Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, and sometimes it’s pea soup from hell on the face of a priest. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.
There’s such a volume of fictional hurling, spewing, and chunk-blowing (as Wayne and Garth have it) or “unswallowing” (as a pregnant character in Clare Booth Luce’s play The Women puts it), it’s a little overwhelming. One way to catalog the kinds of vomit in fiction would be to divide the puke in half: meaningful vomit that acts as a symbol of excess, internal rot, purging of one’s sins prior to a new beginning, or a way to make someone seem endearingly human; and goofy vomit that’s just plain gross.
It’s a distressing moment, realizing your own body has turned on you, sometimes without warning. But once you know you’re going to puke, embarrassment, regret, and discomfort mix together on the way back up. Often it’s hilarious.
It’s an ancient hilarity, too. In Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Quixote makes, blesses, and swallows a curative balm of rosemary, oil, salt, and wine. He and his companion, Sancho Panza, wait for the balm to take effect, “and just as Sancho looked into [Don Quixote’s] mouth, [Quixote] threw up, more vigorously than if he were firing a musket, everything he had inside, and all of it hit the compassionate squire in the face… [Panza] was so disgusted by this that his stomach turned over and he vomited his innards all over his master, and the two of them were left as splendid as pearls.”
It’s funny, too, when The Sandlot crew end up equally splendid when they can’t stand the combination of chewing tobacco, a carnival ride, and the song “Tequila.” And who doesn’t enjoy Roger Sterling releasing oysters and booze after climbing 23 flights of stairs, right at the feet of the Nixon brain trust? It couldn’t have happened to a more appropriate client.
Interestingly, the barf is not funny in The Tin Drum, even though the film is considered a surrealistic black comedy. During a nice walk on the beach, a family encounters a severed horse head used by a fisherman to catch eels. It’s nothing but grotesque, so it’s not surprising that it makes the protagonist’s mom throw up. Then viewers are left to ponder the artist’s choice of depicting this woman—who can’t confidently identify the father of her son—nauseated by a rotting head filled with slithering eels.
In Brideshead Revisited, there’s restrained humor in the moment that Sebastian throws up in Charles’ room, which is how the main characters meet—the barf gives charming, privileged Sebastian a reason to send flowers to the more earnest Charles, initiating their ambiguous relationship. But it also shows a rich person indulging himself to excess, both an observation on the seriousness with which different British class members take their education and a hint at Sebastian’s eventually devastating drinking problems. The incident also instantly humanizes the young lord, and suggests he doesn’t give much thought to consequences. Here’s a chap who knows how to have fun, and can get by with almost anything because of his personality and wealthy family—yet inside he’s sick. Or maybe not. Author Evelyn Waugh famously said, while writing Brideshead, “I should not think six Americans will understand it.”
Actual vomit isn’t necessary for the audience to be amused. It’s enough if the throwing up is simply imitated, threatened, or falsely reported. Take, for example, the trend of faux puking à la “I just threw up in my mouth a little” from Dodgeball, passively aggressively indicating that the person has had enough of the conversation at hand.
This faux vomit is often induced after exposure to something saccharine, prompting a criticism of overwrought artistic expression and cloying sweetness. Algonquin Roundtable wit Dorothy Parker reviewed books in the 1930s under the pen name “Constant Reader,” and delivered one of the great gems of vomit-as-statement. Though at the time there were plenty of treacly children’s stories by lesser authors, Parker objected to A.A. Milne’s decision to devote his talent merely to being “quaint”—typically she wouldn’t have been reviewing children’s lit, but she was willing to take on Pooh. While composing a song, Pooh claims to have added the word tiddely pom at the end of each line “to make it more hummy.” Parker wrote, “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House At Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
It’s hard not to simultaneously groan and laugh uncomfortably at Peter Griffin’s idea for the Family Guy men to have an ipecac-drinking contest, even if it is mostly just a chance for the cartoonists to draw a lot of brown mess. And though Team America: World Police is basically satire, it’s easy to imagine a yellow legal pad of paper somewhere containing a list of all the over-the-top things Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady wanted to see marionettes do, whatever the motivation might eventually be, with “extreme vomiting” scrawled at the top near “puppet sex.” The movie does allow us to suspend our disbelief for the most part and enjoy the ridiculous characters, but at some point during Gary’s low point in the alley, it’s tempting to imagine the mechanics of pumping all that liquid out. Imagine the fun Parker, Stone, and Brady must have had sniggering behind the camera as the practical effects crew successfully deployed the tubing and air compressors or whatever machinery was required. Yep, it’s gross. Good job, everyone.
