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Fat Jokes and the Elephant in the Room

Lynne Murray says:

When I started to explore this topic I was going to discuss the CBS prime time comedy Mike & Molly, about a fat couple. I can’t recall another show where both partners are fat since Roseanne, 1988-1997.

I laughed at Roseanne, but Mike & Molly did not make me laugh. In fact I felt both angry and a bit nauseated at the underlying premise. I think there’s an elephant in the room on Mike & Molly and I don’t mean that as a fat joke.

The underpinnings of so-called fat jokes are two assumptions that are shared by great masses of our citizenry:

First assumption: fat people are out of control around food, waving a piece of chocolate cake in front of the dieting heroine is tantamount to holding a wine-tasting party for an alcoholic

Second assumption: rescuing fat people from eating forbidden food is a noble act. In Mike & Molly, the hero’s buddy grabs a sandwich out of his hands and characterizes it as an “intervention” because his friend was committing “suicide by meatball sub.” That’s a quote from memory because life is too short for me to watch that dreary YouTube clip again.

In his very useful (and funny) book, The Comic Toolbox, John Vorhaus starts off with the statement “Comedy is truth and pain.” Actually he puts it in full caps, and gives several examples, one of which is: A man falls off a cliff. As he plummets, he’s heard to mutter, “So far, so good.” (p. 4)

Humor has a different set of rules than other fiction. The primary rule is simple and brutal–it has to make you laugh, or at the very least smile happily at a nimble turn of wit. That’s tricky because what makes one audience member laugh makes another break out the hate mail and death threats.

The line keeps moving and changing. Some of that has to do with the changing concept of Truth. What people believe may or may not be true, but the success or failure of a joke to wring a laugh out of an audience can hinge on what the audience thinks is true. Anyone who has ever risked telling a joke to just the wrong person (or worse yet in an inappropriate setting) will understand how jokes are rooted in a social landscape.

The outrageously funny Australian comedy writer/singer (and barefoot virtuoso pianist), Tim Minchin has a song called Prejudice

that begins by toying with expectations that he will say a word American audiences find extremely offensive. He does not. However, at least one commenter to the YouTube clip even says, “I was expecting him to say n_____.” The joke is slightly spoiled in that some of insults he does play with in the last part of the song may be obscure for many American listeners.

Jokes that directly embrace prejudice can now get a joker fired, picketed or targeted as a blatant bigot. Yet these jokes were common coin when racism, sexism and anti-Semitism were in more publicly acceptable full flower. And many groups are still fair game.

As Marlene pointed out last week in a post entitled No Surprises, transgender jokes are alive and well in the mass media and protests about them get limited media attention.

I personally can testify from as much of a sampling of the field as I can endure, fat jokes in all formats seem to be going through a kind of boom right now. Ironically I think this may be a reaction to the increasing visibility of the fat acceptance movement.

(I went looking for the source of the much-quoted Mahatma Gandhi statement: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” and found that it’s a disputed quote that may have originally come from a 1914 Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.)

In 2009, The Big Fat Blog considered the topic of fat jokes, responding to a Dawn French quote:

“It is no more acceptable to make a fat joke than it is to make a gay joke,” she told Mandrake at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, at the Royal Opera House. “People need to learn to take everyone as they are.”

French said her weight had not helped her career, but added: “It certainly hasn’t hindered me. It’s about teaching people how to take you, how to accept you. You have to open people’s minds.”

Many Big Fat Blog commenters brought up the point that seems most glaring to me–the laziness of picking fat or dieting as a target.

Fat jokes are usually not well-honed, and that’s partly because they often are “easy” jokes, simply pointing out that someone is fat and suggesting they must be out of control. Often that observation is the entire joke.

On a deeper level I think fat jokes fail because they are based on a very unstable pile of horse manure, the lie that fat people are out of control and could become thin by dieting. It’s a lie that people believe, and can’t examine very carefully because their belief is so entrenched and dearly beloved. Exploding that lie would lead many fat people to deal with the reality that this is the body you’ll be living in, just as it is now. Better to live in the lie and point fingers at “those people” who can’t control their appetites than to give up hope of ever joining the few, the happy few (about 5 percent of dieters) who manage to attain and sustain weight loss

In a recent New Yorker, writing about Chuck Lorre, creator of Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mike & Molly, Tom Bissell says of TV sitcoms:

NOTE: Paid content at the link. I took the quotation from a friend’s paper copy.

Films, perhaps, show us who we want to be, and literature shows us who we actually are. Sitcoms, if they show us anything, show us people we might like to know. Because of this, the sitcom is a medium designed to reassure. The more reassuring the sitcom, the better its chances become of winding up in the financial promised land of syndication.

A lot of sitcoms are, in fact, darker than you realize. At its core, Two and a Half Men is about loneliness. The Big Bang Theory is about alienation. Mike & Molly is about self-hatred.

I’m not sure I agree about Two and a Half Men being about loneliness, to me it looks more like the story of a substance-abusing sex-addict older brother and the younger brother who yearns to be him (one of the reasons I stopped watching it). The Big Bang Theory is my absolute favorite show, but that may reflect on my own self as a woman who loves nerds too much.

I don’t believe that Mike & Molly really is about self-hatred. I contend that the “elephant in the room” on this show is fat-hatred, and tiptoeing around and pretending that it’s acceptable damages the humor. Maybe the show could be funny if it had the courage to face its own prejudice.

But that would be bad for business. And yes I mean the diet business

10 Responses to “Fat Jokes and the Elephant in the Room”

  1. Debbie Says:

    I haven’t seen Mike & Molly and from what you say,’m not likely to. However, I was somewhat of a fan of Roseanne (who wasn’t?) and what struck me about it was that it was not primarily making fun of the characters. Instead, it was making fun of the world in which the characters lived. Sure, the characters did some lame and silly and amusing things, but mostly the show’s writers and producers (which of course included Roseanne Barr herself) were making points about what people’s lives are like because of how the world is. That hasn’t been my experience with most sitcoms.

