For those of you tired of the spandexed, Apollonian beauty of Olympic bodies, TV had a special treat Thursday night -- FOX's The Glutton Bowl: The World's Greatest Eating Competition. As the teeny ladies of ice skating were warming up, thirty-four athletes of a different sort were smacking their bellies and glowering at each other, preparing to demolish bowls of mayo, sticks of butter, and other delicacies in the network's latest headline grab.
As TAP sports expert Richard Just pointed out to me recently, skeptical viewers of ice skating and speed eating alike may have found themselves wondering: "Is this really a sport?"
The Glutton Bowl's two commentators did their best to convince us, throwing around athletic terms like "in the zone" and "digging deep." Greg Shea of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, sweat beading on his bottle-tanned skin, expounded upon "two-bite methods," "rabbit-like techniques," and the perils of "lockjaw."
Despite its WWF-esque "sports-entertainment" wrapping, Glutton Bowl was just America's latest foray into sadomasochism TV -- SMTV, if you will. We're still not that good at this genre: Europeans have conceived or starred in the most prominent shows. The British Mark Burnett thought up Survivor, plopping Americans down in foreign countries, depriving them of food, and leaving them to squabble, backstab and complain about diarrhea. Big Brother, created by the Dutch company Endemol, inflicts pain on both viewer and participant through boredom, with its 24-hour coverage of shmoes in a house full of busted Ikea goods. And viewers are still tuning in to watch the Brit dominatrix schoolmarm Anne Robinson verbally spank Americans on The Weakest Link.
But the Japanese are the real champs of SMTV. Consider the Million-Yen Challenge eating contests, where contestants face down a conveyer belt of food. Culinary delights include a block of ice accompanied by an ice pick and the "gigantic sushi of doom" -- between the rice and the fish lies a slab of wasabi, the hot green mustard that makes you feel like you've taken said ice pick and shoved it up your nose.
On another game show, a sweaty, damp, fat guy (hapless fat guy equals funny across cultures, it seems) flew to Hong Kong to ingest massive amounts of herbal laxatives, then returned to Japan. His mission? To knock on people's doors to see if they would let him use the toilet. The poor sap didn't make it, though, and had a little accident in the car coming back from the airport.
Finally, a show seemingly about the perils of baths ("The fourth leading cause of death amongst the elderly: hot baths!") features bikini'd young things squealing as they step into clear vats of scalding water. The longer they stay in, the longer their company gets to hawk their goods on the air. So as Yuriko screeches and writhes about enticingly, the commentators say helpful things like, "Look how red her skin is getting! I bet her boss is proud of her!"
It was no wonder, then, that one of the fiercest eaters on Glutton Bowl was Takeru "Tsunami" Kobayashi, a wiry 130-pound stripling from Nagano, Japan, famed for eating 50 hot dogs. There were other colorful contenders, too, like Gaseous Maximus, who showed up in full gladiator gear. "He's a student of the classics, brings a level of sophistication to the competitions," said Shea, without a hint of irony. "And he eats gaseous foods, too, endures that particular discomfort."
In each of the nine rounds, four or five different contestants dove into disgusting foodstuffs, the "glutton cam" making sure the audience got up close and personal with the trembly hands, mayo-smeared beards, sweat-stained faces, and the I-might-hurl-so-stand-back! burping, eye popping, and cheek puffing. Winners advanced to the finals, second-place finishers went to the wild-card round.
All in all, things stayed pretty close until hot dog time, when the Tsunami's steely focus and superior eating technique -- dunk the bun in water to lubricate, insert hot dog, then switch to "classic textbook" style -- brought him to a staggering win. He ate 31 hot dogs to the second place finisher's 15, launching him into the final round, where contestants plowed their way through cow brains (an interesting commentary on the intellectual content of the show). Once again, the Tsunami raptored away, and came off with another devastating victory.
By the end of Thursday night, then, the "sports" world had come to a perfect sort of equilibrium. America -- second only to Germany at Salt Lake City -- cleaned up with two more medals in ice-skating. But Japan -- with only two medals total this year -- showed us that, at least in the realms of SMTV and competitive-eating, they still reign supreme.
And while it was all happening, a commercial for Fox News chimed in, advertising yet another new feature from the network. "It's so easy to overeat," declared the thoroughly hypocritical promo. "Watch our special on how to mind your waistline."