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The Buff Clown Trope - A New Hollywood Hero

Actors like Channing Tatum, Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt, Ryan Reynolds and Kumail Nanjiani have combined comic timing with time in the gym, making them capable of killer punchlines and punching killers. The rise of the Buff Clown reveals a lot about how American attitudes have changed over the past three decades.

TRANSCRIPT

Over the past ten years, we’ve seen the rise of a new kind of movie star—one who’s just as comfortable being the butt of the joke as he is making you look at his butt. Actors like Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Channing Tatum, Ryan Reynolds, and, most recently, Kumail Nanjiani, have combined comic timing with time in the gym, making them capable of killer punchlines and punching killers. These are the buff clowns, combining the best of both action and comedy as they climb to the top of the Hollywood totem pole. So who is this new Hollywood hero?

Unsurprisingly, a buff clown must be buff. And not just cute-guy-at-the-gym buff. These are the kinds of guys who post Instagram photos of themselves lifting giant tires with 46 inspiring hashtags. Those muscles aren’t just for show, either. The buff clown fights the bad guy, saves the girl, and all the other important tasks that Hollywood has taught us to expect from dudes who look like they might go super Saiyan at any moment.

While the buff clown’s body puts him squarely in a long line of Hollywood hunks, what comes out of his mouth doesn’t quite match up. Sometimes, he’s stupid. Other times, he’s a coward.

Agent Locke: “A moment ago, I most definitely shit my pants.” - Hobbs & Shaw

And sometimes, he’s just supremely awkward. Even when he’s a cocky, wise-cracking badass like the old 80s action heroes, it’s usually setting him up to look like an idiot a moment later.

The buff clown has become one of today’s masculine ideals that seems to dominate blockbuster movies—but he’s often used to skewer stereotypes of toxic masculinity and ridiculous egotism. He can also play against expectations of masculinity. That might mean caring about grooming or other traditionally female priorities. It could include flirting with a sexual openness that was once verboten for a leading man. Other times, it means being willing to show weakness—just as some actors who play the buff clown have been powerfully open in the media about their own vulnerabilities.

Here’s our take on the relatively new phenomenon of the buff clown—and how understanding the rise of this archetype reveals how American attitudes have changed over the past three decades.

Buff Clown Origins

The classic movie heartthrob is cool, brawny, and dashingly handsome. The classic movie clown is, well, none of those. It’s hard to imagine Charlie Chaplin telling Ingrid Bergman that they’ll always have Paris or Steve Martin punching Nazis to save Marion Ravenwood.

As Hollywood embraced action movies, writers realized that cracking wise could make its heroes seem badass. But while these characters could spout a catchphrase, it would be a stretch to call them funny. There were a few exceptions. Keanu Reeves could jump from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure to Point Break; still, he kept his action and his comedy in different movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger managed a string of successful comedies, such as Twins and Kindergarten Cop and his masterpiece, Jingle All the Way.

Howard: “Who told you you could eat my cookies?” - Jingle All the Way

But considering that he also became a two-term governor, perhaps the regular rules simply don’t apply to him.

When other leading men tried to follow Schwarzenegger, it led to disasters like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, the Sylvester Stallone bomb that Roger Ebert called “moronic beyond comprehension.” The lesson was clear: unless you were Mr. Olympia or “The One,” audiences wanted to admire their leading men’s perfection, not giggle at their foibles. At least until a sitcom actor became the biggest movie star in the world.

Denise: “What’s a nine-letter word for ‘incredible?’”

Will: “Oh, that’s easy: ‘Will Smith.’” - The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Will Smith rocketed to fame as the lead in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where he often made himself the butt of the joke. But less than two months after the series finale, Will Smith opened the movie that became the biggest box office hit of the year and cemented him as a movie star. In Independence Day, Smith is a classic action hero, punching aliens and saving the world. But while he has the toughness, cool, and sex appeal of previous action heroes, he also has something they don’t: he’s funny. Smith dials up the traditional action hero confidence until it becomes comical, making the audience laugh at his character even as we root for him.

Captain Hiller: “This was supposed to be my weekend off, but no, you’ve got me out here, draggin’ your heavy ass through the burning desert.” - Independence Day

Making Captain Hiller funny not only served the Smith’s natural skills, it also served a more complex social purpose: it helped audiences root for a black lead. After all, action heroes like Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, and Mel Gibson were all white icons. Audiences had rarely been asked to idolize a black action hero, and making the character silly punctured his perfection just enough to make Americans comfortable.

