Big Boys Rule on the Small Screen

Last night I was watching "Andy Richter Rules the Universe" and I had a thought. "The Drew Carey Show," "King of Queens," "CSI," "Boston Public," "George Lopez," "Grounded for Life," "According to Jim," "NYPD Blue," "The Sopranos," "The Simpsons" -- what do all these shows have in common?  

Big boys.

No longer simply comic foils or chubby sidekicks, the leading men of these shows are supersize stars. Big men on TV aren't new -- Jackie Gleason was no size 2. But have there ever been so many all at once? It's a virtual overload. According to the National Center for Health Statistics 61 percent of American adults are overweight or obese. In a culture where so many are overweight, is this phenomenon spreading over into the entertainment world?

Funny fatties have been around a long time. Aristotle traced the origins of comedy to processions common to the Dionysiac celebrations in Greek culture. One of the principal figures in these processions was a big fat guy, usually a comic actor wearing a padded costume, with a protruding stomach and big bum -- the komast. The word seems to supply a likely etymology for the word comedy (i.e., song of the komos). The Ancient Greeks worshipped the muscular male body, and probably found the paunch and big bum of the komast funny. They weren't alone. America has had a long tradition of fat comedians, from Gleason, Fatty Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy, Lou Costello, Buddy Hackett to John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley and Drew Carey. Which begs the question, are fat men funnier than skinny men?

Entertainment honchos seem to think so. "Saturday Night Live" is never long without a hilarious hefty. Comedian Horatio Sanz is the current large man in situ, following in the footsteps of Chris Farley, who vowed to "Live fast, die young, and leave a 296-pound corpse" and famous fatty John Belushi, who also OD'd and left a big casket to fill. The New Yorker's James Wolcott called Farley "a party animal without a party." And found it "almost cruel to watch this heavy young man heave and breathe hard and hitch up his belt and thump himself on the chest to dislodge food from his throat."

Even if Wolcott doesn't think fat is funny, others appear to, judging by the success of SNL and other fat-focused shows. But just exactly who is laughing at whom? And is there a degree of complicity between the entertainment industry and audience members?

Paul Budra of Simon Fraser University, a professor of English Literature and an expert on popular culture, makes a distinction between film and television. Despite the success of a few notable examples like Eddy Murphy in "The Nutty Professor" or Mike Myers as "Fat Bastard" -- who is featured again in "Goldmember," the third segment of Mike Myers' Austin Powers magnum opus -- Hollywood doesn't seem ready for a flood of big men on the big screen.

"It is hard for me to imagine a complicity between Hollywood and the increasingly overweight population of America." As proof, Budra offers the experience of a Hollywood screenwriter and producer friend. He wrote the movie "Speed," but created a hero dramatically different than the one that ended up on the big screen. His original screenplay cast the lead as a middle-aged, overweight cop with an addiction to painkillers.  "The studio said rewrite it for Keanu Reeves," Budra says. "And the woman driving the bus can't be an overweight African American. She's going to be Sandra Bullock. The very idea that realistic character actors, large actors, be cast was a non-starter."

TV, on the other hand, appears to be warming to big-sized characters. "Television producers have recently been more open to casting character actors instead of good-looking mannequins," Budra says, noting that part of this trend could be tied to the aging of the general population. "TV producers have to plan for an audience that is increasingly comprised of boomers over the age of 50. By the time one is 50 the chances of going up a size are pretty good -- I'm beginning to find this out myself.

"If you're doing a show about street life in contemporary American cities, you will have to include large people or throw the pretense of realism out the window. Comedy, on the other hand, has always used overweight people as the brunt of often very cruel jokes."

Alan Steadham, Director of the international Size Acceptance Society (ISAA) agrees "Comedies don't usually win Oscars. With few exceptions (such as Kathy Bates), fat people are not portrayed in the lead roles. They may land a supporting role or two but never the lead. It's a Hollywood hang-up."

When fat people are portrayed on film, they're usually played by thin actors in fat suits, a phenomena that's been compared to a modern version of the blackface minstrel show. Change "Black Like Me" to "Fat like Me." The ISAA, however, doesn't agree with this analogy.

"There are actors who have clearly donned fat suits for quick, sarcastic gags, such as Myers and Martin Short (as Jiminy Glick). Eddie Murphy and Gwenyth Paltrow ended up being sympathetic to the plight of plus-sized people after their roles, says Alan Steadham. "Murphy referred to 'The Nutty Professor' as his "kiss to fat people."  Paltrow went on record about the discrimination she encountered (and was unprepared for) while in fat suit. Public stands like Murphy's and Paltrow's created better awareness about the issue and was beneficial overall."

