Fat jokes may be taboo or strongly discouraged at home and at work, but they're the bread and butter, the meat and potatoes of "Mike & Molly," the new CBS sitcom that stars two overweight characters.
The eponymous characters -- Mike (Billy Gardell), a cop of massive girth and Molly (Melissa McCarthy), a plumpish school teacher -- meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, and it's clear from the start that these sweet, insecure people would not push a plate of love aside.
What may push viewers away, though, is the litany of fat jokes and emotional gibes -- some made by the rotund characters themselves -- that pervade the show.
In last week's debut episode, a waiter calls Mike a "large man." Mike's cop partner says he wouldn't have enough chalk to outline Mike's outsize corpse. When he later embraces Mike, he says, "It's like hugging a futon." On a more serious note, Mike is asked how he can be a cop while being so fat.
Mike's no stranger to his condition. At one point he compares himself to the Himalayas.
Not all the insults are spoken, however.
Molly's skinny mom eats a huge slice of freshly baked chocolate cake in front of her daughter, who's been described as a "big-boned" girl, even as she slaves away on exercise equipment.
Some of the dialogue can be played for quick laughs, but the slings could come at the expense of viewers desperately trying to shed pounds.
"The show is offensive," said Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian in New York and author of "Read It before You Eat It." "I couldn't believe how insensitive the jokes were, especially the cake scene. With 17 percent of children obese in this country, what relative wouldn't keep in mind the needs of her child, even an adult one, who's trying to lose weight? It was a perfect example of what not to do."
And it's not just the cake. Taub-Dix also takes issue with the solo frankfurter Mike eats in episode one. "That the show would put one item on the plate is radical," she said, but "why not show half-a-plate filled with vegetables?"
'Mike & Molly' About People Wanting to 'Make a Change'
For Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, the network's reason for buying "Mike & Molly" was its source, award-winning writer Chuck Lorre, who serves as the show's executive producer. Known for breaking sitcom barriers, Lorre was the creative force behind such hits as "Roseanne," "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory," now in its fourth season.
Speaking at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, Lorre said, "Television would normally have cast Chris O'Donnell and Courtney Cox as the people who meet at Overeaters Anonymous." He said he hoped the final casting decision reflected "some kind of reality that people will experience." The show, he said, is about people who "want to make a change in their lives."
At the same press event, executive producer and creator Mark Roberts said it wasn't his goal to write a show about Overeaters Anonymous but rather about two people at the beginning of their relationship. "Problems," said Roberts, "is what comedy is built around."
But will the show's central subject -- excess weight -- create problems for viewers?
Billy Gardell told USA Today that "Mike & Molly" doesn't have any more weight jokes than "The Honeymooners" or "The King of Queens."
Clearly, some viewers are willing to give the show a chance.
Cheryl Foster, a Chuck Lorre fan in Waco, Texas, says she's overweight but was not offended by the show's jokes, saying she found them clever. "I'm interested in knowing more about the relationship between the characters, to learn what allows them to speak to each other about weight issues the way they do."
Jimmy Smith, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Stamford, Conn., said he watched "Mike & Molly" because it focused on overweight people. "I was really interested in seeing where they'd take it, and what they'd do to show how the characters would try to take off their excess weight." Although Smith said he cringed at some of the jokes and dialogue, he empathized with the characters.
"People who are overweight are often sensitive, and they hide it by making jokes to mask how uncomfortable they feel in their own skin," he said, adding that some of his clients make the same types of self-deprecating quips. "Often the jokes are meant to show an overweight person's self-acceptance to others."
'Mike & Molly' Offers 'Welcome Reality'
Smith said he found the show "motivating," and that having the two main characters meet at Overeaters Anonymous was encouraging. "Often people don't want to admit, because of shame, that they've met people at this type of meeting."
While Taub-Dix, the dietitian, worries that the show will offend the overweight and contribute to the nation's burgeoning obesity problem, for Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, "Mike & Molly" offers a stark tinge of welcome reality.
"These don't strike me as jokes," said Nestle, who also wrote the book "What to Eat." "These sound like a very accurate dead-on description of the ridicule, discrimination and rudeness that overweight people hear all the time, especially when the words undermine these people's ability to lose weight. I'm impressed."