When heavyset comedians lose weight, do they become less funny? Last week, the National Enquirer reported that Jonah Hill—who you’ll remember from “Superbad” and “Get Him to the Greek”—is deliberately gaining all of the weight he’d lost because he believes audiences found him less funny when he was slender.
A so-called “insider close to [Hill]” told the Enquirer, “Jonah’s scared to death audiences will turn away from him if he gets thin… [He] worked very hard to slim down but began worrying that producers were beginning to think twice about hiring him.”
It’s the Enquirer, so you might want to take that with a grain of salt, but—true or not—it raises an interesting question. Is Jonah onto something? There is plenty of evidence to support the claim. It certainly seems that Chris Farley and John Belushi got a lot of comedic mileage out of their weight. Would either of them have been as funny if they were skinnier?
Farley and Belushi were known for a certain brand of physical humor. Consider the Saturday Night Live skit where Farley’s character, the motivational speaker Matt Foley, falls down and destroys the coffee table. Could Adam Sandler or Dana Carvey pull that off with the same results? I’m not suggesting that Farley would have lost his sense of humor if he’d lost 100 pounds; but I do believe that we’d have a lot less to laugh at.
American pop culture is full of examples—so many, in fact, it’s almost an archetype: the funny fat guy. Kevin James, Gabriel Iglesias, Drew Carey, Jack Black, Zach Galifianakis and Cedric the Entertainer are all modern-day examples, but the tradition goes back to the days of Oliver Hardy and Lou Costello, at least. One could convincingly argue that we’ve been our chuckles at the expense of chubby people since Shakespeare’s Falstaff.
In the world of comedy, being fat is useful because it plays into so many stereotypes that can be exploited for comedic appeal—laziness, gluttony, and clumsiness, to name a few. Often, fat people are portrayed as seeking approval, short on luck, and resentful of humanity. Rodney Dangerfield, while not morbidly obese, certainly played the overweight schlub for all it was worth.
If you need further proof that fat is funny, look at Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin. As cartoon characters, they could have been drawn skinny. They could lose weight any time it fits into their show’s narrative. But that’s not going to happen. Homer and Peter are written (and drawn) to fit the prototype, as is Hank Hill.
We also have a long history of pairing fat guys with skinny guys, which only serves to accentuate their girth. Some of the greatest comedy teams in the history of film have been cast from this mold. Earlier, I alluded to Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello, who are among the best to ever grace the screen. Farley had David Spade, John Candy had Rick Moranis or Steve Martin. Even Penn & Teller, who aren’t truly comedians, play up their disparity in size for its comedic value.
So, if the report in the National Enquirer is to be believed, maybe Jonah Hill is onto something.
Because the “fat = funny” stereotype is so deeply instilled in us, we might genuinely find Hill funnier with a 44-inch waist.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 06/14/12.
© Damien Willis, 2012. All rights reserved.