Gleason’s big-body persona poses the question: What is it about being a fat bus driver that confers authenticity? Is it the disdain for fashionable material appearance (so superficial!) that betokens a higher level of truthful self-expression and philosophical sophistication? With Falstaff the fat flesh was the source of authentic jollity and authentic melancholy as well. Is it that his “too, too solid flesh” (that’s skinny Hamlet talking) seems often to weigh more heavily on his spirit because of the sheer ponderous magnitude of the loss death will bring?
I remember when Simon Russell Beale made a big splash as one of the first (relatively) fat actors to play Hamlet (for Trevor Nunn’s brilliant Royal National Theater production). I resisted it at first, but somehow Beale used his extra lard to convey the extra difficulty of his suicidal wish that his “too too solid flesh/ Would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew”—to deepen the tragedy on some level. (In fact, there’s an ongoing scholarly controversy over Hamlet’s weight because in the climactic duel scene, his mother the Queen calls him “fat” and in the 16th century the term may—or may not—have merely meant sweaty not lardy).
Clearly fat sends a message of truthiness: At the very least we tend to think of schemers as skinny, even snake-like. (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar calls Cassius, “lean and hungry.")
Of course, there were problems with Jackie Gleason’s fat bus driver prole authenticity. He was a fat bus driver also given to threatening physical violence against his spouse. “To the moon Alice!” Ha Ha. He’s talking about punching her out so hard she flies off to the moon. Just joking of course! Hilarious, at least according to the laugh track. But maybe inadvertently truthful: Makes you think of the folk superstition that there’s a mean fat guy trying to get out of every jolly fat guy. But Gleason was Hollywood’s idea of a lovably authentic fat American prole and for years, a decade at least, America bought into it.
The next fat landmark on the map of popular culture was Roseanne Barr, a kind of female Jackie Gleason. I think her sitcom persona was exquisitely done, and is still much underestimated. She actually made the whole fat-equals-wisdom equation work somehow, although when I think back on her show it what really nailed it was that grating wiseguy voice of hers—that flat nasal tone that seemed to take in an awareness of all the tragedies on earth and somehow transform them into a comic Mother Courage shtick. And now that she's just announced she's running for president—who knows—she could be a real threat.
Around the same time, we saw the emergence of what you might call the “Generation F” fat comics: John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley.
Here we had self-aware fat guys who played on the mixture of sympathy and trust we accorded (mostly) lovable fat guys: Belushi, authentic in a crafty samurai way, a demented truth-teller demonstrating the real streak of rage beneath the blubber; Candy the eternal sadness, the tears of a clown just below the surface; Farley the way failure of self-acceptance lead to self-destruction. You have to wonder sadly how they all would have turned out if they hadn’t expanded in popularity so rapidly.
Of course, among contemporary fat icons there are political commentators: Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh, and a new heavyweight on the horizon, conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin. (He pronounces it in a somewhat nonregular guy fashion, as “Le-VIN”). Levin has the New York Times number one nonfiction best seller now, Ameritopia, and his last two books were Times No. 1s, but he doesn’t seem to get much attention outside the right-wing talk radio universe. He doesn’t have the same high profile as Rush—just the same wide one. The right wingers call him “the Great One,” not intentionally meaning fat, more invoking Gleason in his grandeur. Have you ever heard him?
Levin is actually more erudite than Limbaugh and he’s got a genuinely touching devotion to doomed shelter dogs (his book Rescuing Sprite shows an authentic heart that contrasts to his heartless approach to those humans in need of society’s help). But he’s frequently given to proving he’s an authentic American no-nonsense guy by yelling at callers who disagree, “GET OFF THE PHONE YOU BIG DUMMY!” Or by uttering what he thinks is some transgressive un-PC sentiment and telling us “THERE, I SAID IT” afterward, like he’s risked being burned at the stake, patting himself on the back for his transgressive courage. He’s more likely to be burned at some barbecue if one can judge from his frequent boasting about his Paula Deen-like diet and his concomitant complacent references to his heart attack. He's constantly referring to, trading on, one might say, his gluttony, in reproof to anti-obesity crusaders and other “meddlesome” government types, as if the volume of his flesh gave weight to his words. (Then there’s Paula Deen, the Southern version of fat authenticity but I don’t want to get into a debate about diet and diabetes.)
I think Levin’s “THERE I SAID IT” style of supposedly blunt truth-telling is akin to Chris Christie’s I’m-so-bluff attitude. But here’s where the explicitly Jersey version of it enters in.
Sure, Jerseyness was a trope for “realness” before the Sopranos. But it wouldn’t have been what it is if Tony Soprano hadn’t fused authenticity and Jersey so masterfully. More than Tony, the Sopranos was about all those fat guys, gofers in track suits, who created a veritable slovenly Jersey world, one we were supposed to find as charming as exotic pork products.
It was the Sopranos crowd, the Sopranos zeitgeist, that Christie was playing to with his dumb oral sex joke.
“Yeah, something’s going down tonight, but it ain’t gonna be jobs, sweetheart.”