What's so funny about fat people? In the old days, the singing fat lady signaled the proverbial end of the show. But in Hollywood today, the fat lady -- and the fat guy, and the fat kid, etc. -- has become a signal to start the laugh track.
Consider this: Eddie Murphy plays not one, not two, but a whole clan of fat people in "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." Martin Lawrence dons drag as a fat grandma in "Big Momma's House." Heavyweight John Goodman dances on a bar top in "Coyote Ugly."
Yes, we laugh at this stuff. The proof's in the pudding, like the $110 million that "Big Momma" has grossed so far and a $42 million opening for "Klumps."
But the questions remains. What are we really laughing at, and why?
"I don't think there's any question that the humor in these films are linked to the characters being fat," says Chris Crandall, a professor at the University of Kansas who has written prolifically about fat psychology.
"Big Momma's House" Crandall says a lot of the "fun" in films such as "The Klumps" comes from the fat factor; he attributes it to the general public's fear of people outside the so-called "norm." And, while it's become unacceptable to ridicule gays, the handicapped and minorities, Crandall laments that fat people are still fair game.
"People are motivated to punish or ostracize people who are different. Fat people are different, and they're different in an undesirable way. ... You can laugh at a fat guy, 'cause there's a rule that says you can laugh at people who brought it on to themselves," Crandall says.
Still, Crandall concedes that the humor in "The Klumps" and "Big Momma's House" is at least partly owed to Murphy's and Lawrence's comedic skills; after all, it's not easy or fun to plaster all that prosthetic makeup and extra poundage, and then wiggle around like a bonafide fat guy (or woman, as the case may be).
"For both of these comedians, a lot of the humor [comes from] their physical movements. Both these guys have very good physical comedy, and the fat stuff just exaggerates it."
Still another question comes to mind: Are Murphy and Lawrence (and others before them, like Chris Farley) making fun of fat people, or are they merely making fat people funny?
"These are gross characterizations of fat people," says Debra Perkins, vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (www.naafa.org).
"Not only are these characters much, much bigger in size than people see in their day-to-day life, but they're put into really embarrassing and humiliating situations. Of course people will laugh."
But aren't some of the people laughing in the audience also themselves fat? Susan Mason, an ex-standup comic and frequent talk show guest, expounds.
Susan Mason "There's so many different ways in presenting funny. [In my standup act] I talk about being fat, but not self-deprecating humor. It depends on the reason for laughter," Mason says.
"In 'The Nutty Professor,' even if the characters [Murphy] creates are not fat, people would still laugh. It's because he's funny. The [characters he created] remind us of real people that we know. They look like real people. He wasn't creating real people but caricatures of real people."
She adds: "I think Eddie Murphy is not objectifying black people or fat people, but he's putting the human condition and putting different faces on it.
So, what else is new? The difference between what is offensive and what's not is pretty much subjective. But one thing's undeniable: At the box office this summer, fat is phat.