If you were to travel back in time to any point in the history of entertainment, one constant would remain almost guaranteed: That fat guy on stage? He’s the funny one. As long ago as the medieval morality plays, gluttony was depicted as comedic.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, no farce would have been complete without an obese character to keep the audience in stitches. From Shakespeare’s Falstaff to Chris Farley, Oliver Hardy to Danny Devito, showbiz has a long, illustrious history of playing fat for laughs.
But while our collective sense of humor is now progressive enough to see that comedic stereotypes aren’t quite as cool as our frock-coated ancestors once thought, we just can’t seem to move past the accepted wisdom that bigger bodies equal bigger personalities.
It’s a phenomenon that has long perplexed British artist Scottee. His provocative work has covered themes of race, sexuality, class, age and gender — but people routinely describe him as “bubbly” or “cuddly” and assume he is a comedian.
I joined him and three of his “fat friends” for a round table discussion at London’s recent Being a Man festival, where they endeavored to pick apart society’s tendency to associate fat with fun. One of the problems, they said, is that physical comedy is a big part of what makes people laugh.
Actor and singer Sam Buttery recounts a story of trying to fit into a rollercoaster car at a theme park. Realizing he was not going to fit, he tried to walk away, but the ride attendants had other ideas. “They were shouting to each other, ‘Dave, come here, let’s get him in!’ and trying to push the safety bar down with their feet,” he says. “I was like ‘Honestly, it’s absolutely fine, I’ll just leave,’ but they just kept pushing and going “Oh, it’s not going to fit, is it?” with everyone looking. It was horrendous. But really funny. The idea of someone that can’t fit in a space just is a funny idea.”
Radio presenter Jack Rooke agrees. “My dad was a London black-cab driver and I remember once there being loads of adults in the car and them saying ‘Jack, you go get in the front and lay low’ and I remember the door not being able to close with me in it and everyone laughing. I was 11 and it was really traumatic.”
Similar “universally funny” moments they discuss include trying to get seatbelts to stretch, weighing yourself then getting off the scales to take a pee before trying again, and trying on clothes that are too small but being determined to fit into them. But who are these jokes for? And who’s laughing?
Scottee’s fourth panel member, a cabaret performer who introduces himself only by his stage name, Le Gateau Chocolat, says that for him clowning became a way to divert the attention away from his size. “You very quickly learn how to deflect, put a shield up by being extra funny, being extroverted and cushioning yourself from the hurt and anguish. Being the jester and controlling the laugh was very important. When people start to laugh at you, then the power’s gone.”
Buttery adds: “If I make a joke about my weight then no one else can; if I make myself funny then at least I’m the funniest one. Anyone who’s going to make fun of me won’t match that.”
Andrew Shanahan, who founded men’s weight-loss support group Man v Fat, said that the funny fat man is such a well-known trope that it becomes a way out of awkward situations and potentially hostile encounters. “Because of that archetype, there is that easy overcoat you can put on as a fat man. Rather than being upset, you can take that identity on,” he told me on the phone.
“It’s largely self-deprecating and they are doing it to put the boot in themselves before anyone else does. That takes the sting out of it, because it’s not someone else who makes you the large butt of the joke.”
What is clear, however, is that while fat and thin people alike are prepared to laugh at these situations when they’re presented as a joke, the actual lived experience is very different — on both sides. “It’s a poignant humor,” Shanahan says. “What all these situations are saying is that there is a preferred shape and size.”
This is certainly something Scottee and his friends can relate to, as Chocolat describes. “I was getting on a flight to Australia and I remember letting this man use me as a pillow because I felt like I was in his space even though I wasn’t,” he says.
Scottee nods in recognition. “I’ve been on a flight when someone has requested a different seat and done that quite openly in front of me,” he says. “You see that disappointment on their face as they walk up the aisle. And I can sit in any train carriage and there’ll always be a free seat next to me. No one wants to sit next to the fat person because you might sweat on them or give them high cholesterol or….” He trails off.
“Eat them?” Chocolat suggests.
The result of interactions like this, as well as the overt contempt shown for overweight people online and in the media, is that fat dudes increasingly feel they have to offer people something to compensate for their size.
“You end up paying people with your humor so people are more and more okay with you the funnier you are,” Rooke says. “My uncle Sav used to haul skips [dumpsters] and drive trucks in his 20s and 30s. Then in his 40s he got a beer belly and he immediately became this sort of funny, gentle character. It was like the chubbier he got, the nicer he became and I remember finding that weird because, you know, he can still be a dickhead if he wants to be.”
Except perhaps he can’t. The idea of the fuller-figured funny man is apparently so ingrained that people struggle to see past it, leaving these guys feeling simultaneously resentful yet dependent. “Our funniness has been born out of our fatness as our protection so it’s this weird cycle,” Scottee says.
“I’ve actually recently lost some weight and I can see my friends being like, ‘Don’t lose too much, don’t go too far’ because they are trying to cling onto me as an entertainment commodity,” Rooke says. “If I did suddenly get a slimmer body, how would that affect whether or not people find me funny? It worries me slightly.”
But not all the men are worried. Scottee complains that fat men are only ever seen as funny — they never get to be creative or intelligent or sexy — but Buttery calls him out. After all, he says, there’s nothing uncreative or unintelligent or unsexy about wit.
“I think one of the sexiest things in the world is being funny,” Buttery says. “People that make me laugh are really sexy. So to me, I am sexy.”