Fat Babe Pool Party. No, it’s not a punchline in the new Rebel Wilson movie. Or a place where everyone points and laughs at a bathing-suit clad Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit. Nope. The Fat Babe Pool Party is an empowering, life-changing event for Annie, the lead character on Hulu’s Shrill. Annie sees fat women in bathing suits, “living in their bodies and enjoying their life” and realizes that’s what she wants for herself.
Annie, played delightfully by SNL’s Aidy Bryant, is a fat woman living in the world, whose weight is a part of her life and informs her perspective, but is not all she is. She is a full character with thoughts other than food, a love life that isn’t based on pity, great style, brains and a sense of humor that doesn’t include her breaking a piece of furniture. She is a fat character who is funny, but never the butt of the joke because of her weight. In other words, a unicorn in comedy.
Since the start of film and television, the fat character, as a sidekick or a foil has been a comedic staple. Starting back as far as Fatty Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy and Lou Costello, through Chunk in Goonies and up to Jonah Hill (sometimes), comedy has relegated these characters to one defining quality: their weight. Sometimes they are shown as constantly and completely ravenous, pushing anyone and anything out of the way to get to their food (hello, Newman). Others are on a perpetual diet, because nothing can be worse than being fat (Dom DeLuise in Fatso). And then there are the former fats who lost weight, became hot, and are terrified of gaining the weight back lest they lose everything good in their life. (Monica Geller, New Girl’s Schmidt and Ryan Reynolds in Just Friends).
Many are shown as lazy and sloppy (hello again, Newman). Some are beyond stupid (Homer Simpson and Pete Griffin), and others are just selfish and mean (Cartman, and hello once more, Newman). Even Melissa McCarthy couldn’t escape the trope. In Bridesmaids, amongst a slew of silly characters, Melissa is the one who is loud, brash and completely uncouth. Ditto for The Heat, where her character is sloppy and foul-mouthed, compared to Sandra Bullock’s neat and uptight character who is always in control. The message may be subtle, but it still comes across loud and clear.
Typical fat characters are never seen as desirable or sexy. They can’t find love unless someone has been paid to take them out, they are being pranked, or they find someone who is disliked or as fat and lazy and sloppy as they are. Fat Amy in the Pitch Perfect films at first seems to break some of the stereotypes. She’s confident, and has given herself the name Fat Amy and owns it. But nearly all of her jokes are based around her weight. And she winds up with the annoying, selfish character everyone else hates. In Shallow Hal, Jack Black needs to be hypnotized into seeing a fat woman as thin in order to notice her, let alone fall in love with her.
Speaking of Shallow Hal… Let’s talk about fat suits, shall we? Another lovely feature of the fat character in comedy. Mike Meyers as Fat Bastard, completely repulsive. Eddie Murphy as the Nutty Professor and the Klumps, all about food. Fat Monica on Friends, constantly eating and dancing to show how funny it is when her fat jiggles. Gwyneth in Shallow Hal, who breaks chairs and whose jump into the pool sends a kid flying out of the pool and into a tree.
The common denominator through all of these characters is that none of the jokes would work if they weren’t fat.
But it also works in reverse. Actors who don’t necessarily play a character written as fat, but the ones who use their weight as their own characters.
Chris Farley had such a sweet, lovable quality all his own. A very physical actor inspired by John Belushi, one of the first things that brought him attention during his first season on SNL was the Chippendales sketch. You know the one. Chris competing with Patrick Swayze to be a stripper. Chris was absolutely fearless, completely committed to the bit and used his body to ultimate effect, shirtless and gyrating. The joke being, of course, that Chris would ever think he can beat Patrick. After that, Chris seemed to make his weight his go-to for a laugh. While every actor and comedian needs to use what they have and play to their strengths, Chris seemed to believe his only strength was his weight. Whether singing “fat guy in little coat” in Tommy Boy, breaking furniture as motivational speaker Matt Foley or making a sweaty, insane, breathless entrance on Letterman, Chris made his weight the focal point of everything he did. He knew it was a guaranteed crowd-pleasing laugh, and he used it. If he had lived, hopefully he would have realized he had so much more to offer than being “the fat guy”, as John Candy seemed to. John was another actor who initially created his own character by using his weight as the joke in films like Stripes. But John began to make a change, slowly moving from being “the fat guy” to being “the guy who happens to be fat”. Starting with Planes, Trains and Automobiles, John seemed to show confidence in his talent and abilities beyond his weight.
It’s just too bad that Chris Farley didn’t have something like Shrill to watch when he was starting out. But maybe now others will go to the Fat Babe Pool Party.