The comic ‘fat man’ character

The larger than life comic ‘fat man’ in storytelling is often associated with stereotypes and clichés that perpetuate assumptions about obese people. The ‘fat man’ is a staple of the comedy duo. The classic Hollywood duo, Laurel and Hardy were an iconic comic team, with Laurel as the thin, insecure half of the duo (his name even suggesting a wallflower disposition), and the other half of the duo, Hardy, the ‘fat man’ (his name suggesting a certain resilience). The gags play on Laurel’s lack of confidence and tendency to overthink matters, in contrast to Hardy’s over-confidence and thoughtlessness. Laurel’s inevitable timidity and fear and Hardy’s deluded, self-importance providing two polar opposites that constantly come into conflict. This conflict provided the dynamic for much of their dialogue and adventures, but the lynchpin relied on the stereotype of the ‘happy fat man’, the optimistic, and ever-cheerful Hardy.

Uncle Buck (1989) presents the audience with another jolly ‘fat man’, the initially annoying Buck, whose directness turns out to have a refreshingly positive effect on the two middle class siblings in his care. The story takes stereotypical perceptions of obese people, and plays with the audiences own prejudices to subvert these expectations — the bumbling, incompetent, and lazy fat man is revealed to be a good and honest person. Buck is well meaning, earnest, eccentric, and caring, and it’s these qualities that matter.

In Planes Trains and Automobiles (1988) the irritating salesman Del Griffith, proves to be another decent person hiding in plain sight beneath a superficial layer of irritating quirkiness and over-enthusiasm, eventually going on to win over his unwilling travelling companion, a selfish and cold-hearted yuppie advertising executive.

The character Hurley in Lost (2004 - 2010) copes with prejudice surrounding him, as well as his own personal demons, fearful of messing things up, being a problem to those around him — even being a jinx of some kind. Yet his possession of a mysterious number not only wins him the lottery, but that same number proves to be a significant on the strange island they are stranded on. His character comes across as gentle, and very human.

Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers film series (1999, 2002) is a very different comic figure, a one-dimensional, cartoon-like character defined by his in-your-face Scottishness and ginger hair. His behaviour and physical appearance is repulsive in a comically cringeworthy way: an object of disgust. Another character, somewhat less outlandish than Fat Bastard, is ‘Bluto’ from Animal House (1978), although he’s clearly disgusting he manages to pulls it off with a certain charismatic charm that makes him affable.

Sometimes the ‘fat man’ is the odd person out, ridiculed, bullied by his peers, like ‘Lardass’ in Stand By Me (1987) the gags around him balanced by a certain melancholy — and our knowledge, from the narrator’s hindsight, that he will never amount to anything in his life. Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998) — the friend of the central character, Lebowski — has never amounted to anything, and the big talker is both foolishly inept, and incompetent, a liability to have around, who repeatedly screws things up for his friend. But Lebowski, as the loyal friend, tolerates his pal, seemingly unable to give him up, which reveals his own ‘loser’ personality that is wrapped up in self-aggrandising fantasy that he is somehow special and different.

The salesman in Barton Fink (1992), on the other hand, follows the opposite path to Uncle Buck (the irritating, ‘fat slob’ who turns out to be a decent man), instead, the Salesman starts off as an amenable ‘big guy’ who turns into a psycho, possible even the Devil, or at the very least the personification of self-destruction and insanity.

The ‘fat man’ tends to be a cookie cutter character, the one the audience laughs with, or at. Sometimes he’s the odd man out (like ‘Lardass’ in Stand by Me). Nevertheless, perception of the jolly ‘big guy’, the eternal (probably deluded) optimist is socially persistent. Storytellers like to subvert this stereotype, to reveal the person underneath. In a world of chiselled, classic heroes who look like they’ve been working out at the gym, it’s something of a relief to get a character like Hurley in Lost, who battles real-world issues like bullying and self-belief, and goes beyond cliché to present the audience with a nuanced and emotionally rewarding character.