Why does Hollywood think fat suits are so funny?
This isn’t a rhetorical question. I actually want to know.
From Shallow Hal (shudder!) to Fat Monica on Friends and Fat Schmidt on New Girl, there’s a segment of writers, producers, and showrunners who think you can just stick an actor in a fat suit and the jokes write themselves. Hilarity ensues.
The latest entry in this ignominious pantheon is the new Netflix series Insatiable, which premiered August 10. In the comedy (and I’m using that term very loosely), Patty (Debby Ryan) is an overweight high school student who breaks her jaw when a homeless man punches her in the mouth. (They’re fighting over a candy bar. Don’t get me started). A few months on a liquid diet and voila Patty is transformed into a smoking-hot teen. “Trust me. Skinny is magic. You’re not Fatty Patty anymore,” her lawyer/beauty pageant coach, Bob (Dallas Roberts), tells her. Despite starring some of my favorite TV actors (Roberts, Christopher Gorham, Carly Hughes and Alyssa Milano among them), Insatiable just doesn’t work. There’s the obvious fat shaming in the story of an overweight teen who thinks the solution to all her problems is being thin, not to mention the message that “fat” equals “ugly” and “undesirable.” In addition, Insatiable is simply a bad show, one that tries (so much trying!) to be a darkly comic satire à la Heathers but never quite gets there. There’s also an unsettling storyline about how Patty wants to sleep with Bob and a clichéd one about how Patty’s best friend is secretly in love with her (like the fat shaming, the friend’s love for Patty is played as pathetic and for cheap laughs). The show is just a big disaster.
Of the 32 photos available on the Netflix press website, only two of them are of “Fatty Patty.” So unless you want to watch the series (which I don’t advise), you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that in most shots of Fat Patty, Ryan is stuffed into clothes that are too tight for her fat-suited body and her face is distorted. Why do they do that when they decide to make someone overweight? Do they not know that people who aren’t a size zero actually have proportional and not warped faces? That people who are a size 14 can find clothes that fit them?
Fat Monica, as portrayed by Courtney Cox, is one of the more famous examples of the fat suit on TV. Like many aspects of Friends that have not aged well (Chandler’s dad, for example), Fat Monica is cringe-inducing, and I say that as someone who still counts Friends as one of my all-time favorite shows. In the Season Two episode “The One with the Prom Video,” the gang watches a video of Monica and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) getting ready for prom. “Some girl ate Monica,” Joey (Matt LeBlanc) exclaims. When Monica protests that the camera adds 10 pounds, Chandler (Matthew Perry) asks, “So how many cameras are actually on you?” Hilarious, right?
In the Season Five entry “The One with all the Thanksgivings,” Ross brings Chandler home for Thanksgiving and Chandler says, “I don’t want to be stuck here all night with your fat sister.” Later in that same episode, on another Thanksgiving, the now thin Monica accidentally drops a knife on Chandler, cutting off his toe. She was trying to get back at him for calling her fat, but the episode ends with Monica apologizing to Chandler. I don’t condone violence, but watching it now, I think Chandler got off easy. Oh, and in every scene Fat Monica is eating, or spilling mayonnaise on Rachel’s prom dress, or some other action that (wrongly) suggests fat people are fat because they can’t stop eating. The whole thing is insulting, but the fundamental problem is the attitude among the producers and writers that having the super, super skinny Cox wear a fat suit, and be a fat person, is intrinsically funny. That somehow Cox, who is beautiful, is less beautiful if she’s not a size double-0.
New Girl has the same approach to Fat Schmidt (Max Greenfield), who meets his roommate, Nick (Jake Johnson), when he just shows up in his college dorm room eating raw ramen noodles (because, as discussed, fat people just can’t stop eating). That Season Two episode, “Models,” ends with Nick throwing pieces of Pop Tart at Schmidt so he can catch them with his mouth. I wish I was making this up, but I am not. Once again, there’s not a lot of nuance here. Fat Schmidt is just funny—or meant to be—because he’s fat. It should also be noted that, to my memory, not once do Monica or Schmidt ever truly fear getting fat again, watch their weight or worry about the calories they’re consuming.
When January Jones became pregnant while filming Mad Men, an entire Season Five episode, “Tea Leaves,” was built around Betty’s weight gain. And even though Jones was pregnant, they still put her in a fat suit. I was not a fan of the episode: Give me Kerry Washington carrying a ridiculously large purse on Scandal any day. Or American Housewife, which never even mentioned star Katy Mixon’s obvious pregnancy. Betty’s weight gain leads to a cancer scare, which leads to her realizing how truly special her children are and what a terrible mother she’s been, and perhaps to her wanting to change her ways. I posit that this epiphany could have been achieved without prosthetics to make Betty look fat.
This is Us has received quite a bit of flack over the fact that Chris Sullivan, the actor who plays Toby, dons a fat suit for the role. Production makes a point of calling it “prosthetics,” not a “fat suit.” And honestly, I’m fine with Sullivan having to add girth to play a man struggling with weight loss—I’ve already written about how weight loss is not the most interesting aspect of either Kate (Chrissy Metz) or Toby—because Toby’s weight is not a one-note joke. It is an ongoing aspect of his character. (We can save the discussion of how annoying Toby is for another time.)
Fat Mac (Rob McElhenney), who made his appearance during the seventh season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, was creator McElhenney’s way of commenting on the fact that, usually in comedies, the stars get better looking as the seasons progress and the stars have more money to spend on their appearance. McElhenney gained 50 pounds to make this point, which resulted in weight gain that looked real and not the bizarre fat suit motif. I don’t know if assuming the health risks of gaining and then losing that amount of weight is advisable, but as a viewer, real weight gain looks a lot better than fat suit weight gain.
How has TV not evolved past this? Why do those behind the scenes still think putting a super skinny actor in a fat suit is acceptable? I know plenty of non-size 2 folks living happy, healthy, productive lives. They aren’t constantly eating. They wear great clothes. They don’t think their lives are a joke, and neither should we. That being overweight equals unhappiness is a Hollywood myth foisted upon viewers, and it’s time for it to stop.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .