I am rarely watching broadcast TV late at night — at 11 p.m. I’m usually reading a book (currently: America’s Founding Food) and debating whether it’s too late to eat a huge bowl of pickles while my spouse shoots at fake wizardy aliens on the videogamez.
So I usually hear about things that happen on late night TV, later. And thus, last week Marci sent me a clip from Conan. To sum up: Chelsea Handler is on Conan’s couch, talking to Conan about swimming in the ocean. She asks Conan if he likes to swim in the ocean, which Conan answers in the affirmative. Handler then turns to Conan’s sidekick (and, because it’s pertinent here, portly gentleman) Andy Richter, seated on her other side, and asks him the same question, which he also answers positively. But Handler lingers.
“Do you float… a lot… in the ocean?” she asks, nodding. Nervous laughter from the studio audience. It sounds like a thready segue into a fat joke, more than a fat joke itself, as though she’s — heh — testing the waters.
Richter, who like many members of the Double-Chin Division of the Corpulence Army can probably recognize even an uncertain effort at a joke about his size, takes an instant to process. Then, before Handler can move on, he replies, “Why, do you sink?” Waits a beat. “Might be that cast-iron heart.”
It is one of the more charming responses to a fat-related jibe in recent memory, partly because it’s delivered with such grace and humor. Richter manages to call out Handler on a cheap, unfunny non-joke about his weight with a witty left hook that both illuminates the casual hurtfulness of these sorts of punching-down quips, and also affirms his individual humanity and dignity — the first thing to get tossed in these moments, when a person’s appearance is itself the punchline. And not only does he out-joke her, he manages to point out the cruelty of her approach (“cast-iron heart” indeed), AND to make her laugh at herself.
Richter’s response is the ideal reaction in such public circumstances, chapter and verse. He spots the joke forming, and kills it with a better, funnier joke, and he does it while smiling and laughing himself. It’s so perfect that if not for Handler’s uncontrollable laughter, I would have thought it was planned. He survives the moment and comes out stronger than his would-be insulter in the end.
Sometimes, this happens, but it’s rare; sometimes a person in receipt of a fat joke in an incredibly public circumstance can manage to own that situation entirely. When the ever-magnificent Gabourey Sidibe was subject to vicious Twitter mockery for her Golden Globes dress back in January, she responded by tweeting, “To people making mean comments about my GG pics, I mos def cried about it on that private jet on my way to my dream job last night. #JK” And all of Twitter — NAY, THE WHOLE OF THE INTERNET — died over how hairflippingly cool this was, how perfectly and endearingly she managed to tell the losers making whale jokes to get over themselves.
Unfortunately, not everyone is Andy Richter or Gabourey Sidibe. And not everyone has the resources to bounce back from “playful” insults, whether they’re malicious or not.
I’m not opposed to fat jokes, when they’re funny; it’s just that so few of them are. They typically follow the punching-down model of humor that preys on people who are the easiest targets to hit and the least likely to have the practiced confidence necessary to defend themselves in the moment (although we’re all brilliant about it in the shower two days later). Jokes that punch down take people who are already battling against cultural assumptions and makes them victims. No one likes to be made to feel like a victim. It’s not funny.
And even when they do make you laugh, it’s important to remember that these jokes often rely on social inequities that position fat people as less human, and as less worthy of respect, consideration, or sympathy.
Chris Farley built a career out of making fat jokes about himself; today, critics are eager to ding Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson for allowing weight to be a central aspect of the characters they play. But I can’t blame either of them. Fat doesn’t disappear just because you refuse to acknowledge it. If you’re a fat performer, people will make fat jokes about you no matter how much you demand to be taken seriously.
And if you’re a fat comic actor, people will make your weight something to laugh at regardless of whether the script or your performance intends for them to do so. This happens because we live in a media culture that has historically only taught us to read fat bodies in two roles: as a punchline, or as a tragedy. (We can hope that this is changing, however.) It’s little wonder that fat performers should try to get in front of that wave, and try to ride it to a place they can feel good about, rather than letting it wash over them and take their agency away.
This is true for lots of us, in fact; without a ready rejoinder to fire back at every hilarious insult, we’re entirely prepared to laugh and play along because drawing attention to how cruel these jokes can feel seems like betraying a weakness; it would be saying, “These things are hurtful, and they hurt me, and it’s not okay.” Which means you necessarily have no sense of humor, right? Because failing to laugh at one thing means you can never ever laugh at anything else in the world ever for the rest of your life.
The first time I ever experienced a fat joke made publicly at my expense was in the 6th grade. I was at a special school breakfast for some patriotic holiday, and the mayor of my hometown was present. Somehow, as we all slid down the long benches attached to the lunchroom’s tables, I wound up sitting directly across from him.
The breakfast plates of scrambled eggs and sausage were disturbingly cold and hard, and no one ate much of that, but at the end of the meal trays of mini powdered donuts were put out on the table. I initially took two, since they were small — I was already keenly aware of my weight and how my peers thought of me — and began eating them. But after seeing my classmates unreservedly grabbing up handfuls, I took two more.
“That’s a lot of donuts you’ve got there!” The mayor bellowed, pointing at my plate and laughing. My classmates all looked at me and laughed as well. I stopped eating at once, and began wishing desperately for a sudden illness to render me unconscious.
This would have been bad enough, but then, when the mayor went up to the stage to address the whole school, he referenced it again: “I’ve never seen donuts disappear so fast!” He laughed again. “There was one chubby girl who went back twice!” And it was like MY WHOLE MIDDLE SCHOOL TURNED AROUND AND LOOKED AT ME. Like a scene in a movie. The mayor told the whole school I was fat and ate a bunch of donuts. I couldn’t make this up. The fact that the mayor himself was undeniably fat was little comfort; hell, part of me is still angry at him, and he’s been dead for like 20 years or something.
Twelve-year-old Lesley could do nothing but sit and turn red. Since then, I’ve rarely suffered such events in embarrassed silence. I’ve done almost every approach to jokes and insults lobbed at me in public. I’ve made vulgar quips right back (“Sorry, I got this fat because your mom bakes me pie,”), I’ve responded cheerfully and unflappably (“Thanks for noticing! All my hard work is paying off!”), and I’ve given people a stone-faced, “That’s actually not funny at all.” And for my trouble, sometimes I am doubly humiliated, but sometimes I come out the winner. It’s okay to laugh it off, but it’s equally okay to get mad. I just can’t bear not responding at all.
For the most part, people who make fat jokes are not vicious monsters. They just don’t always realize how they might be unwittingly having a lasting hurtful effect on the people around them. They need to be told.
That’s why watching the clip between Chelsea Handler and Andy Richter is so thrilling. It’s thrilling to see someone making a cheap shot about someone’s appearance get their comeuppance, and to have that comeuppance come in such a perfect form that even she has to laugh at it — and at herself.
Lesley Kinzel is Deputy Editor at xoJane.com.