The Good, The Bad, and the Hungry: A Film About the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest

To anyone paying actual attention, the title of The Good, The Bad and the Hungry, Nicole Lucas Haimes’ new documentary about the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island, is more than just a silly play on the title of a Leone western.  It literally describes the film’s three-way tug of wills between former champion and golden-boy Takeru Kobayashi (the good), p.r. professional George Shea, the brains behind the International Federation of Competitive Eating (the bad), and Joey Chestnut, reigning king of the sport for most of the past dozen years.  And what sounds like it ought to be the very height of frivolity proves to have surprising thematic heft to it.

Granted, the contest itself is an elaborate exercise in ridiculousness. And yet at the same time it couldn’t be more symbolically fraught. Held on the Fourth of July each year, it embodies a tradition that finds antecedents at American county fairs at least as far back as the 19th century. Yet it is also undeniably a display of gross excess and waste, one thought even by its participants to be physically revolting. These aspects increased dramatically in the mid 1990s when contestants from Japan, which has its own competitive eating tradition, began to partake of the sport. Prior to the invasion, first place winners might take home a trophy for polishing off something like 10-15 frankfurters, which is more than most of us can eat, but downright quaint in retrospect. The first Japanese competitors edged the upper limit to a couple of dozen franks. Then in 2001, Kobayashi arrived and startled everyone involved by gobbling a jaw-dropping 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes.  The moment was captured on film; the looks on the faces of Kobayashi’s rivals when they hear the tally is priceless.

Extensive interviews with Kobayashi in the film reveal his techniques, how he broke down each motion in the process scientifically, and then practiced for months, actions far beyond the imagination of your garden variety holiday glutton. As one commentator says, “To call Kobayashi the Tiger Woods of competitive eating is an insult to Kobayashi.” While it is certainly debatable that competitive eating is an actual sport, it’s a matter of record that at a stroke Kobayashi transformed it into something LIKE a sport. In this he was backed and aided by the p.r. genius of organizer George Shea, who turned up the heat on the hype a thousand fold, and created an entire league, the International Federation of Competitive Eating, around the contest, as well as new ones involving fare such as hamburgers, tacos, Thanksgiving turkeys, and cow brains. Thanks to Shea, the contest began to be televised annually on ESPN. If Kobayashi is competitive eating’s Tiger Woods, Shea is its Vince McMahon. This became evident in 2006 when Kobayashi’s first true competition, Californian Joey Chestnut placed a close second, and then in 2007, when Chestnut became the first person to beat Kobayashi. Because Chestnut was an American, and Kobayashi a foreign national, at this stage the contest began to assume an ugly jingoistic aspect it has never quite lost. The previously celebrated Kobayashi began to be booed, and Chestnut’s efforts were encouraged with chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” After 2009, Kobayashi left the contest, either because of the ungracious treatment, or because he hadn’t won in years, depending on who tells it. ‘

The film’s opening beats resemble the deadpan tone of Shea’s public utterances and ESPN coverage of these events. But to her credit, Haimes keeps probing and exposes some of what lies beneath. Shea can’t resist tipping his hand and letting us know what a clever puppet master he has been in orchestrating all of this. Chestnut (who set a new record of 74 wieners last year) reveals himself a sort of cheerful pawn, as sports heroes have tended to be since time immemorial. But above all we can’t help but be touched by the heart-broken Kobayashi who initially found himself embraced by an America that loves winners, and then rejected by one that hates foreigners. In a surprisingly subtle way, this is a movie for our times.