Amid his outspoken advocacy of childhood nutrition education, the comedian stands by his iconic 1967 character. We should, too.
During an impassioned discussion with Bill Cosby on Monday about school lunches ("What is juice?") and the role of media in obesity, The Atlantic's Steve Clemons asked about Fat Albert: "Why don't we have a new version with a lean and mean Albert?"
Cosby looked askance. "Well, I don't know about that."
The 75-year-old comedian has recently become a vocal advocate of nutrition education, but he was portraying obesity progressively and conscientiously even 45 years ago -- well before it was a mainstream subject. It's an extremely fine line, but he walked it well.
"[He] was invented by me because in those days, the '60s, a fat person was stereotyped to be someone always giggling, laughing, and lacking in any kind of strength enough to take charge."
Cosby saw an opportunity to break with that. "In the first show we did, the boys talked about him badly, but they needed him to play football because he ran over everybody -- he was a great athlete."
The idea of portraying obese character at all was further out of the box at the time. "In the '60s Fat Albert was in the minority, but now we're looking at 60 percent of kids being overweight," Dr. Brian McDonough of Philadelphia's KYW Newsradio noted.
The Fat Albert origin story goes back farther than the 1972 TV debut of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. The character first appeared on Cosby's 1967 comedy album Revenge, where he tells a story that similarly lauds Fat Albert as the kid who saves the day. Cosby recounts how, growing up in Philly, he and his buddies would play a game called "buck buck." In buck buck, five kids would line up and bend over "so they all look like a long horse," and "the object was that the other kids would come along and yell, 'Buck buck number one, come in!' and they'd run up, leap in the air, and land on the horse. And they'd keep going until they collapsed the horse."
Cosby's group of friends were the best buck-buckers around. Then one day "some kids come down from the rough part of town, and they're really tough -- they've got toothpicks in the sides of their mouths and hats on sideways and pants on backwards [Cosby said this as a joke, long before Kris Kross did it for real in 1992]" and challenged them to the Buck Buck Championship of the World. It was a close game until Cosby's buddies brought out their last man.
"Come on out, Fat Albert."
His first description of Fat Albert is as "the baddest buck buck breaker in the world ... [He] weighed 2,000 pounds, and he'd kick the door to his house open and you could hear him say 'Hey, hey, heyyy!' We built a little ramp for him to walk down so he could build up speed because he couldn't hardly run."
That first iconic "Hey, hey, hey!" was more of a battle cry -- you picture it over a swell of climactic music. Cosby describes trees falling over, buildings losing bricks, and terror instilled in the opposing buck buck team: "'What's the ground doing shaking?' -- 'It's Fat Albert comin' for you.'"
He ads in those details to paint what's clearly a hyperbolic picture, but there's a fine distinction in that he doesn't make Fat Albert's stature the punch line. Typical of Cosby's style, it never feels mean-spirited.
Since that 1967 inception of Fat Albert, though, we've seen a swing in obesity-based humor from the "laughing with" to the "laughing at" to the "don't bring it up." We're only now coming back to the laughing with.
In 1988, Weird Al Yancovic's music video for the song "Fat" won a Grammy for Best Concept Music Video. The concept was: Take Michael Jackson's "Bad" music video, make the lead singer morbidly obese, and make visual gags like how he can't fit through a turnstile (because, he's fat) and is always eating (because, he's fat). "Well, I've never used a phone booth, And I've never seen my toes; When I'm going to the movies, I take up seven rows." The character is saying that he's strong and proud, but he's really a debilitated foil, and we're meant to laugh at his ineptitude.
In a gritty parody of Fat Albert, a 2000 episode of Family Guy portrayed "Morbidly Obese Albert," his Jabba-the-Hut-like figure nearly filling the bed of a pickup truck; his left foot amputated from complications of diabetic necrosis. "Look on the bright side -- now you get your shoes half-price." The neighborhood gang tries to offer him chocolates, which, after an obligatory refusal, he reluctantly accepts ("All right, maybe I'll have one.") It feels akin to one of the original Fat Albert lessons on peer pressure or saying no to drugs, and there's dark humor in the sad reality. The sequence goes well beyond the 80s fat-is-funny jokes.
While a logical instinct might be to make Skinny Fat Albert for 2012, we can't overlook the value of portraying obesity in popular culture positively -- in strong, successful characters -- as Fat Albert does. It doesn't replace the need for education and public health movements to stem the epidemic, but it works in the interest of combating shaming and stereotyping in the process.
In future discussions of media portrayals of obesity, we'd do well to look back to Cosby's sensibility -- to find humor, empowerment, support, and education in depictions of the realities of the American population that don't exclude, shame, or endorse obesity.
"Put Fat Albert with his friends," Cosby said, "we also had a fellow [Mushmouth], and we showed how having a speech impediment, too, a kid with a problem -- within their own fellows who could understand them, they all felt good with and around each other."