By Rhys Speight.
The performer’s greatest tool is their body, and while everyone has one they can be very different. However, this doesn’t translate to what we see in popular media where slim and toned bodies predominate. Deviations from this are so much of an irregularity that the term ‘plus-size actors’ was coined to refer to those whose weight falls above the ridiculous Hollywood standards. As someone who is plus size, being various weights and shapes throughout my life, I can relate to the struggles of being a plus size performer, or a fat actor as I like to call it. One of the genres I have always gravitated towards is comedy as fat actors have always seemed to flourish in this genre, despite it leading to some negative stereotypes and poor mental health for the actors.
The American television variety show Saturday Night Live (abbreviated as SNL) has a history of casting a diverse range of comedians, thus making it inevitable that a range of plus size actors would join their ranks. SNL have proudly given a platform to fat comedians, such as the beloved John Belushi and Chris Farley, both of whom died at age 33 of drug overdoses. The escapades of Farley in particular are still fondly remembered to this day, with one of his most well-known, and in recent years infamous, sketches being the Chippendales Audition from Season 16 in 1990, with guest star Patrick Swayze. Swayze was massive sex symbol of the time, known for his athleticism and dancing, so the logical comedic conclusion would be pairing him with the obese Farley. Chippendale dancers represent a peak of masculinity, their toned bodies and heavily choreographed dance routines being a far cry from Farley’s usual schlubby spontaneous antics. In the sketch, Farley is presented opposite Swayze at an audition panel for the position of a dancer. The joke is very simple: Farley is fat. As he strips his hairy, chubby body is put on full display for the camera, juxtaposed with the toned torso of Swayze. Farley is competing with the biggest sex symbol in America and yet, he has our undivided attention. It is a bizarre effect, intentional or not, as here Farley seems to have all the power in the situation. Despite one of the most aesthetically pleasing men in Hollywood being stood next to him, all eyes are on Farley’s obese body and soon we begin to root for him. Similar to Oliver Hardy, seeing such a large man move with such athleticism and energy instils a sense of euphoria, we are seeing the last thing we expect to happen unfold before our eyes, the whoops and cheers of the audience make it clear who is their preferred dancer.
However, the narrative of the sketch itself is different. In a rather awkward concluding scene, the judges choose Swayze’s character before body shaming Farley’s, bluntly describing his body as “fat and flabby”. The sketch has since gone on to have an infamous reputation, with some pointing to it as part of the reason Farley developed such deep insecurities. The Network Entertainment documentary I am Chris Farley (2015) delves into Farley’s struggle with mental health and drugs, interviewing his friend and fellow comedian Chris Rock, who cited the Chippendale sketch as one of the reasons Farley felt these insecurities, criticising it because:
The joke of it is, basically, ‘We can’t hire you because you’re fat.’ There’s no comic twist to it. It’s just [bleep]ing mean. Chris wanted so much to be liked. As funny as that sketch was…it’s one of the things that killed him. (Rock 2015).
Rock’s criticism is blunt, but also very much in the right. The sketch’s premise is to make fun of Farley’s weight, it is a direct mockery of his body. Watching the sketch now, Farley’s performance gives him the kind of power he has, and the effect it has on the audience that makes them root for him. As a performer he was deeply loved and his style has certainly inspired parts of my own.
Sadly however , this affection was not enough to get through to Farley at the time, and he turned to alcohol, drugs and binge eating in his personal life. The Washington Post’s Justin Moyer discusses these issues in his bluntly named article, ‘How we killed Chris Farley with laughter’ (2015), writing in response to Farley’s view that he felt trapped by both type casting and trying to keep his outrageous comic persona separate from his personal life, “Every character he played seemed ready to burst, and the comic was not inclined — or perhaps too scared — to play against type.” (Moyer 2015).
Moyer goes on to argue that Chris was trapped by a case of “Life imitates art”, the characters that Farley would portray only seemed to get larger and louder, bleeding through into Farley’s real-world personality. In performance, Farley discovered a safe space where he could unload his stress and found not only a place accommodate his large body and increasingly unhealthy lifestyle. Farley eventually escaped the mental trap of SNL and looked to have a promising upcoming career, talking with playwright David Mamet about playing Fatty Arbuckle, a fat comedian accused of rape. A very striking and dramatic role could’ve made Farley’s career. Despite his explosively comedic persona, Farley was a deeply broken and problematic person. Indeed, as an admirer of his, it is upsetting to learn that Farley was convicted of exposing himself to a girl in school, leading to his expulsion. He would ultimately follow in the footsteps of his hero John Belushi and died of a drug overdose at the young age of 33, alone in his apartment.
In being fat and funny, Farley took both aspects too far, and killed himself with them. It would be reassuring to believe that we have learned from Farley’s tragic life, but we haven’t. Fat is still stigmatised as slobbish and clumsy, and fat performers still have to rely on comedic work to get anywhere in the industry, despite how poorly handled the comedy often is. This is a clear case for better written work surrounding fat, though perhaps that is too much to ask of popular media.
Moyer, J. (2015) How we killed Chris Farley with laughter [Internet]
Rock, C. (2015) I am Chris Farley [Documentary] Directed by Brent Hodge and Derik Murray. Vancouver, Canada. Network Entertainment.
Rhys Speight is a BA Drama and Theatre student at York St John University.
This post is a extract from his third year dissertation titled: ‘Fat is… an Issue? An Analysis of the Role of Plus Size Actors and Actresses in the World of Performance