Review: ‘ESPN 30 for 30: The Good, The Bad, The Hungry’ Examines Competitive Eating
I’ve not kept up with a lot of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries over the years, but I’m quite sure The Good, The Bad, and The Hungry has a substantially different mood than most of the others. On one hand, competitive eating is not a conventional sport (some, myself included, would say it is not a sport at all) in the vein of hockey, curling, and cross-country skiing. On the other hand, this documentary (at least for an ideologically obsessive radical like myself) is layered with a vast social commentary that transcends the sports world entirely, but we will get into that later.
As you might already know, the American fast food restaurant Nathan’s Hot Dogs has a hot dog eating contest every year on the 4th of July on the boardwalk in Brooklyn’s Coney Island. I’ve not seen the contest itself, but I have been on the boardwalk on the 4th of July a few hours after the competition. So, I guess you could call me an expert, at least as much as anyone in this weird world of sports.
I remember Takeru Kobayashi and his reign from my formative sporting years. I remember watching ESPN coverage of the event each year as a child. I even remember that Kobayashi lost to some American guy and everyone was super happy about it. Naturally it was a larger than life story because it un-ironically captured the most crucial elements of the American spirit: patriotism and competition, but ironically it also captured the most crucial elements of American culture: excess and gluttony. But, as it turns out, it was a lot more.
The documentary tells the tale of a “new fresh faced” Kobayashi “against all odds” breaking records and completely “reinventing the sport” and every other sports cliché I think ESPN is contractually obligated to mention in every documentary ever. That’s not a slight at sports storytelling at all, especially because here –unless I am completely over-analyzing the crew’s film-making intentions—this is all done with a hefty amount of self-awareness and irony. Regardless, Kobayashi’s dominance in the Nathan’s contest and competitive eating as a whole is unparalleled and unmatched until he meats (sic) up with the sinister and expected character, called only “the narrative.” Enter Joey Chestnut and his meteoric rise to take down Kobayashi.
That’s it. That’s the story. That’s the years and years of news segments covering the contest and all of the ESPN packages each year that imprinted the events into the American sports history forever. But Kobayashi and Chestnut are real people and developed and emotional and blah blah blah, right? Wrong! Actually Kobayashi is really freaking awesome and faced meaningful emotional obstacles and Joey Chestnut is kind of a dork-bag and the organization that runs the contest (Major League Eating) is actually like if Enron or some other terrible corporation ran a sports league.
I took the entire film as a heavy-handed (but in a subtle way, oxymoron notwithstanding) critique of America as a whole. There were the obvious commentaries on how ridiculous competitive eating is and the commercialization of sports, but there was also an intense reveal about the insidious (albeit expected) contamination of the sporting world with vile and ignorant aspects of nationalism, racism, and the xenophobic nature of many sports narratives.
It was gross for sure; it was like the critical theory laced cultural anthropology version of watching grown men (obviously identifying as men) shove phallic foods down there throat over and over again without any insight into the latent homo-eroticism –even when we see the competitor’s eyes magically and mystically meat (sic again) those of the muscled machismos in the audience, beads of sweat dripping from their luxurious and fashionable American flag do-rags, catching on the corners of their beer-glistening (similar to beer-battering but much more ephemeral…) lips as a guttural “U” is chanted, echoing through the perils and jubilation of a fiery competition. Their eyes are stoic and penetrating as a sensual “S” follows, encapsulated and eclipsed by the exuberance of an excited and exasperated “A” over and over and over again… or something like that.
Simultaneously, the tension and raw intensity is palpable, as each fan –whether it be of an individual they tribute in advocacy or for the sheer magnitude and glamour of competition in the abstract—is filled, stuffed even, with the societal vindication that all sports are team sports –that these gladiators of triumph and perseverance can stand only because of the foundation YOU lay with your metaphorical but still broad, soft, and welcoming shoulders (glistening like before, because the cut of your “Eat me” tank top allows for your protruding tribal tattoo-laden shoulders to shine as visibly as the subtle and harrowing message of your cotton garment), keeping them lifted, nay, exalted, in a way similar to how your forefathers –the farmers, the builders, the makers of this nation—laid every painstaking and bloodstained inch of groundwork to birth this beautiful country. Aye, each audience member should be championed as nation-builders in their own right –sweaty, explosive, lavish warriors that utilize their passion and commitment to create momentary glimpses of ingestible energy the competitors hunger for, thirst for, ache for… Yes. Yes! YES!
It’s a good documentary. You’ll learn something cool and maybe find a new way to connect with a culture you didn’t know, or one you thought you knew. All I do know is that if you leave this (the film or the pages and pages of Competitive Eating fanfic, part of my series titled Aching Hearts, Torn Tendons, and Bit Lips: A Sensory Exploration of the Wide World of Sports) cheering for Joey Chestnut, you’re either a monster, a True American Patriot™, or one of his adorable parents.
And if Stuart Smalley taught us anything, that’s okay.
Fun & Entertaining
The rivalry between Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi went beyond hot dogs.