LC#18: The Comedy of Waste
On the poetics of food comedy.
Hello folks, just a quick heads up: I am taking a short summer break (as every human should), so don’t get scared if two weeks from now you don’t receive your beloved bundle of comedy critique as usual. I’ll be back in no time (one month, in fact — only skipping one edition), so we can call this the end of S01. In other news, this week I’m talking about the comedy of waste — food waste, to be more precise, and why and how sometimes we like to watch food being terrible or getting thrown away. Seems confusing? Scroll down for some epiphanic clarity.
We’re at the end of S01, let’s take a look at some of the highlights:
<nostalgic music> The way it all started</nostalgic music>
<epic music> The people’s champ</epic music>
<romantic music> My favorite piece</romantic music>
<sad trombone> The piece you liked the least but still I love so much I’m giving it another chance here</sad trombone>
Food comedy is a thing. Many years ago I watched Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time and, at the very bottom, there was this guy here. Gallagher may be unknown to most non-Americans (it is a very US-centric list, by the way) and, as far as I understand, we haven’t been missing much: his main thing was using a giant wooden pallet nicknamed “The Sledge-o-Matic” to smash various kinds of food, closing with a watermelon. The shtick came as a parody of the Veg-o-Matic, one of the first food processors to be massively advertised in the US during the 60s, and while undoubtedly silly (as it often happens with prop comedy) audiences loved it for decades. Despite being based on the very basic thrill of waiting for a piece of fruit to zip by your head while you’re sitting in the front row of a theatre, Gallagher’s comedy also has a mildly satirical element — it was after all a reaction to mass culture, and the sheer physicality of the show, for sure, held much of its charme. By being a live act, the Sledge-o-Matic is thus much more cathartic than, say, David Letterman detonating a giant pumpkin for the benefit of a distant TV audience.
In the clip above, Gallagher himself addresses this tension by briefly adopting the persona of a pretentious French artiste (the most diametrically opposite stereotype to the American consumer, I guess) and explains how wasting nourishment is really just satire, a statement about consumerism and name brands pushing their products between one war report and the next. Right after this critique, Gallagher gets back to the same gimmick and sprays the first rows with Heinz ketchup. Whether the gag is really a declaration of intent or just another excuse to indulge in food-smashing jouissance (perhaps even taking a jab at known European takes on the American lifestyle) the audience is ecstatic.
Speaking of waste as a statement, the famous ending of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point comes to mind. Here, the materiality of consumerism is exploded in a stretched out, grainy slow-motion towards self-destruction. The turning inside-out of a fridge and the blasting of all its contents across the ether may be seen as highly symbolic, but the catharsis it brings must be very different from the child-like thrill experienced by a Gallagher fan sitting in the first couple rows. The former is the artistic projection of a European director’s individual vision, the latter is an embodied social experience. Ultimately, the difference between the two lies in their relationship with some kind of value: an ethical-aesthetic value on one hand, a surplus social value on the other.
There is such a thing as a poetics of waste. Christopher Schmidt theorizes this modern literary trend in a book by the same title, setting out to explore its “mysterious charisma” by looking at artists who treat detritus and excess as a source of value and even queer identification, rather than just the repressed surplus of capitalist production. I haven’t read the book or know much about the writers mentioned in it, so I am not going to get into the specifics of it; however, I like the idea of a poetics of waste within the realm of comedy.
If we look at Gallagher and Letterman smashing watermelons or exploding pumpkins we can agree there is definitely a child-like ingenuity to the sheer awe of looking at something big and tangible get ruined forever — a bit like destroying a sand castle we just made. This might remind us of that kind of family-friendly, TV set, nuclear America we may have experienced only in movies and TV series (for example that scene in Mad Men where Draper and his picture-perfect family abandon their picnic trash in the park), but we know the luxury of that ingenuity has been swept away by economic cycles, globalization, and the Internet. Going back to matters of value, the poetics of waste 2.0 look entirely different.
