Comedian Kath Barbadoro, who does stand-up in Austin, has a joke she tells about craving Whataburger. She recounts stopping by the Texas fast-food chain and bringing a burger home late at night. Then, realizing her roommate can see in through her bedroom window, she kills the lights and eats it in the dark. Late-night shame-eating is totally standard stand-up fodder. But a few times when she’s told it, instead of laughing at Barbadoro’s self-deprecating humor, the audience responds with a pitying “Awwwww.”
Barbadoro, as you might have guessed, is fat.
When last week’s episode of Louie concluded with a monologue from a fat woman about how “it sucks to be a fat girl,” the response was mostly positive. The episode, wrote Libby Hill at the AV Club, “ventures into territory rarely explored in pop culture: what it is to be a fat woman existing in a society that views her as less than.” But the monologue was written by Louis CK, grappling with his own unwillingness to date fat women, not by Sarah Baker, the actress who delivered it — a fact that sparked its own kind of mini-backlash. “Louie Has No Idea What It’s Like to Be a ‘Fat Girl’” blared a headline at Slate.
So what about all the comedians who do know what it’s like to be a fat girl? From pioneers like Roseanne and Rosie O’Donnell to modern darlings like Melissa McCarthy and SNL’s Aidy Bryant and Rebel Wilson, there’s a long history of fat female comedians who are unafraid to write material about their bodies and their experiences as heavy women. Because pity is kryptonite to comedians, these women have a fine line to walk. Some write jokes that play on that pity, like Roseanne’s line about how she thanks God “for creating gay men. Because if it wasn’t for them, us fat women would have no one to dance with.” Some write jokes that hinge on the fact that acknowledging your weight is still taboo, such as Cristela Alonzo’s bit about saying “I am so fat,” and her mother agreeing with her: “Ay, yes, you are freaking fat.” Some deliver jokes that shock with unexpected confidence, like when Michelle Buteau says, on the Fox sitcom Enlisted, “You can call me the fat Lisa Bonet anytime.”
But however they choose to talk about it, the subject is, according to some comedians, not optional. “Everyone’s instantaneous impression of you is what you’re going to have to deal with onstage,” says Barbadoro, who’s been doing stand-up for three years. “You can play against it, you can play it up, but you’re going to have to address it one way or another.” When comedian Jackie Kashian takes the stage, the first words out of her mouth are “I am overweight. You may consider that addressed.”
“It’s the Fat Amy effect,” says comedian and actress Cocoa Brown. “I’m going to talk about it before you can.” Fat Amy, the hyperconfident character played by Rebel Wilson in the 2012 movie Pitch Perfect, explains that she calls herself that “so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” Wilson didn’t write the character, but told The Wall Street Journal, “I’ve actually played a Fat Mandi in Australia, which was my own character on a sketch show I was on … I didn’t look at it as being a negative.”
In sharp contrast with Louis CK’s stand-up routine about how ashamed he is to be fat, most female comedians don’t have the option of truly leaning into a self-deprecating fat joke. The fact that society still sees “fat woman” as synonymous with “sad woman” can complicate matters. When Barbadoro gets an “Awwww” for telling the exact same type of joke that leaves Louis CK’s audience in stitches, “that really bothers me,” she says. “All that means is they’re going ‘Awww, I’m so sorry that you know that you’re fat.’ It’s not anything to do with me or my life, it’s that they’re sad that I’m bringing it up. The insinuation there is that my life must be so hard or something.” She’s made the reaction a part of the joke, and now calls out the audience’s “Awww” when she tells the Whataburger bit.
Prouder, more confident jokes go over differently. “I don’t write as many jokes about being a big girl as I used to,” says Brown, who’s done stand-up for more than a decade, in addition to lots of movies and TV, “but I do have a whole bit about how people always say, ‘There’s men who like big women. Why do they like them?’ Half the time a man likes a big women because he thinks they’re insecure, they’ll cook for him or whatever.” But, she points out, big women feel great in their skin. They’re not worried about looking fat. The punchline: “It’s the skinny chicks who are insecure.” That always gets a big laugh. “It destroys. It rips. Every time.”
She continues, “People believe that plus-size women are in a corner, ashamed, hiding from the world. Once you break the ice, people realize I’m not tripping on my weight, so why are you?” Fat women comedians are a relief. When they stand onstage and talk about their bodies and lives with complicated humor, they give us all permission to see “fat girl” as the starting place for a great joke rather than an easy punch line. They assure us that “fat” is not the worst term you can use to mock someone — it’s a human experience that merits as much comic treatment as any other.
Maybe some fat women share the unfulfilled, deep-seated desire of Louie’s monologist, who just wants to be thought of romantically rather than written off. Maybe some feel great about dating and would rather tell jokes about other insecurities. Maybe, like most people and certainly most comedians, they feel a spectrum of emotions about their lives and bodies that change depending on the circumstances — and that’s where the richest comedic fodder lies. Barbadoro does a joke in which she observes that the only styles of plus-size clothing available seem to be “really depressing careerwear or roller-derby, burlesque neon bullshit.” It’s not a joke about fat women; it’s a joke about being a fat woman. And it kills.