In the end, the two meticulously composed over a hundred eruptions on a synthesizer, whittling down the contenders to four of the most realistic blends. "Originally, we wanted to have one really long one," Jarow explains, "but it sounded too much like a motorcycle. Shorter ones are much more realistic."

To date, the Fart Machine has sold over 100,000 units worldwide. Jarow hasn't quit his day job, but he continues to experiment and innovate with the Machine. His company, TJ Wiseman, even tried to incorporate other technological innovations into the product; an accompanying odor spray, however, proved too costly.

Like any dedicated inventor, Jarow had his device subjected to repeated testing. Recently, he used a Fart Machine at a ballet, which, he reports, had to be stopped as a result of the ensuing commotion. His 87-year-old mother placed a Machine discreetly behind a potted plant in her hospital room; "She calls the plant 'the Gaseteria,' " Jarow says. At Thanksgiving, Jarow has been known to stuff the turkey with one of his pocket flatulators; he hits the remote right when the host goes in with the knife.

This fall, the third-generation Fart Machine will hit shelves, featuring a quartet of new and improved noises. For now, Jarow's happy, but soon enough he says he'll be back in the studio to brew up even more realistic emissions. "I gotta tell ya," he says with a sigh, "it's a science. It's really a science."

 
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