March 2006

Laughing till we hurt

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

Audiences have certain expectations of stand-up comedians — mainly, that they will make us laugh, probably by appealing to the lowest common denominator governing our collective funny bone. We don’t expect comics to strike a blow for social justice and if we don’t find something funny, we don’t have to laugh.

All of which is why I was surprised to have an epiphany during a comic’s act clear back in 1998. The comic was one of three acts at the Chelsea’s restaurant comedy night. He began making fun of Sally Struthers, a fat actress who was appearing on television to encourage American support of starving Third World children. Fat woman. Starving children. Take a wild guess what his punch line was. Hahaha. Hoo-boy! Hahaha, I said, fully conscious of my body, thinking, Well, it is funny, isn’t it? Mustn’t be seen as one who can’t laugh at myself. Ha — hey, wait. Nobody else is laughing. . .

Nobody else was laughing. The mostly thin audience was booing, and the comic quickly changed his routine. The next comic started out praising the beauty of fat chicks (and he hit on me after the show).

So, by the time I saw Willie Barcena at Harrah’s in Las Vegas on Jan. 1 of this year, I’d steeled myself against the inevitable round of fat jokes in his repertoire. It was simple, really. As the 1998 audience taught me, fat jokes aren’t funny.

What they are is lazy. A good comic is funny because he’s clever, not because he can hurl insults like an over-tall kindergartener. Furthermore, fat jokes are trite, trite, trite. From the no-name comic in 1998, to Barcena this New Year’s Day, everyone has exhausted every conceivable punch line that can possibly be associated with someone’s waistline.

Any doubts as to that can be put to rest by simply typing “fat jokes” into an Internet search engine. The majority of what one will find are “yo’ momma is so fat that. . .” jokes, which are such a poor example of witty repartee that it’s hard to get riled.

One inspired individual suggests men use the jokes to hit on women because “if you can make her laugh, she’ll be attracted to you.” He urges caution in telling the jokes to fat women, but apparently believes thin women will find these juvenile one-liners hilarious and leap right into bed.

In other comedy news, two British comics got into a tiff over a fat joke — not because it was bigoted, but because one says the other stole it from him. Here is the allegedly purloined hooter: A fat woman told Comic 1 that she thought he was “a fattist,” and he replied with: “I think you’re the fattest.” Yup. Totally worth stealing! My swollen gut simply aches for laughing!

What other comedians have to say about fat jokes, though, is heartening. Of the tellers: “hacks,” even “pure evil,” according to Dave Martin, who in 2000 told Eye Weekly he thinks laughter at such jokes is a conditioned response: “It feels like I am at the Nuremberg rally and everyone is sieg heil-ing in the form of laughs.” Said comedienne Sarah Silverman: “For me, unless it’s so funny (a joke about fat women). . . those are the ones that make my heart sink.”

Rabbi Bob Alper, a comic working in 1998, was noted in the Detroit Free Press for his sensitivity. “Alper has gone so far with his principle of avoiding offensive material that he even decided to drop fat jokes from his act.”

Even decided to drop fat jokes. Did you catch that? What would be considered basic respect to any other group is seen as an enormous concession when it comes to fat people.

This is the real problem: Fat jokes are a form of bigotry. Perhaps all comics should be compelled to run their fat jokes through a basic test, by inserting “black,” “Jew” or the slang equivalents every time they want to complain about fat, fatties and lard asses. Puts a different wrinkle on the old fat joke, no?

But, one might argue, a fat joke is not the same as a racist joke! After all, fat people can do something about their condition — I know this is true, for Weight Watchers and the CDC have told me so!

I won’t delve into the lies and manipulation perpetrated by Big Diet and the guv’mint. This is what comics need to understand: Racist jokes are predicated on the notion that there is something intrinsically blameworthy, repulsive and/or inherently funny about Race X. Such jokes are not about whether a person can “do something” about being Race X, but about mocking Race X for its perceived wrongness. In other words, racist jokes are exactly like fat jokes.

The difference is, the people who stood up against racism, be it in the form of “harmless” jokes or crossburning, were eventually given credence, and things changed for the better. Fat people who complain about fat jokes are lumped into the “boo-hoo-everyone-ispicking- on-me” crowd and reviled all the more.

Thing about fat people is, we’re not demanding that everyone love and embrace us and shout: “Fat is beautiful!” We get plenty of love from people who are advanced enough to see us as human beings, and we don’t need the adulation of the masses.

But we are within our rights to demand that mass culture treat us equally, and we’ve certainly got the right to object to public mockery by comedians too lazy to find a different schtick. We might give ‘em a salute. But it won’t be a sieg heil.

Katharhynn Heidelberg writes from Montrose.