After years in the Hollywood wilderness, Kirstie Alley returned to the public eye when she put on lots of weight. The former Cheers star used that negative publicity and wrote a semiautobiographical sitcom about her battle against being ‘too fat for TV’
If you type ‘fat jokes’ into Google and hit search it comes back with a hefty 172,000 results. If you do the same search for, ‘why fat people should be treated with respect and not mocked for looking like a walrus with legs’ it comes back with nothing at all. This is no coincidence.
We love to laugh at the rotund, the bulbous, the porky-chops, but despite the popular convention, they are not all jolly. For a fat actress it’s a miserable, tough slog getting work simply because network executives, more often than not, hire thin women for lead roles. This is what happened to former Cheers and Veronica’s Closet star Kirstie Alley. And with no meaty roles coming her way she lost confidence and evidently got stuck into lots of meaty rolls of her own. When the media noticed that she had ballooned in weight, tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, they started featuring her on the cover of their magazines and metaphorically poking her with the always unfair ‘ewww gross, you’re not thin’ stick.
Alley’s response was to co-write and coproduce her own semi-fictional sitcom about life as a fat actress who’s struggling to get work in Hollywood. The result is pretty much a cross between the outstanding mockumentary Curb Your Enthusiasm and diet-based reality show You Are What You Eat. In other words, Curb Your Eating.
That’s pretty much what the plot here is all about, following the first episode where Kirstie meets with president of NBC Jeff Zucker only to find out that he thinks she’s too fat for TV, thus sending her on a mission to lose weight and get back on the box. Jeff Zucker is played by Jeff Zucker, the real president of NBC which just adds to the twisted reality of the show, as Jeff’s no doubt done this for real a hundred times.
Also appearing as themselves are Kid Rock, Rhea Perlman (Carla from Cheers), Carmen Electra and Kirstie’s fellow Scientologists John Travolta and Leah Remini. However in 2006, Alley expressed some disenchantment with Scientology, pointing out that it was of no help in her attempts to lose weight, and ultimately she turned to diet guru Jenny Craig. She has since been something of a poster women for her diets.
In Fat Actress, there’s a scene when Alley gets excited after her agent calls with a job offer, thinking someone has overlooked her size when casting, but ends up screaming in despair when the job turns out to be diet guru Jenny Craig wanting her as a spokesperson. Sometimes it’s hard to see where the acting ends and the real Kirstie begins. For much of the time what you see is entirely unscripted and in many ways this is half of the appeal.
You also get an eerie feeling that many of the things you see could well have taken place in the not-too-distant past. John Travolta (Alley’s co-star in the Look Who’s Talking movies) has a cameo in the first episode and a desperate Alley tries to convince him that there’s some mileage in Look Who’s Talking 4: ‘But we haven’t explored all the possibilities,’ she begs. ‘We haven’t done talking cats.’
After a while, the string of fat jokes does wear a little thin, but there are some great set pieces and genuinely funny scenes even if Alley is too over the top on occasions and at times it can get a little bit uncomfortable. It’s one thing watching her scream at her bathroom scales, wrestle with stretch pants that won’t give enough or even cruise doughnut shops in the hope of getting picked up by ‘big-butt loving black men’, but when she starts munching on laxatives and shoving fingers down her throat you begin to wonder if she really did all these things behind closed doors.
The comedy attracted a lot of criticism from eating disorder groups who were angered that it showed Alley making herself sick after binge eating, but that somewhat misses the point. It’s not sitcoms like this that lead people to eating disorders, it’s more often a result of the body fascism in society that’s perpetuated by magazines and the Hollywood system that Alley herself is battling against.
If anything, there is poignancy buried deep in the utter debasement and humiliation that she pours upon herself for big belly laughs. It’s a strange, post-modern and mostly truthful take on an actress and her real problems and at times it’s very funny. A big slap on the back and fair play to Kirstie for using her talents to write, produce and star in a comedy that gets her back on the small screen by using the situation that kept her off it for so long.
Sure, she went on Oprah to cry about her life, like every other ‘troubled’ and fading star, but this way she had something new to plug while talking. As a result, her appearance was almost a triumphant declaration of defiance, and I’m sure she would have ‘done a Cruise’ and jumped over the sofa if only she didn’t weigh more than the sofa in the first place.
Fat Actress is worth checking out, despite its faults. There are only seven episodes in the first series and no sign of a second being made, but no matter – it’s a fine romp as it is. Any more would be overindulgence.
For Time Out Dubai, October 2006