Last week, Jonah Hill made headlines after responding to a Daily Mail story featuring paparazzi photos of him shirtless at the beach. On his Instagram, he posted a screenshot of the piece and wrote in the caption, “I don’t think I ever took my shirt off in a pool until I was in my mid 30s even in front of family and friends. Probably would have happened sooner if my childhood insecurities weren’t exacerbated by years of public mockery about my body by press and interviewers.”
Hill added, “I’m 37 and finally love and accept myself.”
His post is not particularly angry or preachy, “it’s for the kids who don’t take their shirt off at the pool. Have fun. You’re wonderful and awesome and perfect.” It’s a simple and hopeful message — but coming from a figure like Hill, it’s radical.
For years, Hill’s body has been under scrutiny in a very particular way. His career has been defined against his breakout role in 2007’s Superbad. He played a funny fat guy, and it has since haunted him everywhere. He was immediately attached to the established Funny Fat Guy trope, a lineage that boasts names like Jack Black, Kevin James, Chris Farley, and Zach Galifianakis.
Being a part of this lineage comes with expectations and confines. For decades, being the Funny Fat Guy has meant being forced to accept people’s comments about your body and acting like you, too, are in on the jokes. The Funny Fat Guy has little agency in how he is understood — all his abilities and comedic skills are reduced to one dimension. It is such a rigid box that comedians might even feel pressure to make it their whole identity: Farley’s brother mentioned to the New York Times back in 2010 that the comedian was anxious about losing a few pounds because he thought it “would take his edge away.”
The surveillance of the Funny Fat Guy is different from the uptick in media scrutiny about men’s bodies. Yes, Jason Momoa was shamed on social media for not having a six-pack. Leonardo DiCaprio’s “dad bod” regularly makes headlines. In 2018, the New Yorker noted the “blue-gray towel wrapped protectively” around Ben Affleck’s midsection, “recalling a shy teen at the local pool.”
The Funny Fat Guy has little agency in how he is understood — all his abilities and comedic skills are reduced to one dimension.
But the increased attention does not appear to have impacted those men significantly. It does not disempower them. Momoa laughed off the comments. Ben Affleck tweeted at the New Yorker that he’s doing “just fine.” DiCaprio is reportedly “proud of his dad bod”. These brief flashes of attention have not diminished their status as conventionally hot. Eventually, the spotlight moves on.
Contrast that with the Funny Fat Guy, who has to answer for his body again and again, often while still making fun of himself. Like Jack Black, who was asked by reporters at a 2008 press junket, “What’s it like to be the fat guy?” He quipped, “It’s not easy; I’ve got a lot of fat guys coming trying to knock me off fat mountain.”
In the case of Hill, the spotlight also keeps returning to his body, even though little of his career since Superbad has resembled his role in that movie. Take for example the night of the 2012 Academy Awards — five years after Superbad, and a night that should’ve been a huge deal for Hill. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Moneyball, and he was in attendance with his mom. The host for the night, Billy Crystal, used a moment of his opening monologue, to sing directly at Hill “Jonah used to have much more to his middle / It’s great that you shed weight / But, kid, if you lose tonight / I think that you should know / They’re serving cupcakes after the show.”
The room erupted in laughter. The camera cut to Hill for his reaction. Seated in front of him, Brad Pitt, Hill’s Moneyball costar, grinned. Immediately behind Hill, Martin Scorsese, his future boss on Wolf of Wall Street, chuckled. Hill just nodded and gave a muted smile, a smile I immediately recognized, the kind of smile you could only recognize if you’ve been the biggest guy in the room and someone made a comment about it. It’s the smile of someone who’s used to having his weight be the punchline. And here was Hill at the grandest stage of recognition for his profession, his weight still the punchline — and his peers are laughing.
Just two years later, on the press tour for The Wolf of Wall Street — after earning his second Oscar nomination — Hill was asked by an interviewer if he was “still considered ‘the fat guy.’” You can hear laughs from the room as Hill looks shocked. The interviewer presses on: “Are you ‘the fat guy’ in Hollywood, still?” Hill then turns toward other journalists in the room, and his only reply is: “Do you have any other questions…that are smart?”
In 2019, Hill went into greater detail in an interview with Justin Long about how the decade-plus of hyperfocus on his weight has affected him (He had already lost a noticeable amount of weight at that point.) Hill said that after Superbad, “I had to fight really hard not to be typecast as the severely overweight guy.” During the years after Superbad, he said, “If you read interviews with me, or how people review me, it did major psychological damage to me.” So he pivoted and took on Academy Award–caliber roles. “I was like, I’m not gonna be typecast, but then I got labeled as overserious. The next knock on me was ‘this dude takes himself so seriously.’”
The Funny Fat Guy is expected to acquiesce to being talked about as “the fat guy” and then punished for trying to escape that moniker.
It’s not just Hill. After Galifianakis lost weight in 2014, fans said he was just not funny anymore. The Funny Fat Guy is expected to acquiesce to being talked about as “the fat guy” and then punished for trying to escape that moniker. In effect, Hill is punished twice — once for being the overweight guy, and once for trying to become literally anything else. He could not win. Still, he tried to write a different story for himself. He starred, executive produced, and had a story credit in the Jump Street films. He told Long he took a break from acting and focused on therapy and writing. In 2018, he released his directorial debut, Mid90s, which he also wrote and produced, to a warm critical reception. He’s working on his second feature right now.
All of this is to say: It took a lot to get Hill to where he is now, a place where he can respond to shirtless tabloid photos and it’s a big deal that he did. “Oh and Daily Mail,” his Instagram post concluded, “not even you can take that smile from my face.” It’s a radical departure from the usual response from larger men in Hollywood — who are expected to grin and bear the occasional joke, or pretend they are in on the joke, for the sake of succeeding in an industry that welcomes ribbing on fat people’s bodies.
“This isn’t a ‘good for me’ post. And it’s definitely not a ‘feel bad for me’ post,” Hill wrote. If it’s not a bid for sympathy or an attempt at getting praise, then what is reposting tabloid photos of yourself? In the interview with Long, Hill put it simply: “It’s not cool to be the joke if you don’t want to be. It fucks up your self-esteem.” Perhaps, then, the post is about boundaries — about drawing a line and saying: You’ve made me feel bad enough, and I won’t allow it to go on any longer.●