This combination of badass and hilarious worked so well for Will Smith that he quickly capitalized on it with a string of action comedy box office hits like Men in Black and Wild Wild West. By the time he starred in the massive hit Bad Boys II, Smith was cracking jokes and cracking jaws with muscles that looked like he could bench press Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey at the same time.

Buff Clowns Take Over

While Will Smith created the model for the buff clown, it would take another massive movie star to make it the norm. In the early 2000s, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a massively successful wrestler looking to establish himself as a movie star, but he faced a dilemma.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: “Hollywood, they didn’t know what the hell to do with me. I mean, I was this half-black, half-Samoan, 6-foot-4, 275-pound pro wrestler.” - 2019 MTV Movie and TV Awards

With so few antecedents, The Rock consciously modeled his approach on Will Smith, saying, “I want Will Smith’s career but…I want to do it bigger and better.” The Rock’s first leading role as the Scorpion King, in a prequel to The Mummy Returns, has all the hallmarks of a Will Smith character: a wise-cracking badass who sometimes ends up the subject of mockery but still saves the world and gets the girl. The Rock established his tough guy cred with films like Walking Tall and The Rundown, but he also undercut it with comedy—such as his role in Be Cool, playing a flamboyant bodyguard and aspiring actor.

As his star grew, The Rock made sure to mix in comedy roles, often mocking his own image as a masculine icon. Like with Will Smith, his comedic gifts made him more accessible and less intimidating to white audiences, paving the way for him to become a four-quadrant star, ripped but goofy, masculine yet sensitive.

While the mold of the silly action hero was pioneered by men of color, in part to placate the conscious or unconscious bias of white audiences, it became such an extraordinary moneymaker that it was only a matter of time before white actors capitalized on this trend. The first actor to realize that punchlines went down easier when licked off a six pack was Ryan Reynolds, who rose to fame with comedies like Van Wilder and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, before bulking up for Blade: Trinity. But Reynolds struggled to find the right balance in movies like X-Men: Origins and Green Lantern before finally getting it right in Deadpool. In the meantime, another funny guy was mastering this formula.

Chris Pratt broke through as the lovable idiot, Andy Dwyer, on the NBC comedy Parks and Rec. The character was first introduced as kind of a loser, mooching off his girlfriend, Anne, but as the show progressed, Andy became a more likable, bigger part of the show—as well as, simply, bigger. When creator Michael Schur told Pratt that he’d be happy if the actor gained 30 to 40 pounds, Pratt took it as a challenge, once eating 12 entire racks of ribs while filming a scene. As Pratt’s weight grew, the show turned his physique into a gag.

Andy: “I’m going to die. I’m so tired. Everything hurts. Running is impossible.” - Parks and Recreation

But when Pratt began to seek out film roles, he started to slim down and bulk up, turning himself into a massive mound of muscles to star in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. By grafting muscles onto his comic talents, Pratt became the face, and pectorals, of two of the top franchises in the world (in addition to becoming the voice of a third).

Claire: “You can pick up their scent, can’t you? Track their footprints?”

Owen: “I was with the Navy, not the Navajo.” - Jurassic World

Other “everyman” comedy stars followed this trajectory, with The Office’s John Krasinki halving his body fat percentage in 2015 to play a Navy Seal, and even the 45-year-old Paul Rudd pulling off a six pack to play Ant Man. Meanwhile, already muscular actors noticed the trend as well. Zac Efron and Channing Tatum both embraced the role of hilarious meathead. Former wrestlers like John Cena and Dave Bautista showed off a wide range of comedy chops. And even Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, turned out to have a surprising skill for comedy—first in 2016’s remake of Ghostbusters and then in Taika Waititi’s superhero comedy Thor: Ragnarok.

Surtur: “This is my crown, the source of my power.”

Thor: “Oh, that’s a crown? I thought it was a big eyebrow.” - Thor: Ragnarok

In one of the most talked about transformations, Kumail Nanjiani morphed himself from the skinny nerd of Silicon Valley into a bonafide Instagram thirst trap. For many, Nanjiani felt like the last domino—the world was so hungry for buff clowns, you never knew when your favorite comedian might swear off carbs, hire a personal trainer, and reappear a year later with shoulders the size of hams.

