Trevor Noah And The Not-Impossible Challenge Of Making An Actually Funny Fat Joke

Fat people are entirely justified in making humor out of their fatness; it's not-fat people who need to tread more carefully.
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Lesley Kinzel
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Fat people are entirely justified in making humor out of their fatness; it's not-fat people who need to tread more carefully.
Trying to make an arrow-in-the-knee joke at Epcot, which like three people will actually get. 

Trying to make an arrow-in-the-knee joke at Epcot, which like three people will actually get. 

Last week, comedian Trevor Noah was named as the successor to The Daily Show’s much beloved, departing Jon Stewart. Naturally, the announcement was met with both praise and criticism.

Some of those critics took it upon themselves to scour Noah’s Twitter feed for signs of insuitability, and they found plenty of material to work with, including some extremely weak fat jokes. The fat jokes are not the only line-stepping humor being dug out of a years-old Twitter feed -- going back to 2011, there are unfunny gibes about gay folks and Jewish people (seriously?) as well as a healthy portion of good old-fashioned misogyny. But I'm focusing on the fat jokes in this case, not because I think they're more important (I don't) but because I have more to say on that personally.

Just because a comedian says something does not make it harmless; just because someone says something intended as comedy does not make it funny. Comedy, itself, is not exclusively lighthearted fun -- comedy can be extraordinarily profound. Which is not to say that it must be profound all the time, but very often the kneejerk response to any criticism of someone else’s humor is that it’s just a joke. Well, not all jokes are meaningless.

Fat jokes are not meaningless, but they’re also not always bad. It’s just really difficult to make a funny, non-shitty fat joke if you yourself are not fat. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that I personally have rarely seen it done.

Chris Farley made loads of fat jokes -- his physical comedy was an endless fat joke, and it was pretty consistently hilarious. On the other hand, Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson have been roundly criticized for relying overmuch on their physicality for their humor. Rex Reed famously called McCarthy “a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success” in a film review. As though there is something unacceptable about making jokes out of something that affects your life. 

This is insane to me. So far as I'm concerned, fat people are entirely justified in making humor out of their fatness; it's not-fat people who need to tread more carefully, in the same way that humor that "punches down" or otherwise targets marginalized people of whom you are not one should be negotiated with extreme care.

Notably, not many people gave Chris Farley (or any other fat male comedian, which are pretty legion) hell for being physical in their comedy. It’s different for women. When Rebel Wilson makes a fat joke, she is actually pushing a boundary. She is discomfiting an audience because she represents the person affected by these stereotypes. Is she is actually mocking her own fatness, or mocking the audience's assumptions and stereotypes that they, consciously or not, may have been applying to her? Who is the joke on? That’s some good provocative humor. The realization that Rebel Wilson, or any fat person, is not actually a one dimensional caricature but a fully realized person who is fully aware of what culture thinks of them can be startling and definitely a bit rattling for those mired in their own bias.

Still, I am not suggesting that only fat people can make fat jokes. I believe that funny fat jokes are possible, and could be perpetrated by anyone who puts a little thought into them. Jokes made at the expense of stereotypes cannot simply reproduce those stereotypes and expect people to laugh because they're repeating what the whole world already knows. Jokes made at others' expense should interrogate stereotypes, or even mimic them to an absurd degree, because the humor is in the ridiculousness of the stereotype in the first place.

Of course, it's easy for me to say. I'm not a comedian. I can't even begin to know the inconceivable joy-inducing magic possessed by an actual comedian. And it may be true that the laziest fat joke in the world reliably derives easy laughter from a certain segment of people, ostensibly people who prefer comedy that simply reinforces their perspective on the world we live in and doesn't actually give them any of the mind-blowing A-HA OH MY GOD IT'S SO TRUE revelations that I look for in good funny shit. 

But simply stating that fat girls need people around them to be drunk to see them as "sexy" is not hilarious; to me, it's actually super depressing. Because it is true a lot of the time, or at least a lot of women believe it is true, and the joke as presented does nothing to point out the tragedy of that. For me, the best jokes are the ones that take tragic truths and transform them into something we can laugh at, because laughter brings relief from a sad, often terrible world. Could a joke be made on the topic of women's bodily insecurity that wasn't dull and unfunny? I honestly think that it could. It's not that the subject is untouchable; it's about who is laughing at whom.

A comedian confronted with a heckler drunkenly intoning "You're not funny" is unlikely to effectively respond by shrieking back "YES I AM" and insisting said heckler agree before the show continues, but to some extent that's what happens lately, anytime people criticize comedians for making troubling jokes about any sensitive topic, from jokes at the expense of fat people to jokes at the expense of gay or trans individuals to jokes at the expense of rape victims. If you didn't laugh, the fault is with you, not with the joke, even though in many of these cases people are not arguing against ever joking on any of these topics, but are arguing in favor of better comedy. Calling something a "joke" does not instantaneously render it harmless. And why on earth would a comedian argue that their work is ultimately without meaning?

But also literally every comedian is going to make bad -- and even offensive -- jokes from time to time. As bad-joke-defending screeds (like Patton Oswalt's now infamous Twitter binge of last week) are apt to remind us, comedy is often about pushing boundaries and making people just uncomfortable enough to want to laugh, and not all humor is the same, nor will it appeal to everyone. It's hardly criminal to make a bad joke. 

But if comedians want to push the envelope, they need to be receptive to people pushing back. Comedy isn't a shield that protects you from the impact of your jokes -- or from the criticism of the people who did not find them funny. Anyone who speaks publicly on social issues is going to get criticism. Comedians are no different, nor should they be. Also, I think it’s safe to assume that no rational person is trying to legislate comedy. Criticism is not the law, and thank god for that. Truly constructive criticism is a simple request that people -- and comedians -- think about the impact of things they've said from a broader perspective that they may not have considered before. That's it. The makers of these jokes are free to ignore the opinions and feelings of those they may have hurt, and they often do. 

While Trevor Noah has been the most recent poster boy for dully offensive humor, his role in this conversation is pretty minor and if I'm honest, I'm a little stunned that his fat jokes have been met with so much resistance and scorn. As a fat woman, I know I live in a world where most people assume that what he has said is literally and universally true, and I just have to find a way to live around that even knowing that my actual experience -- an experience far less represented and recognized in culture and media -- is being distorted and misunderstood. And that this doesn't really matter to a lot of people, because I am a fat girl and my social task is to be a punchline, which jokes like this reinforce, and around and around we go.

Why this fat joke, and now? I have no idea. Trevor Noah's fat jokes are pretty banal in the grander scheme; it's likely they're only being picked up on in concert with the other "jokes" he made at the expense of women in general, and Jewish and gay people. There's some high expectations for a new person to head up such a beloved institution as The Daily Show. People want him to be perfect, and that will not happen, and while I think it's crucial to talk about why these jokes fail, I think it's a bit much to suggest he should lose the gig on that basis.

Really, I'm just pleased that the conversation is happening at all.