Cartoon television shows are a larger part of today's popular culture than I think people grasp. To try to illustrate this, here's my Top 5 Best-Developed Cartoon Characters (based on my own lifetime and experiences). There's also another point I want to make on this subject, but I'll do it after the list.
5. Eric Cartman, South Park
From his hatred of hippies to his lust for authori-tah, we've seen quite a bit of what makes Cartman tick. He's been the featured character on South Park from the very beginning, always the most compelling (and funniest). He also offers the most frequent social commentaries in the show, acting as Trey Parker and Matt Stone's little political machine.
4. Peter Griffin, Family Guy
I actually think we've got a pretty good grasp on the depth of Peter Griffin; there's just not all that much there. Seth McFarlane took the concept of Homer Simpson, magnified the stupidity, and eliminated pretty much everything else. But he's got a whole mess of quotes and one of the most recognizable laughs in the world. Is it possible that Family Guy is the American version of the fake Extras TV show "When The Whistle Blows?" Think about it.
3. Marge Simpson, The Simpsons
Of course Homer Simpson is #1, but over the course of the 20+ seasons of The Simpsons, we've come to know Marge and Homer as one of the more enduring and (surprisingly) realistic couples on television. They deal with legitimate problems, albeit in wild and wacky ways, like infidelity, financial problems, gambling, alcoholism, and raising a family. Our understanding of Marge is really just in those two regards (wife and mother), but it's extensive. And while I'd pick my mom over anyone else's, you could do worse than having Marge as your mother.
2. Stewie Griffin, Family Guy
Stewie has become the star of the show, offering the highest LPMs (laughs per minute) of pretty much anyone on television. But through the various experiences of Stewie, we've found more than just a baby that talks like an adult. He's dealt with a hard-swinging love/hate relationship with his mother, had a bout with alcoholism, and (sometimes) attempted to hide his homosexual tendencies. And try this on for size: the most famous gay fictional character in American culture might be a cartoon baby. So, in case you were wondering why the world thinks we're fucked up, there it is.
1. Homer Simpson, The Simpsons
He's basically got all the development that Marge has as far as a family man, but we've also seen Homer extensively in his work and social environments. Through 20+ seasons of animated mayhem, we've seen Homer in a thousand different situations. While his stupidity has ranged from childish to dense to oblivious to downright brain-dead, I'd venture to say we all feel like we know him. And although we wouldn't really want Homer as our father, we've seen his redeeming qualities and not just his flaws. Remember? The one thing he could offer Marge that other guys couldn't: complete and utter dependence. See? Redeeming.
So what's interesting about this list? All five of these people are, for the most part, physically unattractive. Three of them are fat guys. Compare that to the ratio of fat people in standard, live action television, and you'll find that fat people are either over-represented in cartoons or under-represented in live action television shows. Walk down any street in the country and you'll see that it's an under-representation.
In last summer's "The Hangover," Zach Galifianakis was often called a fat guy. He's not skinny, but he's not really all that fat either. He's just noticeably thicker than the average American actor. Ricky Gervais uses his unexceptional physique as a point of humor as well, and while he is completely unexceptional, he's not a true fatty. And of course, if you've ever seen Dan Castellaneta (voice of Homer) in real life, he's a skinny guy. People who aren't really fat are using fat jokes as if they were, and it's unfair. Get your own jokes, marginally overweight guys.
Are there successful fat actors? Of course. John Goodman is a heavyweight in both senses of the word. Jonah Hill has had an up and down beginning to his career, but he's certainly been solid. Jorge Garcia has become one of the most (only?) endearing characters on ABC's super-hit Lost. But when you look at "headliner" level actors, or even B-list actors who are the stars of their own TV shows, you'll only very rarely find heavy people. Roseanne was a particular anomaly, with a cast that was perfectly middle-America. And at least for a while, the show kicked ass, too.
I guess what I'm saying with all of this is that it seems strange that main characters in cartoons can be as fat as we want, but for live action shows, the main characters had better wear medium shirts. I wouldn't mind seeing an overweight main character/hero sometime, Hollywood.
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