Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Fat Is Funny?

We saw the new film The Campaign last weekend.  Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis in a parody/satire of our current political climate and culture.  I laughed a lot (sometimes, as usual in such comedies, feeling ashamed of myself for doing so).  But I was struck, watching the film, about how we continue to think it's okay to make fun of fat people.

Galifianakis has a fat family in the film.  Fat wife, fat kids.  And we're supposed to laugh at them not just for what they say and do--but for how they look while saying and doing it.  It's funny, you know, seeing a fat woman having sex.  Fat kids eating too much.  A fat family have a fat old time in their fat-friendly home.

Hollywood is fine with fat humor.  Think of, oh, Bridesmaids.  And Melissa McCarthy, the fat comic actress whose humor is bawdy, yes, but also rests on a quivering pile of adipose.  If she looked like Kristen Wiig, she would still be funny--but fall-down funny the way she is in that film?   And the way she was in a few of the SNL skits when she was guest host (1 October 2011) not long after Bridesmaids premiered?  Don't think so.

Fat humor has a long history, of course.  Shakespeare knew his audiences loved it, so every now and then--here it comes.  In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff is called "the fat knight," and there's a very funny scene when he, to aid an escape from a jealous husband, disguises himself as the "fat woman of Brentford."  And in an earlier scene--after hiding in a laundry basket (also for an escape) and being dumped in the river--he complains: think of that,--a man of my kidney,--think of that,--that am as subject to heat as butter; a man of continual dissolution and thaw: it was a miracle to scape suffocation.And in the height of this bath, when I was more than half stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be thrown into the Thames, and cooled, glowing hot, in that surge, like a horse-shoe; think of that,--hissing hot,--think of that, Master Brook.

And later, worried that the news of his doings will get back to the court, he says:  If it should come to the ear of the court, how I have been transformed and how my transformation hath been washed and cudgelled, they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop and liquor fishermen's boots with me.

Yes, they would melt his fat and use it to waterproof boots!

I need to say before I write another line: I've had weight problems myself throughout my life--thanks, in part, to some weighty Dyer gene that drags the whole chromosome down.  My father got very heavy--as did all of his brothers.  My own two brothers, off and on, have looked like my uncles.  At the moment, I'm sort of overweight but not to the point I disgust myself.  A couple of months of denial would do it.  I've been up and down since my adolescent growth spurt (a phrase of surpassing irrelevance in my case: I maxed out at 5' 9").  As high as 200+, as low as 150.  I'm about midway now.  And guess what?  The first piece I ever got paid for writing?  An op-ed in the Chicago Tribune on 10 April 1979; it was about my battles with weight loss.

In fourth grade, I had an overweight teacher--one of the best teachers I ever had, anywhere--named Mrs. Stella Rockwell.  She didn't like us to use the word fat, so she required us to use, in her presence anyhow, pleasingly plump.  And so we did use it--in class; outside, at recess, it was fat and other f-words.

Meanwhile, fat-and-funny characters have been everywhere.  Porthos in The Three Musketeers. Piggy in Lord of the Flies.  Porky Pig and Miss Piggy and Fat Albert.  SNL almost always has a pleasingly plump performer, the late Belushi and Farley among them.  Currently, Bobby Moynihan and Kenan Thompson play heavy for humor.

Fatty Arbuckle
And, of course, Hollywood.  One of the first great silent film stars ... Fatty Arbuckle.  A parade has followed him--including some great ones, like John Goodman, and some very popular ones, like Kevin Smith and Jonah Hill (who lost a bunch of weight--has been putting it back on).  The tabloids love to show celebrities who have let it go--Oprah's up-and-downs are legendary.  Kirstie Alley.  Kathleen Turner.

And do I even need to mention the gigantic diet book industry?

Jingles & Wild Bill
And television?  I remember a character named Jingles, played by portly Andy Devine, in the old show Wild Bill Hickock.  And William Conrad in a TV detective show called Cannon.  And Roseanne Barr and ...

The Internet, of course, is full of fat sites.  (I don't want to Goggle some of them--browsing history, you know?)  But, among other things, there are numerous places to find jokes about fat people: Fat Jokes

And viewers of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life will never forget the overweight-man-in-the-restaurant scene, which YouTube has thoughtfully archived for all of us to enjoy: Warning: Do not click on link near a mealtime--Monty Python

Comedians (think Bill Maher) still make jokes--sometimes cruel ones--about the overweight, too.

So why is it still okay to make fun of overweight people?  Well, maybe, for one thing we're running out of permissible targets for humor.  Remaining are the old, the dumb, the overweight (I've been all three, thank you).  And babies.  (It's funny to put words in their mouths--to watch them shoot poop in an adult's face--see The Change-Up.)  But other traditional targets are now no-no.

Also, I think fat humor lingers because many people can relate to it.  Many (Most?) folks have been on diets, have wrestled with weight gain and loss, so they don't mind, maybe, laughing at themselves?  After all, we don't really mind, most of us, being laughed at when it's about something we can remedy.  But when we can't?  Now, that's a different story.

Or maybe there's just no powerful lobby/constituency that can prevent the ridicule.

You know, I never wanted to be fat.  But there are times when I just must eat that ... whatever.  (Or, worse, eat that cubic yard of whatever.)  Fortunately, even though my metabolism is very slow, I can, eventually, lose that cubic yard of whatever.  Other folks are even more fortunate.  Joyce can eat that cubic yard of whatever and lose it the same afternoon.

But there are other people who simply cannot.  Every time they fail to deny themselves, they pay a rough, enduring consequence.  And their struggles are manifestly not funny.  Many overweight people actually deny themselves far more than some of the thin among us.  It's just that every donut I eat remains with me.  Not so with those who enjoy a blast-furnace metabolism.

Fat, of course, has come to symbolize sloth and excess and poor food choices and lack of exercise ... so when Bill Maher talks about the fat people at the mall, he is really talking about something quite different from those specific people he saw.  He's talking about an attitude, about the visible signs--the very visible signs--of the decline of a society.  And he recognizes, as well, the sad relationship between weight and health care costs.  So many of us now are on BP and cholesterol meds because of our size and condition (I'm not--not yet anyhow).  So many of us need medical attention for conditions exacerbated by our weight--diabetes, heart and kidney issues ... you know.

So ... do we laugh at the fat family in The Campaign?  I found myself that night laughing at some of the outrageous things the children said at the table (they'd been urged to confess things they'd done wrong).  But I could not bring myself to laugh at the "humor" based entirely on their physical condition.  I thought it veered very near child abuse.

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