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A member of the 'T-Shirt Swim Club' chronicles life as 'the funny fat kid'

"The first place I learned to be funny was on the schoolyard trying to defuse this weird tension around my body, says Ian Karmel. He won an Emmy Award in 2019 for his work on James Corden's "Carpool Karaoke" special with Paul McCartney.
Kenny McMillan
Penguin Random House
"The first place I learned to be funny was on the schoolyard trying to defuse this weird tension around my body, says Ian Karmel. He won an Emmy Award in 2019 for his work on James Corden's "Carpool Karaoke" special with Paul McCartney.

Comedy writer Ian Karmel spent most of his life making fun of his weight, starting at a very young age.

"Being a kid is terrifying — and if you can be the funny fat kid, at least that's a role," Karmel says. "To me, that was better than being the fat kid who wasn't funny, who's being sad over in the corner, even if that was how I was actually feeling a lot of the time."

For Karmel, the jokes and insults didn't stop with adolescence. He says the humiliation he experienced as a kid navigating gym classes, and the relentless barrage of fat jokes from friends and strangers, fueled his comedy.

For years, much of his stand-up comedy centered around his body; he was determined to make fun of himself first — before anyone else could do it. "At least if we're destroying me, I will be participating in my own self-destruction so I can at least find a role for myself," he says.

Karmel went on to write for The Late Late Show with James Corden. He has since lost more than 200 pounds, but he feels like he'll have a lifelong relationship with fatness. He wrote his new memoir, T-Shirt Swim Club: Stories from Being Fat in a World of Thin People, along with his sister Alisa, who channeled her experience into a profession in nutrition counseling.

"Once we lost a bunch of weight ... we realized we'd never had these conversations about it with each other," Karmel says. "If this book affects even the way one person thinks about fat people, even if that fat person happens to be themselves, that would be this book succeeding in every way that I would hope for."

Interview highlights

On using the word “fat”

There's all these different terms. And, you know, early on when I was talking to Alisa about writing this book, we were like: "Are we going to say fat? I think we shouldn't say fat." And we had a conversation about it. We landed on the determination that it's not the word's fault that people treat fat people like garbage. And we tend to do this thing where we will bring in a new word, we will load that word up with all of the sin of our behavior, toss that word out, pull a new one in, and then all of a sudden, we let that word soak up all the sin, and we never really change the way we actually treat people. …

I've been called fat, overweight or obese, husky, big guy, chunky, any number of words, all of those words just loaded up with venom. … We decided we were going to say "fat" because that's what we are. That's what I think of myself as. And I'm going to take it back to basics.

On the title of his memoir, T-Shirt Swim Club

 T-Shirt Swim Club
/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
T-Shirt Swim Club

Thank God for learning about the damage that the sun does to our bodies, because now all sorts of people are wearing T-shirts in the pool. But when we were growing up, I don't think that was happening. It's absurd. We wear this T-shirt because we ... want to protect ourselves from prying eyes — but I think what it really is is this internalized body shame where I'm like, "Hey, I know my body's disgusting. I know I'm going to gross you out while you're just trying to have a good time at the pool, so let me put this T-shirt on." And it's all the more ridiculous because it doesn't change anything. It doesn't actually cover you up, it hugs every curve!

On how bullying made him paranoid

You think like, if four or five people are saying this to my face, then there must be vast whisper campaigns. That must be what they're huddled over. ... Anytime somebody giggles in the corner and you are in that same room, you become paranoid. There's a part of you that thinks like, they must be laughing at me.

On how fat people are portrayed in pop culture

Fat people, I think, are still one of the groups that it's definitely OK to make fun of. That's absolutely true. … I'm part of this industry too, and I've done it to myself. … Maybe it's less on the punch line [now] and more on the pity. You know, you have Brendan Fraser playing the big fat guy in The Whale. And at least that's somebody who is fat and who has dealt with those issues. Maybe not to the extent of like a 500- and 600-pound man, but still to some extent. And good for him. I mean, an amazing performance, but still one where it's like, here's this big, fat, pathetic person.

On judgment about weight loss drugs and surgery

It's this ridiculous moral purity. What it comes down to for me is you [have] your loved ones, you have your friends. And whatever you can do to spend more time on earth with those people, that's golden to me. That's beautiful, because that is what life is truly all about. And the more you get to do that, the healthier and happier you are. So those people out there who are shaming Ozempic or Wegovy or any of that stuff, or bariatric surgery, those people can pound sand. And it's so hard in a world that is built for people who are regular size, and in a world that is also simultaneously built to make you as fat as possible with the way we treat food. It's like, yo, do the best you can!

Therese Madden and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.