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