Clown for a Cause

Given that the ranks of buff clown movie stars are swelling faster than Kumail Nanjiani’s biceps, we can’t help asking why? After 50 years of nonstop buffets of badassery, why did Hollywood suddenly decide we needed a side of silly? The secret to why the buff clown has taken over the circus lies in its original purpose, making heroes less intimidating and more accessible. While humor originally served as an antidote to audience discomfort with black masculinity, it seems to work just as well with all masculinity. And as society at large has begun to grapple more with the dangers of toxic masculinity, we’ve begun to reject the stoic masculinity of traditional action stars and look for something friendlier. Being willing to be the butt of the joke lets the audience know that the star is game for anything and rejects old ideas encapsulated by Margaret Atwood’s famous quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

The rejection of old-school masculinity extends beyond just humor, as the buff clown is much more willing to show sensitivity and mutual support.

Luke: “You go out there, you do your job, and you take ‘em down…Manis and pedis at the mall, later on today.” – The Fate of the Furious

This willingness to push past expectations even extends to flirting with queerness, such as The Rock and Zac Efron’s kiss in Baywatch or Ryan Reynolds in pretty much every movie.

Nolan: “You a top or a bottom? Doesn’t matter. Prison’s gonna decide for us.” - Red Notice

Ignoring old taboos becomes a reassurance to the audience that these modern muscle men are nothing like the old version that caused so much trouble.

While the rise of the buff clown reveals our discomforts, it also reveals masculinity’s continued power. After all, the buff clown retains all the physical trappings of manliness. They may talk the talk of pushing against masculinity, but it’s only after they’ve walked the walk on the elliptical for three hours. At times, it can seem like the buff clown is the male equivalent of a supermodel posing for Vanity Fair flaunting her armpit hair. It challenges gendered restrictions, but only in the context of someone who is clearly traditionally attractive and able-bodied. Even the flirtation with queerness stays only flirtation. None of the actors who fit into the buff clown archetype have ever been linked to a male or nonbinary romantic partner, and most are happily married to women who are as traditionally attractive as they are.

While the buff clown turns out to not be that different from the hero archetypes it replaced, it also has an additional downside: being funny, and a good actor, and maintaining the body of a Greek god demands a ton of work. The old mold of what made a man—effortless cool, physical dominance, emotional aloofness, and the ability to occasionally crack wise to remind everyone else that you’re better—was always an impossible standard. But rather than replacing it with something more reasonable, we’ve created a new standard that is even less realistic—all the muscles and none of the hang-ups. And with the buff clown muscling in on all the roles, there is very little room for anyone else. Kumail Nanjiani has said of his transformation, “I needed to change how people saw me, so I could have the type of opportunities I was excited about…Now I get opportunities to play a normal guy. I was not seen as a normal guy before this.”

The fact that we’ve made getting jacked a necessity for looking “normal” reveals just how impossible and even dangerous a standard we’re setting. Buff celebrities have teams of a dozen trainers, nutritionists, and caterers, and they still nearly die of thirst to achieve the effect.

Henry Cavill: “When you’re dehydrating for three days, you get to the point on the last day where you can smell water.” - The Graham Norton Show

That level of obsession can also cause body dysmorphia. Even after his big Instagram reveal, Nanjiani has admitted that he struggles with the obsession; quote: “I know exactly what I weigh every day, and if I could change something, I would love to not have to think about that.” And since the buff clown has become the standard of beauty in film, it’s inevitable that he becomes a source of comparison for actually normal guys.

The buff clown archetype hasn’t changed as much about the Hollywood hero as it might first appear. Blockbusters still glamorize macho muscles at the expense of complex characters. They contribute to an unattainably muscular body ideal that can even be dangerous in a time when male eating disorders are rising fast. Still, while it might not fix everything, the buff clown has opened things up—enabling a more diverse understanding of what makes a hero, sending the message that “real men” are supportive and sensitive, and paving the way for action movies that are funny, sentimental, and free to be themselves.

SOURCES

Atwood, Margaret. “Writing the Male Character.” 1982, University of Waterloo.

Ebert, Roger. “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.” RogerEbert.com, 21 Feb. 1992, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/stop-or-my-mom-will-shoot-1992.

Hathaway, Victor. “Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s Eye Opening Speech to the Lakers Players.” 6 AM Success, 15 May 2020, https://6amsuccess.com/dwayne-the-rock-johnsons-eye-opening-speech-to-the-lakers-players/.

Jung, E. Alex. “Kumail Nanjiani’s Feelings: The Man in the Marvel Suit Confronts His Body.” Vulture, 12 Oct. 2021, https://www.vulture.com/article/kumail-nanjiani-eternals-profile.html.

Skipper, Clay. “How Kumail Nanjiani Got Huge.” GQ, 7 Oct. 2021, https://www.gq.com/story/kumail-nanjiani-profile.