  2. aquaeri Says:

    I’ve not seen Mike & Molly and have no interest in watching it; the “humour” sounds far too predictable.

    Maybe it’s because I’m Australian, but I thought Tim Minchin’s song was pretty much perfect. I don’t think he has any responsibility to address Americans more than Australians. It’s ingenious how he found another word that matched that n-word expectation, and that he can sing genuinely and honestly “Only an X can call another X an X”. And I think he shows a lot of sensitivity to Americans about the n-word, because it’s certainly not every Aussie who fully gets it. And it might even be via a song like this that some Aussies will get it.

  3. Lynne Murray Says:

    That’s a good point, Debbie. I think that a kind of homogenization takes place in some mass media and situation comedies are among the worst examples, so far removed from any reality that it’s hard to find anything funny there. When I think of moments from the Roseanne show the characters are quirky, but the situations are like fragments from real life: Dan trying to figure out what women want in bed by watching daytime soap operas, Roseanne and Jackie working crummy jobs and losing crummy jobs, Roseanne putting the electric bill in the phone company envelope and the phone bill electric company envelope to buy a little more time so the checks won’t bounce. I could go on because I adored that show, but I’ll shut up.

  4. Lynne Murray Says:

    aquaeri, I didn’t mean to suggest that Tim Minchin’s song had flaws. But he is using a word that, as an American, I hadn’t heard used as an insult and neither had a few of my friends whom I turned on to the song–who have all become raving Tim Minchin fans by the way!

    But thank you for using the word “perfect” to refer to Minchin, because it reminded my of one of my favorite songs of his. The very profound–”Not Perfect”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exwn6fuF9y0

    Some of the lyrics that moved me:
    “This is my body and I live in it. … And the weirdest thing about it is, I spend so much time hating it, but it never says a bad thing about me. This is my body and it’s fine. It’s where I spend the vast majority of my time. This is my body and it’s fine. It’s not perfect, but it’s mine.”

  5. aquaeri Says:

    It probably helps to know some Australian culture to fully understand Tim. In my experience, “ginger” is considered mildly offensive at best (which is part of the reason I’m pretty sure his song is in some sense really about the n-word).

    When Julia Gilliard became prime minister, there was a bit of a flurry of discussion and among the red-headed people I know, the consensus was that “ginger” was mostly okay, but “ranga” (from “orangutan”) was definitely “only an X can call another X an X”.

    You can see some of it (which I participated in) here:
    http://hoydenabouttown.com/20100624.7695/thursday-cheezburger-triumph-rangas/
    Note the difference between the link title and the (amended after discussion in the comments) post title.

    I think there does seem to be a particularly Australian fondness for coming up with new names for redheads, which ties into the cleverness of Minchin’s song, and its slight loss of intelligibility outside Australia.

  6. Lynne Murray Says:

    Language is endlessly fascinating! I find it interesting that a term I’d never heard of is considered blatantly offensive in Australia. From reading your blog entries, I totally get why. Myself I had mainly heard the term “ginger” to refer to an orange striped cat (I’ve got one of those–love the pics on your blog.) I also just read that Minchin decided to perform “Inflatable You” rather than “Prejudice” for his Conan O’Brien show debut because: “Team Coco …”thought that the US audience wouldn’t be familiar enough with the term ‘ginger.’” http://tinyurl.com/477yods

  7. Open Thread and Link Farm | Alas, a Blog Says:

    [...] Fat Jokes and the Elephant in the Room [...]

  8. mr Says:

    I really like your criticisms of Mike and Molly because you go beyond just pointing out that fat jokes are offensive (which they are, of course) and actually demonstrate that fat jokes AREN’T FUNNY, that they actually ARE NOT GOOD COMEDY. That is important, an important weapon in the war against fat jokes! By using fat jokes, you are proving that as a comedian you aren’t very skilled, dedicated, or smart, and that you don’t have a good grasp on the craft of comedic writing–which is a delicate and fascinating craft. You prove yourself, basically, to be a hack. I totally love that you pointed this out. Thus there is a two-pronged criticism of fat jokes that gets at them from both sides.

  9. Lynne Murray Says:

    Thanks, mr! I think part of what makes fat jokes so particularly unimaginative is that variations on the “watch what you eat and how much you exercise or you’ll get fat” statement have become knee-jerk reactions to a wide variety of situations (e.g., “look at that tasty food” or “look at that fat person” or “wow, lazy video game players” etc., etc.).

    Such statements are viewed as mildly humorous and somehow virtuous. They’ve become clichés, the first thing people think of. Totally aside from the B.S. nature of the supposed truth underneath such comments (the fantasy that restricting food/adding exercise will make you thin) knee-jerk clichés are particularly dull as actual jokes. A joke should provide a twist or an edge or an observation. If a comedy writer gets trapped in the land of cliché and never digs deeper, the results are invariably dismal and unfunny.

  10. azaza Says:

    That’s a good point, Debbie. I think that a kind of homogenization takes place in some mass media and situation comedies are among the worst examples, so far removed from any reality that it’s hard to find anything funny there. When I think of moments from the Roseanne show the characters are quirky, but the situations are like fragments from real life: Dan trying to figure out what women want in bed by watching daytime soap operas, Roseanne and Jackie working crummy jobs and losing crummy jobs, Roseanne putting the electric bill in the phone company envelope and the phone bill electric company envelope to buy a little more time so the checks won’t bounce. I could go on because I adored that show, but I’ll shut up.

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