Exploiting Our Archives: Nah, Nah, Nah, Gonna Have A Bad Time! Case File #89 Fat Albert (2004)
What do we see when we look at a face? There are physical features, of course. A roman nose. Soulful brown eyes. A cleft chin. A strong jaw. But just as importantly, if not more importantly, there are the emotions that we project onto faces. Someone can have a cruel, even sadistic glare, and icy, unfeeling eyes. Alternately, they can have a warm smile that conveys warmth and sincerity.
What have we seen when we looked at Bill Cosby’s face? The answer is complicated and painful and ever-evolving. When I was a child and I looked at Cosby’s face, I saw someone who represented the best we had to offer. I saw a man who wasn’t just an unusually, even singularly accomplished and successful entertainer, but a man who single-handedly uplifted his race.
When I looked at Bill Cosby’s face in the 1980s, when he ruled pop culture and television as the star, creator and voice of The Cosby Show I saw kindness. I saw compassion. I saw fundamental dignity. I saw a father’s concern for his children and a leader’s concern for his people. I saw a punim that was at once the dignified face of a great man and the impish, child-like mug of a man who had risen to the highest of heights in no small part because he never lost touch with his inner child.
Cosby seemed to have an unusually close relationship with his inner child. As a ten year old who grew up in a culture that didn’t just admire but worshipped Bill Cosby, that saw him as something approaching a secular saint, I related to Cosby as an idealized father figure, the warm, endlessly supportive dad everyone wants. But because Cosby wasn’t afraid to roll around on the ground, or make goofy voices, or channel the voices and body language and personalities of childhood friends decades later, I related to his as a child as well.
I see something much different when I look at Bill Cosby’s face now. Part of this is attributable to Cosby aging in an unflattering way. Cosby's once wildly expressive features have frozen into a permanent scowl. His eyes seem fixed forever in a penetrating, intimidating glare. In his 1980s prime, it seemed like Cosby never stopped smiling and never stopped laughing and never stopped expressing joy, except for the paternal moments on The Cosby Show when the clowning stopped and the wise, loving mentor took over in order to gently dispense life lessons.
These days it seems like Cosby never smiles. It seems like he never laughs. Why would he? It seems like whatever internal light he might have burned out long ago, leaving behind only the sad, burnt-out husk of a man whose features now seem downright cruel. It hurts to look at Bill Cosby these days, just as it hurts to think about the awful conflict between the public face Cosby showed his adoring fans and a private face that was, and remains, calculating and cold, cynical and impossibly cruel, paternalistic in a ways that are sick and manipulative rather than sincere.
I have such a hard time looking at Bill Cosby’s face that when trying to figure out which of his flops to write about—Leonard Part 6, Ghost Dad or Fat Albert—I chose the Fat Albert movie largely because it would involve looking at Bill Cosby’s face the least.
Though this is unmistakably Cosby’s brainchild, the face we end up looking at for 93 very strange minutes is the much friendlier, much less problematic and disturbing face of former child actor Kenan Thompson, who has been a cast-member of Saturday Night Live since the late 1960s, before it began or he was born.
In the kind of anecdote that makes even watching a perversely bland PG Fat Albert movie a troubling and problematic experience, Cosby infamously told Thompson that after the film came out and Fat Albert emerged as a Channing Tatum-like sex symbol, women would be throwing themselves at Thompson to such an extent that he’d need a second dick. As I’m sure he must have told Marc Maron during his WTF interview (I haven’t listened to it), he took Cosby’s words to heart and had a second penis attached, only to watch it go mostly unused when playing a sexless, morbidly obese child in a failed movie failed to make him the Warren Beatty of his day.
According to legend (and by legend I of course mean IMDB/Wikipedia) the filmmakers behind Fat Albert reportedly conducted an extensive search to find an unknown child actor to play Fat Albert, but when that came up empty, they borrowed Saturday Night Live’s eternal plan B, “Ah, fuck it, just stick Kenan Thompson in a fat suit.”
Thompson’s fat suit is so weirdly oval and fluffy that in it he looks alternately like a morbidly obese turtle without a shell or a giant M&M that has sprouted arms and legs. Thompson’s vision of the character is essentially, “Nice fat dude who dances, sings and says ‘Hey, Hey, Hey’ a lot”, though, to be fair, he does remember to do the Fat Albert raspy growl at least forty percent of the time.
The movie opens with an animated Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids performing their beloved theme song, “Gonna Have A Good Time.” It’s a warm nostalgia bath, a comfy reminder of the funky, high-spirited good times of Cosby’s much-loved cartoon institution. The filmmakers figured out that audiences really love hearing Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids perform that theme song because it performed more or less twice more in its entirety, at the end of the film and during a set-piece featuring an extended, altered version of the song featuring an obligatory in-character rap for Thompson in character as Fat Albert.
Meanwhile, back in our melancholy live-action world, teenager Doris Robertson (Kyla Pratt) is sad about her grandfather’s death, being the subject of bullying and her difficulty making friends. When her parents head to the Poconos for a two day trip, Doris cries a perfect tear that falls upon a remote control tuned into a TV Land rerun of Fat Albert and Fat Albert and the rest of his entourage climb out of the television screen and their world, and into Doris’ world in order to help her believe in herself and make friends.
