Food, of course, is a very serious matter, and when things go wrong—when the hollandaise curdles, when the soufflé falls, when you’ve paid a small fortune for a bad meal in a pretentious restaurant—it can seem downright tragic. And yet there’s often an element of comedy in food, while food is very often used in comedy.
On the positive side, there are certain foods that are pretty much guaranteed to raise a smile: a cupcake, ice cream, a bowl of Jell-O. We’re smiling here about something familiar and comforting. We know where we are with these foods: There will be no terrible surprises in them (unless you’re talking molded Jell-O), and they won’t demand anything of us. These, however, are not the ingredients of laugh-out-loud comedy.
Some foods are comical because they act as great levelers. Nobody can look too grand or earnest when they’ve got barbecue sauce dribbling down their chin, or while eating a hot dog or a banana. And trying to retain your dignity by, say, eating a banana with a knife and fork, as still suggested by various experts on table etiquette, is only likely to make you look downright ridiculous.
The banana, I guess, is the most comical of all foods, the skin as well as the flesh. As a comedy staple, the banana skin under the heel is right up there with the custard pie in the face, though naturally both of these things are way more hilarious when they happen to somebody else than when they happen to you.
Buster Keaton, who claimed never to have thrown a custard pie in one of his own movies, threw plenty in other people’s (a fine distinction), and went so far as to consider himself “the world’s champion custard pie thrower.” His autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, includes a 1917 movie-studio recipe for custard pie—containing no custard whatsoever. Instead, it demands a double-crust base (strong enough for throwing) and a filling of flour, water, and cream, plus a few extra ingredients depending on the person you’re aiming it at. Keaton was a pie-throwing consultant on the movie Hollywood Cavalcade, in which the blonde ingenue Alice Faye got pied 17 times, by Keaton among others. He tells us those custard pies contained blackberries, to contrast with Faye’s pale complexion.
The story goes that Hollywood Cavalcade actually broke the comedy rules of the Hal Roach Studios, which decreed that an attractive young woman should never be on the receiving end of a pie, and you can see the point. We want the pompous ass to get a pie in the face, not the girl. We all know the food-fight scene from the movie Animal House, but the fight itself is much shorter than people remember. The scene is really all about anticipation, knowing that sooner or later John Belushi’s Bluto character is going to go nuts and splatter goo all over those snobs from the other fraternities. He does, and we cheer.
In the end, however, I think there are limits to just how funny a food fight can be. The waste of food always makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s much funnier when people actually eat. I’m thinking of the chocolate-factory episode in I Love Lucy, in which Lucy and Ethel are working on an unforgiving production line. They need to get rid of the ever-growing number of excess chocolates, and the mouth is the obvious place to stash them. I’m thinking, too, of Monty Python’s Mr. Mangetout, who finally explodes as the result of eating one “wafer-thin mint” too many.
I also have a brand-new favorite, from the recent movie The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. They play men of a certain age who go on a culinary tour of northern England and at one point arrive at an improbable French restaurant in the middle of the countryside, where they’re served something the waiter describes as “a nice little appetizer. You’ve got liquor made out of mallow leaves topped with a fizz which is made out of ginger beer, whisky, as well as chili.” Brydon says, “It’s nice, it tastes of a childhood garden.“ To which Coogan responds with utterly insincere sympathy, “Was there a lot of alcohol in your garden as a child? I’m sorry, Rob.” The scene rapidly, and hilariously, goes downhill from there.