The Origin of Fat Albert: How Bill Cosby Did Obesity Right

Amid his outspoken advocacy of childhood nutrition education, the comedian stands by his iconic 1967 character. We should, too. 

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Bill Cosby with Quincy Jones in 1969 (Concord Records)

During an impassioned discussion with Bill Cosby on Monday about school lunches ("What is juice?") and the role of media in obesityThe 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." 

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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." 

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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."

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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