Yet in a strange, complicated, convoluted turn of events, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids seem to understand and realize that they are fictional animated characters and that if someone does not draw or write them, they do not exist. There's Dumb Donald, for example, a character whose defining, and only, feature is that he wears a winter hat over his face, but with holes for eyes.
Dumb Donald somehow knows that he does not have a face, because animators never drew him one. This is supposed to be a cute bit of meta-commentary. Instead it feels unintentionally ominous, as if behind Dumb Donald's hat lies a void as all-encompassing as a Black Hole, a realm of infinite darkness. And Dumb Donald seems weirdly okay with that!
I would have put the kibosh on Fat Albert after seeing what Thompson looks like in his fat suit. And at this point, Thompson has spent nearly as much time in a fat suit as “Weird Al” Yankovic and Tyler Perry have, or when the costumes for the Cosby Kids look like the kinds of things unambitious cos-players willing, even eager to cut corners at every possible interval might wear.
In a movie with a pulse, and a soul, and some energy, Fat Albert and the Cosby kids would run amok in the crazy new live-action world of 2004. The Brady Bunch Movie style culture clash comedy would ensue as these living embodiments of funky 1970s childhood nostalgia are thrust into our crazy modern world.
Instead the Cosby kids and Fat Albert very politely stumble their way through groaning culture-clash gags, like the gang deciding to “audit” a class with Doris where the stern instructor tells her students, “All right kids, power up, log on and access the internet!” and, this is priceless—Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids are confused because they live in a world without the internet!
It seems safe to assume that the film’s culture-clash gags might have played slightly better if they were not co-written (Cosby co-wrote the script) by a man whose understanding of the modern world seems to begin and end with the knowledge that the kids are running around with the pants sagging and the potty mouths and the cellular telephones on the Youtubes.
What kind of crazy adventures do Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids get into in our world? Well, early on, they sing their theme song again, and that burns off a good minute or so. From that point forward, the movie just seems to be running out the clock. Fat Albert is supposed to help Doris believe in herself so that he can return to his world and restore the balance of the universe or something.
But really, what lovable, cuddly, rotund Fat Albert seems to be trying to do is get laid. I’m not sure Fat Albert needs a love interest, but the movie provides him with one anyway in the form of Lauri Robertson (Dania Ramirez), an accomplished athlete not unlike Andrea Constand, the woman Cosby was recently in court for sexually assaulting.
Fat Albert seems perversely obsessed with its titular hero scoring a woman way out of his league, but as it lurches unsteadily into a third act, its weird reality begins to splinter in ways that barely make sense. For example, the Cosby Kids characters discover that in our world their debilitating shortcomings no longer exist. Mushmouth, for example, a young man who is impossible to understand in the cartoon, becomes completely comprehensible in real life.
In his confusion, Fat Albert visits the lonely mansion of Bill Cosby, the man who created him. Cosby faints upon being confronted with one of his creations coming to life and then showing up at his front door. Aside from the fainting, this scene is not played for comedy. Far from it. In this sequence, Cosby comes off like a God who alone understands the complexities of the world that he has created.
The scene where Fat Albert comes to Bill Cosby for answers and help, not unlike so many vulnerable women through the decades, is borderline funereal in its dour intensity. His voice full of paternalistic concern, Cosby tells Fat Albert, “You stay out here (in our real world), you’re going to turn into celluloid dust.”
This raises a whole bunch of questions, namely, what the fuck is celluloid dust? And why does Cosby know about it? If I could ask Bill Cosby two questions, the first one would be, “How dare you present yourself as a peerless moral authority in light of the decades upon decades you’ve spent abusing the public’s love for you to commit horrible crimes and destroy the lives of women who looked up you as a mentor and paid a terrible price for that belief?”
The second question would, of course, be, “How did your character know about the celluloid dust? Has he had previous experience with television characters coming to life? Is this explained in the script? Is there an elaborate backstory explaining how Bill Cosby came to understand how the animated world and the real world overlap?”
Astonishingly, the saddest is yet to come. Cosby figures out that Doris is actually the grand-daughter of the real-life childhood friend of Cosby’s who inspired Fat Albert. A movie that begins with a little girl’s tears over her dead grandfather closes with an ashen and grieving Cosby visiting the grave of his dead friend, along with friends we’re led to believe are the inspirations for the Cosby Kids.
Fat Albert is such a bizarre project that it really works best as a somber elegy for the man who inspired Fat Albert. God knows it does not work on any other level. Cosby is mourning his friend at the end of Fat Albert (because what do children enjoy more than old men grieving while contemplating their own mortality?) but he also seems to be mourning himself on some level.
The Bill Cosby we loved in the 1980s is dead and gone. He’s nothing but a memory. We’re left with the man as he truly is, and that is a tragedy on so many different levels.
As one of its many convoluted twists, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids find themselves physically fading over the course of the film. Their funky, colorful clothes get lighter and they themselves begin to disappear. It’s a plot device stolen pretty shamelessly from Back To The Future. Even if it wasn’t, it's a mistake for the once canny, now clueless Cosby to give critics and the public such a perfect, devastating metaphor for the film’s failure. Cosby and director Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) took characters that were once vivid and colorful, unforgettable and full of life, and rendered them bland and forgettable, almost to the point where they cease to exist, not unlike the public's once-fierce belief in Cosby's fundamental goodness.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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