Comedy and Obesity

Many Americans, if asked to picture a standup comedian, will envision a pale, flabby lounge lizard; certainly not a person who is toned or buff. On the far end of the spectrum, there have always been famous overweight or obese actors and standup comics — Oliver Hardy comes to mind; also Jackie Gleason, Cedric the Entertainer, John Candy, John Belushi, Gabriel Iglesias, and others.

Perhaps the most flagrant example of a morbidly obese comedian was Ralphie May, who at one point reached almost 800 pounds. After gastric bypass surgery and making a real effort to change, he said, “I lost an entire fat man and I’m still fat as hell!”

Ralphie May: A brief bio

In high school, May started experiencing depression and was gaining weight, although, strangely, he never had a taste for sweets. In adulthood, he showed his love by feeding others, hosting huge barbecues for friends. Despite all the warm community, he also enjoyed the sensation of being insulated from the world by fat.

Contrary to the “less than” feelings that many obese people have, May decided that “You can’t be a victim if you’re the biggest person.” Unlike some other large people, he didn’t have trouble on planes because he always bought two seats. One airline liked him so much, they would refund him for the second seat if the flight was not sold out, i.e., if no one else would have bought it anyway.

As a wealthy performer, Ralphie May was able to afford medical advice, which established that he had some very unusual metabolic processes going on. For instance, he did not store fat in his internal organs — just everywhere else.

Via Ari Shaffir’s Skeptic Tank podcast, May noted that scales don’t register over 350 pounds. He quoted another well-known comic, Joey Diaz, who said of his own slimming efforts that he “just wanted to get down to where he was weighable.”

When working on a cruise ship, May developed pneumonia and was so ill he was unable to move. The Tampa Fire and Rescue Service had to come and offload him from the ship to an ambulance, which must have been quite a production. The pneumonia held on, and last year he died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease at the shockingly young age of 45.

You know it ain’t easy

There was the extreme case of Chris Farley, whose family sued a bicycle company for naming a model of fat-tire bike after him. The legal complaint said that the deceased actor…

[…] carefully guarded and policed his brand […] and even feared losing weight would jeopardize his brand as a comedian.

That seems pretty common among this group. As Craig Ferguson says, “Fat is where comedy is stored.”

Ron Funches used to weigh 360 pounds, and lost 140. Brian Redban was as big as 245 pounds. Many comics who mine the topic produce material too blue to mention here. And even comedians who are not fat (yet) will make fun of their own dysfunctional habits, like Demitri Martin:

I go to the gym religiously — about twice a year around the holidays.

Although some escape it, the large majority of professional comedians face years of life on the road, which is brutal at the lower end of the economic scale, and at even its best, highly unsatisfactory. After a show, a standup comic is wide awake and wired, and there is not much to do in a small town after midnight.

The temptation of alcohol is constant because the fans want to buy them drinks and hang out, and sometimes free drinks are the only pay they get. Aside from its own calories, alcohol brings along the tendency to abandon all discretion when eating.

In that life, the challenges include not only the vast wasteland of junk food out there, but the physical and emotional stress of constant air travel, or the tedium of long road trips on insufficient sleep, and the pitifully inadequate hotel gyms. Nowadays, some of these guys travel with exercise aids that are not too heavy or bulky, like giant rubber bands, or maybe a portable pull-up bar.

That is what this post leads up to talking about, the unlikely melding of two very different cultures. Many interesting things have happened at the intersection of obesity and comedy, and next time we look at the reason.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Demetri Martin Live,” IMDB.com
Source: “#59a Fat (Ralphie May),” Libsyn.com, 5/14/12
Source: “Ralphie May’s cause of death revealed,” CBSNews.com, 12/07/17
Photo credit: Elmira College on Visualhunt/CC BY

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Presentations

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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