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'Starved' may go too far

By Tom Davis

Can eating disorders be funny?

The producers of "Starved," a "Seinfeld"-like take on eating disorders, airing on the FX network,say they can. Others say the show takes toilet humor to a new level.

Faced with such criticism, television producers and executives once again find themselves in a Catch-22 position: Is it possible tobe sensitive and funny at the same time?

The National Eating Disorders Association believes the show will promote stigmatization and damage efforts to educate people on the dangers of eating disorders.

"Eating disorders are illnesses, not choices, andcertainly no laughing matter," said Lynn Grefe,CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. "For anyone who hasbattled an eating disorder, watched a loved one do so or lost a child to theillness, it's no joke," she added.

The show's defenders, however, say comedy often pushes theboundaries of acceptance. Sure, watching a police officer throw up on ahomeless man - as "Starved" depicts - may be tasteless.

But political correctness - particularly in the area ofmental health - is not funny, either.

"Sensitivity is never funny," said Nancy Rich, whohas produced nationally syndicated television showsfor teenagers. "Unfortunately, sometimes that's the way to reach peoplethrough humor."

The "Starved" cast includes Sam, a commoditiestrader and overeater; Dan, an overweight man who keeps putting off his gastricbypass surgery; Adam, a bulimic who is a New York City cop; and Billie, asongwriter who abuses laxatives.

Producers say the show is typical comedy that's based onpeople's idiosyncrasies, flaws and even their weaknesses. Other films andtelevision shows, such as "Fat Actress," that drew the wrath ofmental-health advocates also offered lessons that were valuable, they say.

Rich says shows like "South Park"strike a funny bone that makes people laugh not so much at the illness, but at themselves. The show appears to be making fun of people whoare handicapped, "but they're laughing at how society reacts tothem," she said.

"That's thought-provoking, and they have gone into somereligious issues that are thought-provoking," said Rich, who is generally nota fan of "South Park."

Can people relate to characters who suffer from eatingdisorders?

Possibly - and if it's done in the right context, some say.

Susan Bartell, a psychologist fromLong Island who's dealt with childrensuffering from eating disorders, said some movies and television shows thatdeal with mental illness have managed to be sensitive and funny.

"Rain Man," the 1988 movie about a man withautism, did not degrade people with mental illness, Bartellsaid. In fact, it even educated people, she said.

A show can have one character with eating disorders"and make it a little funny, as part of a bigger show," Bartell said.

She cited "All in the Family," a sitcom that dealtwith mental retardation and abortion, as a show that could have appropriatelyaddressed eating disorders.

"That's a little different than having an entire showon it," she said.

There are limits, Bartell said.She's worried that "Starved" has opened the door so that theentertainment industry will find cancer and other horrific illnesses morehumorous.

"If you do that, then what's next?" she asked."Then do people become numb to war, and to child abuse? Once you open thefloodgates, when does it stop?"

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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