When Marianne Kirby saw the Associated Press review of Rebel Wilson’s new sitcom, Super Fun Night (premiering Oct. 2 on ABC), she winced. In the first sentence, Wilson is compared to “another portly comedian, the late John Candy.”
Kirby, an activist and writer who focuses on the politics of weight and body image, wasn’t surprised to see that Wilson had created a character who talks a lot about her own size—”that’s kind of part of her schtick,” says Kirby. And, while disappointed, she expected that people talking about Wilson would address that issue too, specifically referencing another large-sized comedian. After all, the way critics and writers talk about actress’ bodies isn’t exactly controversy-free: earlier this year, Rex Reed’s review of “tractor-size” Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief drew ire, and Gawker recently did a round-up of all the ways Rebel Wilson’s weight was inserted into a New York magazine profile.
What was unexpected to Kirby was a new conversation the show engendered. Though Super Fun Night has received mixed notices, reviews of the show may herald a new era in the way actors’ looks are discussed. A large number of critics have shifted the discussion from Wilson’s body type to the way the show relies so heavily on it for its humor.
“She always has the right [to make fun of herself],” says Kirby, “and everybody else has the right to be uncomfortable about it and not think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s a problem to talk about her body unless it’s the only thing people are talking about. In coverage I’ve read, people are talking how she talks about her own body, which is absolutely fair game.”
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Even on a subject with which it’s so easy to offend, response to Super Fun Night‘s fat jokes has been nearly unanimous—and nearly unanimously meets Kirby’s standards of respectfulness.
That Associated Press review, for example, goes to on say that “Wilson has burdened [her character] Kimmie Boubier with constant tiresome references to her less-than-perfect physique.”
“Presumably we’re supposed to find Wilson’s incessant self-deprecation somehow empowering, like a veiled form of self-confidence. But the frequency of the weight-related punchlines, not to mention the droll way in which Wilson delivers them, ends up being depressing,” says The Daily Beast.
“Still, while the star’s skill is beyond question, the show may want to limit how often it asks us to laugh at what are, essentially, fat jokes, even when the overweight person is in control of the joke. There are only so many times you can use Kimmie being disrobed in public as a subject of humor without it crossing from comic to cruel,” says USA Today.
“Simply put, Wilson is a big girl. And despite some obvious quirky charm and keen comedic instincts, she’s stuck in a show/role that relies almost completely on fat jokes…” says The Winnipeg Free Press, “that quickly begin to feel more pathetic than amusing.”
Because the show relies so heavily on those jokes—a sweaty Spanx gag, for example, or Wilson’s character’s frantic rush for free doughnuts—even the headline writers who use quips like “living large” and “trim the fat” aren’t referring to Wilson’s weight unprompted.
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Which is not to say that the way we talk about size is suddenly perfect.
The next step, says Kirby, is to examine not just whether Wilson’s fat jokes are funny but why she might make them. There’s a distinction between making fun of yourself because it hurts less than hearing others make fun of you (Kirby’s suggestion for the motivation behind many size gags) and making fun of yourself because you’re a professional comedian (Wilson’s own explanation for why she makes jokes about her appearance). Even when Wilson’s jokes work, like in her widely acclaimed Pitch Perfect turn as the character “Fat Amy,” the line is still there. Kirby says she couldn’t make it all the way through that movie: “[Rebel Wilson] is super charming and she has a great energy about her, but as a fat person, and as a fat person who has worked really hard in body acceptance both personally and in an activist capacity, it’s really painful to watch those sorts of jokes.”
With Super Fun Night, the discomfort is being felt outside the fat-activism community too—and that’s a good sign that fat jokes are no longer seen as harmless gimmes.
“Every time I click on something [about Super Fun Night], I’m kind of wary,” says Kirby. “I do have that fear that it’s going to be horrible. Then, when it’s like, ‘hey, we don’t want to watch her constantly put herself down, that’s not funny and it’s boring,’ that is totally a pleasant surprise. I don’t know that anybody said that to John Candy.”