Rebel Wilson's Body Is Revolutionary for TV. Too Bad Her Sitcom Isn't.

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Oct. 2 2013 11:19 AM

A Big Disappointment

Rebel Wilson is a revolutionary sitcom star. Too bad her sitcom is no good.

Super Fun Night: Episode
Lauren Ash, Rebel Wilson, and Liza Lapira star in ABC's Super Fun Night.

Photo courtesy Carol Kaelson/ABC

In the first episode of ABC’s new sitcom Super Fun Night, lawyer Kimmie Boubier (Rebel Wilson), pronounced BOOB-ier, gets a promotion and decides to celebrate with her two best friends in an unusual way. Instead of convening at Kimmie’s house and spending the evening indoors as they have every Friday night for years, the three socially awkward women decide to hit up a nightclub. The excursion does not go well: The bouncer refuses to let the not-cool-enough trio in, and Kimmie’s very tight bandage dress rips open to reveal her heart-emblazoned underwear and bra set to Richard (Kevin Bishop), the kindly colleague on whom she has a crush. Yet despite this fiasco, the indefatigable Kimmie resolves to try again: Every Friday from then on, she declares, she and her friends will force themselves to go out and have a super fun night.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

I provide this synopsis because the above episode is not the one you will see tonight, when the series premieres. Last week, ABC decided to swap the airdates of the pilot and the second episode, hoping that the latter would make a better first impression on viewers than the former. (The second episode has the virtue of being less cruel—Kimmie getting over her stage fright and singing karaoke vs. Kimmie being deemed too unattractive to enter a club—but the first has the virtue of explaining what the show is about.) It’s the sort of last-minute vote of no confidence that exposes the dysfunction of the fall TV season, when shows get rushed to air whether they’re ready for it or not. Super Fun Night has the distinct feel of being taken out of the network oven only half-baked. Wafting off of it is the very faint smell of a surreptitiously radical sitcom, one of the first to treat lady fat like man fat—that is to say, as funny, not as an affront—but it’s way underdone, a gloppy mish-mash of incomplete characterizations, uplifting messages, and fat jokes.

On network television, where Zooey Deschanel passes for idiosyncratic, Super Fun Night is not a natural fit. Wilson is best known to American audiences for playing Kristen Wiig’s strange roommate in Bridesmaids and Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, two characters who only hint at the oddballs Wilson has played in Australia. (Check out clips from Bogan Pride, a show she wrote, if you want to see something it is absolutely impossible to imagine airing in the United States.) Kimmie is Wilson’s most normal character yet, a good-natured woman who is friendly in a socially awkward way. A good lawyer, Kimmie is easily flustered and physically spazzy: her clothes are always ripping off. But she wears her big heart not only on her undies, but also her sleeve, where everyone except the hateful, competitive, skinny women she keeps encountering at work recognize it and warm to her.

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What Kimmie’s judgmental female colleagues see instead of her heart is her size. As with many of Wilson’s creations, Kimmie’s weight is central to the character and her comedy. In a New York profile of Wilson, Conan O’Brien, who produces the show, said, “Rebel is revolutionary. Her weight is vastly overshadowed by her talent. It’s like the early Beatles—after the world heard the songs, no one cared about their haircuts.” O’Brien is trying to be nice, but his metaphor needs some work: Wilson’s weight is only like the Beatles’ haircuts if they sometimes used their haircuts as an instrument.

Wilson’s body is integral to her comedy, which includes a lot of partially clothed physicality and the need to beat everyone else to the fat joke. In Pitch Perfect, when Fat Amy was asked why she likes to go by “Fat Amy,” she replied, “So twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” Episodes of Bogan Pride opened with three skinny women in bikinis singing and snorting in disgust at Wilson’s bathing suit-clad character. In a TV culture where audiences are used to stocky sitcom dads having hot sitcom wives, but Lena Dunham can’t plausibly make it with a dreamboat, Wilson has chosen to wrestle with her Spanx, show off her lingerie, and pick a cute Brit as her love interest from the very start. Like Melissa McCarthy, whose part in Bridesmaids Wilson auditioned for and whose CBS sitcom Mike & Molly is explicitly about weight issues, Wilson specializes in characters who project an implacable—maybe even unfounded—self-confidence that cannot be destabilized by the opinions of other, more “normal” observers. Unlike McCarthy, Wilson takes off her clothes a lot. What Wilson looks like naked is one of her go-to jokes.

Wilson is not the first comedian to use her fat as a punch line, but she’s one of the few women to use it so utterly without fear and shame. Wilson doesn’t play Kimmie as dim—she’s an accomplished lawyer—but there is some Chris Farley in her DNA, a sweet puppy-dog temperament coupled with a willingness to undergo any indignity for a laugh. And as with Chris Farley, reasonable people can disagree about whether holding up one’s body as a punch line is hilarious or sad: no less than Chris Rock and Bob Odenkirk, comedians professionally inclined not to be outraged by anything, think Farley’s Chippendales routine for Saturday Night Live, where he sweatily stripped next to Patrick Swayze, was a tragedy.

Of course, if that Chippendales routine makes you laugh, you might disagree. And this is the real big problem for Super Fun Night: It won’t make you laugh. As Wilson loses her clothes and sprints for cupcakes, is she making herself the butt of the joke or changing our understanding of how women can be funny? As she wrestles with her Spanx, is she exploiting herself or enlarging what is acceptable, or doing both? Those are great questions, but Super Fun Night cannot begin to answer them until it can make us giggle, maybe even against our will, at the Spanx, the nudity, the dialogue, the set-up, the characters. It’s hard to push the limits of comedy when your go-to joke is that main character has the word boob in her name.

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