The Mr. Creosote sketch in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is practically a parable. The gourmand embodies something significant, maybe “selfish, unchecked consumption’s vulgar disregard for civil behavior and the environment.” Perhaps the puckish, enabling waiter might represent soulless opportunists, or undercover activists dedicated to destroying a corrupt system, or men who just want to watch the world burn (with hydrochloric acid). The rich and refined folk dining alongside the ugly spectacle take a long time to acknowledge what’s happening: their passively polite tolerance is a judgment on their willful blindness and tacit acquiescence through inaction—but mostly it’s just absurd. For the 12-year-olds and those not in the mood to consider pseudo-scholarly profundity, the result of Terry Jones finally agreeing to John Cleese’s insistence on a “wafer-thin mint” is basically an excuse for the troupe to create a scene so over-the-top, so ick, it’s hard not to laugh. And look away. And look forward to it being over, before watching it again, and suggesting your friends watch it.
In terms of volume, is that sketch the most epic throw-up scene ever? Or is the winner the pie-eating contest in Stand By Me, with its mixture of victory, vengeance, and yuck? Or will nothing ever live down The Exorcist—terror and satanic vomit combined? Those last two are both shocking upchucks, but you might notice only the pie-eating contest depends on volume for its effects. Linda Blair’s demon relies on surprise and intensity to make the vomit memorable. So while there’s a fair amount of volume in Paul Rudd’s unexpected barf in I Love You Man, what makes it so jolting and terrible is the force and suddenness, along with the worst landing spot you or the writer of a modern comedy could imagine.
Almost every modern comedy engineers a vomit scene—from film to film, a vomit episode can mean so many different things. It might reveal regretfully woozy excess, of course, like in Hot Tub Time Machine. In Knocked Up, the vomit is the classic evidence of pregnancy; in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it underscores that our innocent hero is out of his depth with a drunken party girl; and, of course, in Pitch Perfect, it’s a tragically spectacular way of ruining an a cappella performance. But there’s poignancy happening during the epic food poisoning scene in Bridesmaids, in which Kristen Wiig’s character’s bad restaurant choice becomes a victory for her frenemy—heroically Wiig tamps down her urge to join the purge, bravely pretending to enjoy a Jordan almond as proof that everything’s just fine.
In Pineapple Express, Seth Rogen’s character fills James Franco’s character’s computer printer with vomit, which supports his claim of having seen someone shot and killed—also, it supports that man-children eat things like chicken fries. The trope of vomiting as a result of witnessing violence or gore was probably most thoroughly explored by Saturday Night Live in the ’90s, but can be found all over the place. In Highway 61 Revisited’s “Tombstone Blues” we get Bob Dylan’s vision of a New Testament alternate universe: “John the Baptist, after torturing a thief / Looked up at his hero, the commander-in-chief / And said, ‘Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief / Is there a hole for me to get sick in?’” And in the movie version of Fargo, the brothers Coen appear to be set to depict a character vomiting from the shock of witnessing the aftermath of violence—but then her nausea passes, attributed to morning sickness, and we realize that police chief Marge Gunderson may have a maternal nature but is also sturdy, steady, and easy to underestimate.
It gets even more interesting when the barf isn’t funny, though, or is part of a larger point. It’s clever, calculated foresight to freeze some barf and hide it in a box of Brussels sprouts as leverage in a twisty maybe-murder mystery in the book version of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. It’s also part of a crime story in a classic Encyclopedia Brown mystery, “The Case Of Smelly Nellie,” where many young readers first learn that perfume is made of ambergris, and ambergris is a weirdly fancy word for whale vomit.
In David Cronenberg’s The Fly, the vomit is biologically inspired, utilitarian, repulsive, sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying. Vomit is a relatively standard fluid in horror movies, in general (though, as in this delightfully awful Drag Me To Hell sequence, it’s not always fluid).
And it’s mostly just heartbreaking—albeit in the midst of a comedy show, so also funny in a not-funny way—when Andy Daly’s Forrest MacNeil staggers around the bleak parking lot of a diner, nihilistically barfing pancakes that have become an unhealthy obsession in Review.
One of the most surprisingly elevating, exciting examples of a cleansing, satisfying purge is when Kaonashi, or No-Face, disgorges all the petty, greedy folk he’s consumed in Spirited Away. The presence of those small-minded, selfish characters inside him feeds (or possibly provides) his worst impulses, transforming No-Face from a spooky but oddly pleasant presence—who appears only to want the attention of our heroine—into a monstrous, all-consuming terror. He becomes aggressive when he can’t understand why Chihiro, or Sen, one of Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki’s bravest and most steadfast protagonists, isn’t interested in anything he’s tempting her with. When she feeds him an emetic dumpling given her by a river spirit, everything starts coming out—once he’s emptied, he’s back to his original benign, strangely likable whatever he is. It’s a climactic vomit, a purging to celebrate, unlike so many which, whatever else they might mean, often play as a prank on the audience. This is a vomit that saves a soul.
And, like most vomit episodes, we feel lots better about everything once it’s behind us.
Upcoming: Tea, Earl Grey, hot.