The love/hate relationship between average folk and celebrity culture is nowhere quite as evident as on the tons of websites devoted to altering photos of rail-thin celebrities by adding a few hundred pounds through the magic of Photoshop. But the websites also make it clear that there's a double-chin standard in the entertainment biz: Type "fat celebrities" into any search engine and dozens of images pop up on the screen -- almost all of them women: Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Courtney Cox, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Still there is a pretty clear division between fat men and women. Fat is somehow more palatable for men. Jack Black and Jason Alexander might be chunky monkeys, but they're still considered normal, whereas Gwyneth Paltrow at 300 pounds-plus is big in the extreme (cue hilarity). In each of the aforementioned shows large men are never paired with an equally large women. Instead, they're given slim hotties like Courtney Thorne-Smith or Leah Remini. How many real fat women are on TV right now? I can count them on the fingers of one hand.

"Uh, oh -- I feel a fat feminist issue coming on." But before you run away, there's Oprah, Star Jones on The View, and Mo'Nique from the UPN sitcom The Parkers. Hey! they're all black, you say. This may have something to do with the fact that bigger is more acceptable in African-American culture than among the mighty white uptight Anglo-Saxons.

Maybe it all comes down to evolution. According to Katharine Salmon, a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University, "Different factors make women and men attractive to each other. In women this usually means big eyes, big lips, small chin, small waist, shiny hair; features that say she's young, she's fertile.

"What's important in a mate can be traced back to our evolutionary history. For men picking women this attraction is obvious, but for women choosing men it's less so .They don't always pick the prettiest man. What determines male attractiveness? A strong jaw, larger size, which generally mean a higher level of testosterone. Women also look for ambition, high status, resources, and this can mean being heavier. Hugely fat guys, I don't know, but men certainly have much greater variation in size. James Gandolfini [Tony Soprano] has a huge female following and is considered something of a sex symbol. Cultural differences shift over time. I think there is perhaps, a resurgence of the manly figure, in times of uncertainty. Bigger men seem safer, better able to protect in times of social upheaval. Like the barrel chested men of yore, Spencer Tracey or John Wayne."

Oh Daddy!

When men reach a certain age, it seems natural that they expand, get thicker. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that male waist-line expansion is almost a force of nature. The physiological changes that occur as men age lead to weight gain, but the underlying causes of these physiological changes remains an enigma. Some suggest declining testosterone or "male menopause" as a cause, but middle-age weight gain is a basic physiological consequence of aging, that can't even really be overcome by increasing activity.

Which means, you can run around all you want, you're still going to jiggle like jello at some point. This makes them seem more like men, right? There is an inherent eroticism in the thick man. Once asked how he maintained his then-envied physique, Robert Mitchum replied: "I breathe in and out all of the time. And once in a while I grudgingly lift something -- like a chair."

Burt Lancaster, William Holden, Dana Andrews, Oliver Reed or King of Kings Spencer Tracy, even the current crop of celebrities, Alec Baldwin, John Travolta and Tom Hanks have aged into barrel chested glory. Of course, none are quite as insanely sexy as Russell Crowe. As a slim young man, he was okay, but when he got thick ("L.A. Confidential," "The Insider," "Gladiator") all the ladies went AY AY AY! There is an authority and power to the thick man lacking in his thinner and younger counterpart.

John Travolta has lost little of his ability to command a salary in the millions of dollars even in XXL size pants. But the entertainment industry isn't the only one to welcome big boys. In sports, fat is also in. This past NFL season saw some of the largest players to ever hit the field with a grand total of 275 players who weighed more than 300 pounds. No longer allowed to bulk up with steroids, NFL players are busy getting bigger by eating 10,000-calorie meals. A recent article in Sports News quotes Cowboy lineman Nate Newton saying, "Fat is what got me in the league. All those pretty steroid boys, they're gone. Now it's who's got the most jiggly."

The truth may be that fat men don't have it all that bad, as indicated by an article in Salon from Steven A. Shaw -- a self-confessed Fat Guy.

"I enjoy being a fat guy, although I must confess I wouldn't want to be a fat girl. The societal deck really is stacked against them. But being a fat guy is great. I've never felt that my weight kept me from getting a job or a girl, or from gaining admittance to a club. And it has many, many advantages. Fat guys are strong. Ask any bar owner who hires bouncers, or anybody who gets  in a lot of fights, or any high school wrestler. They'll all tell you the same thing: Don't fuck with fat guys."

It's a fat man's world.

Dorothy Woodend is a freelance writer in Vancouver.

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