Accompanied by frantic soundtracks, hypermasculine stances, and generally frat-boy vibes, food challenges and daredevil eating have made the fortune of countless YouTube personalities. To make one example, platform institutions like Epic Meal Time are a reminder that waste is not only something residual, it is something productive. Combining the cooking show format with a Jackass attitude, EMT dishes out somehow-edible monstruosities like a cheeseburger baklava, a burrito filled with 200 McDonald’s burgers, and the unpronounceable icon in the clip above. While it has attracted criticism for its lavish stunts and unhealthy excesses (even inspiring parodies like Vegal Meal Time), it seems the bravely assembled delicacies depicted in all videos are always eaten at the end, usually in good company. Much like in Gallagher’s case, “waste” (intended in this case mostly as a waste of health, sacrificed at the temple of Cholesterol) is here a collective experience that produces immediate social value, as well as social (media) clout. While framed differently than a comedy act, this form of community waste is still comedic in several ways: in the postmodern appropriation of action movie music, the quasi-memetic assembly of grotesque meals, and the implicit satirical take on cooking show sophistication (the EMT guys are Canadians, so they embody that old French VS American conflict more than Gallagher ever could).
After ingenuity and excess, the third element of these poetics of waste is sadness. There’s no better example here than a personal favorite: Henry’s Kitchen, a web series by musical comedian and occasional movie actor Henry Phillips. Much like EMT, the series is a take on the cooking show format, but the over-confidence and junk food grandeur are replaced by poor means and modest goals, and also deflated by any allure of success. Henry is not only a bad cook that fails at making any of the dishes he sets out to teach his public: his kitchen appliances are bad, the audio sounds bad, his video effects are very bad. Waste is here not only about the food (even though that also gets thrown in the bin every once in a while), Henry’s Kitchen is first and foremost a tale of wasted efforts and opportunities. Its protagonist does not only fail at impressing his friends or potential dates with food that looks terrible, his amateurish means suggest his vision is doomed from the start. The cheering audiences of the daredevil eaters will not notice his tutorials, and the theme song by Henry’s own alter ego Jose Suicidio (going “help me make it through the night / ‘cause I’m tired, and alone”) tells us his weak endeavor is as desperate as it gets. In other words, Henry’s food waste may be only a single portion, but his statement (going back to the Gallagher term) is that the real value of food is in the sharing — a surplus value that in the age of social media is so materially self-evident and visceral it may even replace actual nourishment.
Ingenuity, excess and sadness all converge in the uncanny aesthetics of food memes. By “food memes” I mean a range of images that circulate on Instagram and elsewhere, usually embracing a characteristic “no context” attitude and combining it with the very social habit of sharing meals with your network. As it usually goes with memes, the number of ironic layers and meta-references varies greatly, and so does their satirical purchase: accounts like Kurger Bing manipulate corporate imagery and brand names in a way that might remind of vintage culture jamming from the turn of the millennium, while others like Boys Who Can Cook offer a wider emotional spectrum of edible wastage (the boys are at times cholesterol daredevils, other times sad home cooks, occasionally meat-queering visionaries).
Nothing, however, encapsulates the uncanny poetics of food waste like the Tide POD challenge. Originating from the suggestion that these very smoothly designed dishwashing appliances somehow look yummy, the meme escalated to the point that people were filming themselves eating the poisonous pods, the brand had to publicly warn people against doing it, and restauranteurs even tried to create an edible alternative. The whole shenanigan represents more than a “simple” moral panic, but rather a disconcerting cocktail of Internet trolling, corporate hi-jacking, and perhaps even collective suicidal tendencies. Waste is at the core of it all: the waste of a perfectly good pizza, the waste of otherwise intended Tide PODs, even — and it doesn’t get much more Internet than this — the potential waste of life in pursuit of a laugh, visibility, or community clout.
In the age of informational capitalism, where Internet vernacular is a currency and visibility the hegemonic value, waste and comedy are both circulatory lubricants. The poetics of waste comedy, then, have both social and anti-social value: they express an eagerness to share the experience of elementary joy, even if the ultimate consequence will be self-destruction. We’ve come a long way from the first food processor.