A Plus-Size Comic Explains What Cartman Represents to Him

You’d think that, given his rap sheet full of literal war crimes, the boys of South Park Elementary would find a second insult with which to attack Eric Cartman besides “fatass.”

In the recent South Park streaming special, South Park: The End of Obesity, the boys sadly fail to end America’s defining disorder when stacked up against the combined horror of the American health-care system and every sadistic cereal mascot. However, in the closing scene, Kyle Broflovski nobly declares that, knowing what they do about the complexities of obesity in America, they should all resolve to stop mocking their more rotund classmates for their weight, even if they’re Cartman. 

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Immediately, Cartman takes advantage of his newfound mocking immunity to unleash a slurry of insults on the whole school (as well as on the entire nation of Pakistan), showing that, even in the least fatphobic South Park story to date, Cartman can’t help but ruin everything for his fellow obese children.

Stand-up comedian Ian Karmel grew up obese like Cartman, and, being a massive comedy fan, watched South Park religiously while the rest of his schoolmates learned new comedy catchphrases with which to mock him from Cartman himself. In his memoir, T-Shirt Swim Club, Karmel reflected on the impact Cartman and his “big bones” had on his self-esteem during his formative years. 

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In an excerpt from T-Shirt Swim Club, Karmel writes, “South Park was a disaster for my mental health. The Eric Cartman character, a brash fat kid, went back and forth between symbolizing everything wrong with America and just straight up being Hitler.”

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“One of Cartman’s catchphrases was ‘I’m not fat, I’m big-boned.’ He’d usually say it after one of the other kids said, ‘Shut up, fat-ass.’ It was so devastating to have the fat kid respond to fat-­based bullying by saying, ‘I’m not fat, I’m big-­boned,’” Karmel argues. “Like all great comedy, it worked because it was the truth. It was ripped from the headlines. I tried that ‘big-­boned’ line more times than I could count. It was one of the only tools we fat kids had to deflect bullying based on our size.

“Of course, nobody ever actually had big bones. We were always just fat children with standard-issue skeletons,” Karmel continues. “The bullies knew it. We knew it. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the genius creators of South Park, knew it. They dropped it into their show, and it was a disaster for kids like me.”

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Karmel recalled a particularly painful memory from his plus-sized childhood when he visited a Florida amusement park with his father and, upon reaching the front of the line of a roller coaster, found that the safety bar would not close over his stomach. After an attendant made an embarrassing attempt to secure Karmel, they informed the young rider that he would have to sit out this one. Then, one of the less original amateur comedians at the park that day yelled out, “I’m not fat, I’m big-­boned!”

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“Everyone laughed. The kids in line laughed, the adults in line laughed, the people working the ride laughed, the guy who tried to pull the bar down over my gut laughed loudly,” Karmel recounts. “So I shattered into a million pieces, and then I forced a laugh out, too. At least I had something in common with everyone else. We were all laughing. I was part of it.”

Karmel, a self-professed South Park superfan, doesn’t want people to stop watching South Park because Cartman made a fat kid’s life even more difficult than it already was. Instead, he hopes that fat characters will find a place in comedy where their very being isn’t an undignified punchline. And, perhaps, South Park isn’t the place for such a character — not with Cartman still scarfing down cereal bombs.