Why Did Joel McHale Mock Chris Christie’s Weight? Because America Likes Fat Jokes

If the comedian knew no one at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner would laugh at the body-shaming lines, he’d choose different material.

Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

May 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

As part of his preparation for Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedian Joel McHale must have read from some sort of “tips for lazy comedians” manual. A possible title for chapter 1: “Make Jokes, Especially If They Are About Chris Christie.”

“I promise that tonight will be both amusing and over quickly, just like Chris Christie’s presidential bid,” joked McHale at the dinner. That’s a fairly funny line, but then the comedian dove headfirst into body-shaming territory. “I got a lot of these [jokes] tonight, so buckle up, Governor Christie,” said McHale. “Excuse me: extender-buckle up.”

Ah, yes. The governor needs a seat-belt extender because, like, OMG, he’s soooo fat.

It’s the kind of joke that would be flagged at a school anti-bullying assembly as inappropriate. Yet there sat Hollywood’s glitterati, alongside the president of the United States, chuckling in merriment. That’s because in America, it’s OK to make fun of a person’s weight, especially if that person is a politician with whom we don’t see eye to eye.

“Governor, do you want bridge jokes or size jokes?” McHale continued, referring to Christie’s Bridgegate scandal. “’Cause I’ve got a bunch of both. I could go half-and-half. I know you like a combo platter.”

Christie’s size has long been fodder for America’s comedians. Last November, after Christie won reelection, Jimmy Fallon also went in on the governor. “In honor of his big win, I promise no more fat jokes about him tonight.” Fallon quipped. “But seriously, the margin of victory was so big, even he could walk through it.”

Last fall, after it was revealed that Christie had lap band surgery in February 2013, Bill Maher went for the jugular by noting that pundits were speculating that Christie made the decision to lose weight to seem more presidential. “Because that’s what you want in a president: Someone with absolutely no willpower, someone who says, ‘I can literally not contain myself,’ ” said Maher.

It’s a “joke” that wraps many of the worst stereotypes about larger people in one neat package, but Maher and the other comedians are just holding up a mirror and reflecting back our own prejudices and negative attitudes about weight. As body-shaming expert Robyn Silverman told CNN in 2012, we associate being fat “with being blameworthy, ugly, lazy, unpopular, and all the polar opposites of being happy, well liked, popular, and good.”

On Saturday, during a Vanity Fair after-party, Christie downplayed McHale’s remarks. “Listen, I thought he was great, and that's exactly what I expected,” the governor said. “I thought he was really funny, and not just about me but about everybody.”

As Ezra Klein wrote at Vox, Christie has to act like he’s not bothered—and he’s played that “I’m cool with fat jokes” card for years. In 2013 Christie sat across from David Letterman and ate a doughnut. After all, if he’s the “fat kid” who doesn’t suck it up at The Late Show—or at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—in the eyes of many Americans, he looks even weaker. “It’s a lesson every heavy kid learns in homeroom: the only thing people hate more than a fat person is a humorless fat person,” wrote Klein. “You better at least pretend to be in on the joke.”

What will enable Christie and other body-shamed people to stop having to feign that they like being made fun of? What if every time someone’s size got picked on, the audience reacted by booing? If that happens—if we collectively quit laughing at fat jokes—comedians and their teams of writers will have to come up with some one-liners that really are funny.