If I had to try and guess when it first struck me that cannibalism was deeply funny, I’d probably have to point to a Charles Adams cartoon I saw in a book taken from his New Yorker work.
I might have been 5 – but the I impression that image made – of two men in safari outfits (and pith helmets) sitting in a large black pot over an open flame – tended to by people who intended to EAT them – it immediately said one very clear thing to me. And that has made me laugh harder than almost anything else ever since…
It is the epitome of Human Folly. It is the basis for every last bit of comedy I can think of. It is the very ESSENCE of ‘funny’. And CANNIBALISM makes it shine like nothing else.
One of the episodes of ‘Tales From The Crypt’ that I’ve always been fond of (okay – I wrote it – I’m biased) is ‘What’s Cookin’. Chris Reeve (poor guy – and such a lovely person too) & Bess Armstrong play a couple whose business – a restaurant serving only squid – is (understandably) failing. The homeless guy who works for them (Judd Nelson) suggests a ‘barbecued steak recipe’ he knows of that could turn their fortunes around but Chris’s character turns it down.
But Judd’s character persists. When the couple show up on (what they think is) their last day at the restaurant, they find a small pile of freshy steak in the fridge out front. Judd says he happened upon it – and it goes on to the grill… and the customers, drawn by the intoxicating aroma, begin to flock in…
The barbecued steak turns out to be human flesh – that ‘belonged to’ the restaurant’s landlord (Meatloaf – the actor – perfectly cast, ya think?).
The couple don’t know until it’s too late – and they’re a huge success (with local Beat Cop their biggest fan of all) – that they’ve been getting rich on cannibalism.
I won’t give away the ending but – from my point of view? It’s extremely happy. And ironic (well, it WAS ‘Tales From The Crypt’ wasn’t it?) Everybody gets their ‘just’ desserts…
But it was important to me how we ‘played’ the cannibalism. At a certain point, beyond just the word, you have to ‘sell’ what the thing really is – People Eating Other People.
To make the ending play – in a piece about cannibalism – something about the ‘mechanics’ of getting ‘meat’ from the human bone to a plate where it can be consumed has got to be presented as real. It has to have ‘weight’ in the audience’s mind. Best to deliver it with a kind of cold, hard slap. The more distinct and ‘in-the-moment’ real we can make it, the better.
To that end, we first had to make a whole body cast of our actor – the aforementioned Mr Loaf. As we were a TV show, we didn’t always have a lot of time on our side – and this episode was no exception.
We cast Meatloaf only a few days before he was due to work – and he wasn’t in Los Angeles – so we had to use a body double to cast Meatloaf’s body. Now, this was the early 90’s.
At that time I was a huge fan of Meatloaf’s. His ‘Bat Out of Hell’ Album WAS my college years (I was a drama major at Vassar). I knew what Meatloaf looked like. We all did – and so we cast a heavyset man as the body double.
And the body – once finished – was fantastic. It looked like a real human body – hanging up from a meat hook – inside the walk-in fridge in the diner’s back room (our set).
Side note before we get to the cannibalism part… Meatloaf arrives to work his one day on ‘Tales’. And he’s `read the script and knows we had to hire a ‘large’ body double. Well, the Meatloaf that walks into the hair and makeup trailer WEIGHS 80 POUNDS LESS than the Meatloaf WE were expecting.
The man had been on a rigorous diet because he was TIRED of being heavy.
He looked great (if a little TOO thin in my opinion; I quibble…). But he DIDN’T look like our body double – who, when Meatloaf saw him/it – Meatloaf objected to vociferously. Well, of course he did – Meatloaf didn’t look like the fat carcass we had hanging up in our set.
In the end, we talked our actor down off the ledge and (credit to my partner at the time – Gil, who also directed the episode) even got Meatloaf to WEAR PADDING UNDER HIS WARDROBE to more closely match the body we had.
We had to FATTEN UP MEATLOAF for a role… Go figure.
The whole point of the exercise was this – a scene were Chris’ character – and the audience – learn the ‘secret’ of Judd’s ‘barbecued steak’ recipe.
Vowing to fire Judd’s character (while a line of hungry, eager customers forms out the front door), Chris follows Judd back to the walk-in – for more meat – only to find THE LANDLORD (Meatloaf) hanging there, dead – pieces of flesh ALREADY CUT FROM THE CARCASS.
The gag I wanted to sell was Judd and Chris entering the walk-in – where Chris reacts in horror – as Judd grabs a meat cleaver and – in real time – wacks off a butt-steak or two and plops them onto a serving tray which he then hands to Chris (who reacts with even MORE horror).
I won’t go into the very hard and dedicated craftsmanship that went into pulling that off. We literally had two fresh steaks built into the body mold. It looks awesome still – and, to me, it’s far more funny than it is horrifying. But then, I’m weird that way…
Here’s a link to the episode:
Cannibalism came into play in one of my ‘Outer Limits’ episodes – ‘What Will The Neighbors Think’ albeit a little more circuitously – and, let’s say, ‘metaphorically’.
The episode is here (if anyone gives a toss – though, ya know? It’s pretty good — very atypical for the series…).
The way cannibalism plays in ‘Neighbors’ goes to the heart of the point I’m belaboring here.
We assume – being humans and all – that we sit atop any food chain we’re part of. Cannibalism undermines that completely.
YOU may think you’re special – you may think you have value in the world, that your future has value; but to the guy who’s about to eat you? You’re just food. And if you’re food – that means, 12 – 36 hours from now (depending on metabolism) – you’ll be that guy’s SHIT, too.
REGARDLESS of what YOU think you are? The stone cold reality is, you’re just a BIGGER Fish’s food.
And a bigger fish’s shit. And that’s why cannibalism scares the shit out of people – because it reduces them to shit.