Spoofing Physical Appearance: Since When Is It Okay?

Is it ever okay to make fun of someone’s physical appearance? Not only that, but to laugh a lot while doing it? I think most of us would readily agree that it’s certainly not. And we wouldn’t want it done to us either.

Then, why are certain spoofs on TV so acceptable and popular? The recurring Saturday Night Live sketch, for example, that features a tiny-handed Kristen Wiig in a singing sister act on The Lawrence Welk Show. Although her differences aren’t just physical, they happen to be the ones you first notice.

Do we laugh at her physical appearance because we don’t automatically link her to anyone we know, or don’t think we ever could know, in real life? If that’s so, contrast this with SNL‘s Fred Armisen imitating former New York Governor David Paterson; he exaggeratedly and clumsily bumbles around because of his inability to see and has a significant speech impediment. Isn’t such mockery of traits that are out of this real person’s control in bad taste? YouTube thinks so—this SNL sketch is blocked due to offensive material.

So, real-person Governor Paterson no, not-real-person on “Lawrence Welk yes?

How about another possible explanation for the latter’s laughability? While other characters in this recurrent sketch react at times with revulsion to Wiig’s physical appearance, she remains completely oblivious and seemingly blissful. (How wonderful might it be if all of us lacked such self-consciousness and actually felt so okay in our skins.)

A predecessor to the Wiig sketch is a Frasier episode from 1998 called “Roz and the Schnoz,” in which the character played by Peri Gilpin meets the parents of her baby’s father for the first time. Although some thought it was wrong to laugh at this, many differed. Update, 9/4/15: this video clip is no longer available.

Again, 1) the couple is exaggeratedly schnozzed in a way we’ve probably never seen or will ever see, and 2) there’s something about the whole group, psychiatrist brothers included, being unable to resist laughing while the targeted couple remains totally unaware that anyone would have reason to find them different, or…let’s say…differently schnozzed.

An example of the opposite type of situation, i.e., realistic insecurity about our looks, was seen in an episode of the TV dramedy Scrubs in which Elliot and J.D. (Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke), both doctors, are each more vulnerable than they’d like to think they are to others’ judgments about perceived flaws.

In this clip, the back story is that psychiatrist Molly (Heather Graham) has disagreed with Elliot about a patient’s care. Does the ensuing scene make you laugh? Or is this a more serious matter? Might we identify with these characters a little too much? Feel their pain?

By the way, a totally different matter for another day? Molly: “‘Cause one of the reasons I became a therapist is I’ve always been able to zero in on a person’s greatest insecurity.”

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