It's always nice when Sam and Diane stop fighting for a minute on "Cheers," and the Coach has nothing stupid to say for a change, and even that horrible mailman Cliff shuts up, and good old Norm gets a chance to zing in a nifty.
Why is that so nice, you ask? Because, Norm is a FAT GUY. You don't see a lot of fat guys on TV any more. They're a vanishing breed, an endangered species, and all those other cliche's. If you do see a fat guy, he's probably a bad guy: a mobster, a politician, a liberal Democrat.
Otherwise, fat's out. Fat's not hot. Fat's fat. These are not, after all, the Weighty Eighties. They're the Lightweighty Eighties. In more ways than two. It's trim-down, cool-down time. Light beers threaten the existence of a great institution: the American beer belly. And what have we here: Sid Caesar writing an exercise book and parading around on talk shows to show off his new svelte self. Sid got pretty fat there in the '50s. Fat, and funny. With all due respect to Sid, he was funnier when he was fatter.
In the '50s, we had Two-Ton Baker. In the '80s, we have Too-Tall Jones. Two-Ton was more amusing.
Perhaps we can pause in this season of overindulgence to raise a toast -- or, more appropriately still, six or seven -- to those for whom overindulgence knows no season.
Fat guys are a huge part of television history. Rod Steiger as Marty. Maurice Gosfield as Pvt. Doberman. William Frawley as Fred Mertz. William Bendix as Chester A. Riley. Lou Costello as Lou Costello. George Wendt as Norm. One gets goose bumps just thinking about them.
Yes one does. And while one can't remember the name of the band leader on the "Big Top" circus show in the early '50s, one may well recall his nickname: "Mister Five-by-Five." He got it the old-fashioned way. He earned it.
These were the fat guys. These were the fun guys. This is the Fat Guy Hall of Fame.
On the vast playground known as prime time William Conrad once frolicked as "Cannon." Now old Bill's doing commercials for smoke alarms and fancy flashlights. And who's America's favorite detective? That string bean in the shorty shorts, Tom Selleck. He's not just fit, he's suspiciously fit. Whatever happened to the days when men as fit as he were ostracized as narcissists and pretty boys? I'll tell you what happened. The narcissists and pretty boys took over. It's not that easy any more even to find a network executive or a studio boss who's a real porker. Fred Silverman's down to a measly 170 pounds, or so he says.
One of the pleasures, and there are many, to be gleaned from "Perry Mason" reruns is in watching Raymond Burr grow-grow-grow. Whoever said "No man is an island" never ran into Raymond. But there's good news on this (vast) front. Burr, now starring in insurance commercials, will return in the role of Perry in three NBC movies next year. Remember when CBS tried to remake "Perry Mason" with a thin guy in the part? What gall!
The fact that fat guys do star in TV commercials, though not in series, suggests that Julius Caesar was right; there's something about a fat guy that makes you want to trust him. Yon Carson has a lean and hungry look. That's why Johnny needs Ed McMahon there; to help sustain a little warmth. By the way, Ed, if you're reading this: You've overdone the warmth bit. Better climb back on the wagon and make another trek to Pritikin's.
Johnny has blackballed Orson Welles, once a fairly frequent guest, from "The Tonight Show," and why? Probably so he can do fat jokes about this living legend. Like "It was so hot today, Orson Welles was selling shade." And "Orson Welles said, 'I will eat no cow before its time.' "
Television's most illustrious fat man willingly submitted to jokes like that. On "The Honeymooners," Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden could always expect wife Alice to reach for a fat crack when she wanted to level him. "Alice, this is the biggest thing I ever got into," Ralph said of one get-rich-quick scheme. Alice said, "The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants."
Ralph dismissed one temporary windfall by bellowing "Peanuts! Peanuts! What am I gonna do with peanuts?" Alice said, "Eat 'em, like any other elephant." It was cruel, but it was funny. On a recent and memorable edition of "60 Minutes," Gleason told Morley Safer, "I never thought I was fat. I never walked like I was a fat guy. I never worried about it." He was fat. But he was perfect.
Each generation has its new fat guys (like the late great John Belushi, or the live great John Candy), but they seem to get fewer in number. Unless you count Merv during one of his chubbier spells, there are no fat talk show hosts, there are no fat anchormen, few fat correspondents and almost no fat heroes. Who do fat kids have to look up to? Luciano Pavarotti, maybe, and Willard Scott, majestically eclipsing the entire western half of the nation when he stands in front of his weather map, and maybe John Madden. But there aren't a lot of tubby icons around.
Those who have the daring to keep their weight on deserve respect. God bless Jack Germond, token sanity of "The McLaughlin Group." Hale fellow. Stout fellow. Fat fellow.
I know, I know; cholesterol and heart attacks and diabetes and all that. But isn't it possible that some guys were Born to Be Fat? Would anyone have paid attention to a thin Sydney Greenstreet? Would America ever have rocked and rolled to the music of a Thins Domino? Really, what is sadder than walking down the street and running into some emaciated spindle in a Santy Claus suit?
Here's to those who are big enough to know better but brave enough to buck a trend. They fast not, neither do they jog. But they make the world just a little bit more, well, crowded. To the fat guys, and the courage it takes to say, "Don't mind if I do."