Describe the film Tommy Boy to someone unfamiliar with Chris Farley and David Spade, and see how far you get before mentioning that one of them is a husky dude. Maybe, if you’ve seen it recently and are really into the plot about brake pads, you’ll make it as far as sentence two. The difference between the two performers is an important element of the film — it’s not a brake pad comedy, it’s a big sloppy guy/uptight skinny guy comedy.
A huge amount of comic pairs seem to have very different body shapes. While there are obviously a lot of exceptions in the form of similarly sized comic duos (and plenty of comic duos that don’t consist of two dudes), there are enough physically mismatched fat guy/thin guy pairs out there that there must be something important going on.
Let’s run down the biggies (and, I suppose, their equivalent little-ies): There’s Jay and Silent Bob (before Kevin Smith’s dramatic weight-loss, anyway); Seth and Evan in Superbad (before Jonah Hill’s equally dramatic weight-loss); the Wet Bandits from Home Alone; Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the Cornetto Trilogy; Laurel and Hardy; Abbott and Costello; Bulk and Skull from Power Rangers; Mario and Luigi; Kenan and Kel; Seth Rogen and James Franco, who work together all the time; David Brent and Gareth Keenan on the British Office; John Candy and whoever he was paired with in any given movie (Bill Pullman, Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd before he became similarly large…); Penn and Teller; Jerry and George from Seinfeld; Larry David and Jeff Garlin from Curb Your Enthusiasm; on it goes. Go back far enough, and you find Don Quixote and Sancho Panza — the former gaunt and aquiline, the latter short and dumpy.
Loosen it up a bit to include non-human examples and there’s even more: Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King; Ren and Stimpy; Pinky and the Brain; Lumiere and Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast; even C-3PO and R2-D2, kind of — R2-D2 might be small, but look at that body shape, he’s a chunky monkey. (The pair of characters the droids were based on, Tahei and Matashichi from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, are both fairly slender, but have about an eight-inch height difference.)
Do partners of different sizes and shapes just look funnier together? Simpsons creator Matt Groening has claimed that being instantly recognizable in silhouette is the secret to cartoon success, and animation is full of double acts of mismatched size. Laurel and Hardy would certainly still have been enormously successful if they were the same size, but you could argue they might not have become as iconic, as archetypal, without that difference.
“Double acts work on juxtapositions on a number of levels,” says Sharon Lockyer, director of the Centre for Comedy Studies Research at Brunel University London. “Just as verbal jokes are often based on juxtapositions of meanings of words, phrases or ideas, each half of the double act having a different body shape is a visual juxtaposition.”
Having a big guy and a smaller guy is, then, a visual shortcut to “these two are different,” in the same way ethnicity is sometimes used in buddy-cop films — How are these two ever going to get on? One’s African-American, and the other’s Chinese! The late Roger Ebert coined the term “wunza” for films relying on this kind of very obvious contrast (as in “wunza martial arts expert and wunza wisecracking showboat”). But, contrast works.
“Double acts thrive on a contrast,” says Bruce Dessau, renowned arts critic and editor of comedy site Beyond The Joke. “Straight versus funny, tall versus short, handsome versus grotesque, smart versus stupid. I think thin versus fat is a physical manifestation of contrast and conflict between the two performers. Conflict often makes great comedy.”
“There are different strands of comic theory that have been developed,” says Oliver Double (whose name is just a pleasant coincidence), a stand-up comedian turned academic and Head of Comedy and Popular Performance at the University of Kent. “One of the most popular among people who think about comedy now is the incongruity theory, the idea that comedy is ultimately about subverted expectations and the expected order being undermined. The traditional double act formula is a ‘straight man’ with aspirations toward achieving something or improving their status, and a ‘funny man’ who thwarts them at every turn. One of the reasons that straight/funny division has been so long-lasting is because it’s a way of dramatizing that subversion.”
Double argues this quest for an improved status is the key to a double act dynamic, with one member perpetually trying to achieve or improve their lot in life and being dragged down by their partner. Physical differences can be used to accentuate it — he points out that physical size can be used to suggest authority just as much as it can be played with for comedy — but this imbalance in goals is integral.
“Notionally, the straight character will be the one who is in a position of authority within the pair,” he says. “They’ll be the one with aspirations, which adds another level of subversion to them being brought down by the less socially respectable character.”
This seems to check out: The Brain is in charge and aspires to take over the world, Pinky is cheerfully stupid and has no such desires; Harry wants to do bigger robberies, Marv is preoccupied with coming up with new gimmicks; Shaun wants to save the day, Ed wants to go to the pub. In Tommy Boy, David Spade’s Richard is a hard worker while Chris Farley’s Tommy is a keen cow-tipper.
Sadly, in some cases, presenting a character as fat works as visual shorthand for them being lazy, slobby, useless and unambitious. In Wall-E, fat crew members symbolize the apathy and indolence of humanity. In Avengers: Endgame, Thor’s giving up on life was shown by him becoming… Fat Thor (it’s funny because his depression has manifested itself upon his formerly-flawless body!).
However, it’s not always as straightforward as “well, fat dudes are funny.” In the Farley/Spade example, sure, Spade is the sensible one while Farley falls over (better than anyone else has ever fallen over) about once every three minutes. But, going back to Laurel and Hardy, Oliver Hardy’s screen persona was the more intelligent, aspirational one. John Candy was silly and bumbling in Planes, Trains and Automobiles but the voice of reason in The Great Outdoors. The Brain has a gut on him but is hyper intelligent. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost swapped responsible/wildcard roles for their third film, with Frost’s size used for action rather than laughs.
So there’s a lot going on. Pairing a fat guy and a thin guy is visually manifesting a conflict in goals between the two of them, sometimes using a societal bias where being overweight symbolizes a lack of aspiration, and it’s from this conflict that most double act comedy arises.
But then, maybe if something’s funny, it’s just funny, and doesn’t need to be overanalyzed. After all, you can get a hell of a good look at a T-Bone steak by sticking your head up a bull’s ass, but wouldn’t you rather take the butcher’s word for it?