All Hail the Mustard King

I have been fat since I was young. As I moved between childhood and adulthood, through schools, friends, and life events, my size has been the one continuity. Some pictures look great; others embarrass me. Sometimes I viewed the skinny crowd with simple envy; occasionally, I contemplated what I now recognize would have developed into anorexia. Today, although I’d say that I have gotten some of my problems under control, my weight becomes an issue again whenever I’m faced with it in public, or more commonly, through pop culture. I’m still annoyed by how much weight Jonah Hill was able to lose.

It’s not the skinny people that bother me, at least not specifically. What bother me are those fat people who turn their obesity into easy punch lines. It’s a standard go-to for the overweight comedians to stuff their faces with food, or fall clumsily from lack of equilibrium, and these standardized jokes are a big reason why my weight has long troubled me. No amount of “All About That Bass” or body affirmation propaganda can remedy my years of conflicted feelings. I don’t want to be associated with a stereotype that has barely progressed beyond bumbling sidekick. Are fat people in the movies doomed to a life of lazy self-deprecation? Where’s the heart?

Still, I don’t feel it’s irresponsible for fat people to perform physical comedy, if instead of jiggling the pounds for a cheap visual gag, they can be creative with their movement; relying more on choreography and treating their bodies as more than just a shortcut to an easy punchline.

And when it comes to the dark cloud of stigma and cheap tricks that hang over fat comedians, John Belushi is the ultimate silver lining.

Over the course of his tragically short career, Belushi managed to be both manic and refined, depending on the demands of the role; he could move like Joe Cocker one minute and turn into the quiet Don Corleone the next—perhaps because he was a trained actor before teaming up with the original Saturday Night Live gang back in the early 70’s. Dubbed the first rock and roll comedian, Belushi brought an unpredictable charisma to SNL on a weekly basis. He could be a fly on the wall or the life of the party, simply by raising his eyebrows.

Belushi embodied the sort of physical intellect that’s essential for fat comedians. Nuanced and heartfelt, he was adept at knowing when to shout and when to shut up in order to best emphasize a joke. Chevy Chase might have been the immediate breakout star of the SNL cast, but Belushi left a bigger impression because he was different in more subtle, inimitable ways. Simply put, nobody could manipulate a laugh as effectively as Belushi could. In his short and wonderful career, he produced eight movies, two of which are stone cold classics.

Now, though, I have to turn to the obvious elephant in the room: If I’m so sensitive about weight humor and its intersection with physical comedy, how can I admire a man who, in Animal House (1978), puffs his cheeks full of food and sprays it on an unsuspecting party? Or dumps mustard on his chest and downs an entire bottle of Jack Daniels in one go? Technically, it’s repulsive. But I can reconcile it mostly because Belushi brought to Animal House what he’d started on Saturday Night Live: rabid humor with occasional dives into lowbrow nonsense, all of it intentional; calculated in its wildness.

Animal House follows a college fraternity, Delta House, which is known for a grade point average featuring two C’s, two D’s and an F, and for pulling elaborate pranks. Ignoring their homework, Delta frat brothers Eric “Otter” Stratton (Tim Matheson), Daniel “D-Day” Simpson and of course, John “Bluto” Blutarsky (Belushi) take their college experience and use it to plan parties and sabotage authority figures. Belushi’s most noteworthy moment of quiet charm comes when the Delta House teams up to prank Omega House chairman, Douglas C. Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf)—who refused to accept Otter as a member—by kidnapping the chairman’s beloved horse from the stable and placing it in his office. Appointed as a lookout, Bluto runs ahead to provide surveillance. He jumps, spins and runs in every direction as if he believes himself to be a spy on a Mission: Impossible episode. Even walking up stairs, he’s hilarious — and completely silent. Leaving most of the conversation to Otter and D-Day, Belushi chimes in only to intimidate Otter, or to provide an expletive reaction when the horse accidentally dies from shock.

Animal House is full of these near-silent, scene-stealing moments. Belushi sticks pencils up his nose and raises his eyebrows as he leers at women from a ladder. In the film’s iconic closing scene, as Delta House destroys a school parade by driving through the crowds and leading a marching band through an alleyway, Bluto climbs buildings and swings to rescue a woman who doesn’t need saving. His most memorable line from the film might just be“TOGA! TOGA!”, but what everyone seems to remember most is his overall performance; his undeniable presence.

And that’s the brilliance of Belushi. Animal House is one of the finest college films ever made, mostly thanks to its anarchic heart. We don’t meet Belushi with a smile and a handshake, but when he’s urinating outside the Delta House. His expressive face turns moments—like the one where he smashes a guitar and says no more than “sorry”—into comedic gold. Big and aggressive in the moment, he knows how to use his movements economically. As with Charlie Chaplin, we are more likely to remember how he moves rather than what he says or does. Belushi’s work transposes silent film techniques to a story full of alcoholism and pranks; innovative in its juxtaposition.

His performances always embodied something positive about bigger people to me. In a world where I feel forced to embrace obesity because it’s who I am, John Belushi is one of the few who understood that being plus-sized isn’t a defining feature. He could fill a scene with personality, dance like people half his size, and act loud or obnoxious when necessary. His enthusiasm outweighed his weight.

There have been a few other heavy comedians who have filled Belushi’s shoes since his death in 1983, but I look back to him when I need to be reminded that I don’t have to feel ashamed of my weight problems; I am so much more. If I want to, I can crack raunchy jokes or write elegant prose with the best of them. It’s an odd lesson to learn from Animal House, but an important one. No one can put me in a category I don’t want to be a part of. I’m not jailed by my physical form. No prisoners.