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  • Humor in Italy and Italian Comic Icons

    by Candida Martinelli

    A study in Britain showed that the higher one's education the more irony was appreciated. Lower educated British preferred physical humor and puns. Italy is different from Britain, and many other places, in this as with so many other things. All Italians I met appreciated physical humor, puns, and irony. Irony more than anything else!

    Totó is the icon of Italian comedy. He was in 108 films, wrote 5 of them, composed the music for 4 of them, was a poet, and a writer and composer for numerous stage variety shows.

    Totó also dubbed the voice for Danny Kaye in all his films released in Italy. He met Danny Kaye once in a Roman nightclub where they proceeded to entertain the crowd with an improvised pantomime routine that lasted several hilarious minutes. They were both masters of physical humor, and easily able to entertain the mixed language audience without speaking a single word.

    There is an incredible site dedicated to Totó full of information, quotes, and a wonderful biography. It is all in Italian, but if you can read Italian, it is worth a visit.

    The most appreciated humor in Italy is that which points out the absurdities and ironies of daily life. For this reason, Italian humor is grounded in reality. Italian comic characters are eccentric, but not exaggerated. This link to reality helps make Italian humor and Italian comic characters more poignant. It also makes Italian comedies a mixture of tragic and comedic in what I have recently heard called "dramadies". Others call them "tragi- comedies".

    Recurring themes in Italian comedies of the past were hunger, poverty, misery, old age, sickness, and death. Roberto Benigni's film comedy Life is Beautiful, set in a Nazi concentration camp, is just one in a long line of Italian comedies that seek to point out the ironic absurdities in tragedy.

    Modern Italian comedies tend to focus on the absurdities of modern life and how removed it can be from the reality of humanity. The gap between the perfect technological world we try to create around us, and the flawed human beings that we remain and always will remain, is a recurring theme.

    Social criticism and commentary are integral to Italian comedy in all it's forms. The goal of comics in Italy is generally to consider the reality around them from their comic perspective and then communicate this to their audience.

    I watched a Ligurian-Italian comic, Beppe Grillo, on TV one evening as he had the audience in tears from laughter by simply reading a list of accidents from the previous year at Italian nuclear power plants. The audience was not laughing at the near nuclear meltdowns. They were laughing at the absurdity of humankind thinking that just because we discovered the power that created our universe, we assumed we were capable of controlling it and using it safely.

    Accident after accident that he read off the official report showed how wrong we were. Each accident was caused by a "human error" that was only too human. Each person listening could see easily themselves doing something similar in a bad moment. This was long before Homer Simpson, of The Simpsons TV cartoon, was invented and placed behind a control board at a nuclear power plant, pointing out just the same thing.

    This link to reality helps explain why Italian comedies rarely have happy endings. The romantic film comedies so popular in English-speaking countries and in Germany (for some reason), are not as popular in Italy. They are seen as too unrealistic to be truly funny. They are fantasies peopled with unrealistic human beings.

    And in every performance the physical aspect of life and the character is as much a part of the performance as the dialogue. Most Italian actors receive stage training so they are adept at using their bodies to express emotion and to create comedic moments. The Rowen Atkinsons and Jim Carreys that we find so rare are ten a penny in Italy. For this reason, most shots in Italian film comedies are medium shots or long shots, rather than close-ups. Close-ups are reserved for communicating dramatic emotions.

    Italian comedy continues the traditions of Commedia dell'Arte and Greek theatre in the use of archetypal characters, or stock comic characters. They people the supporting roles so the audience can relate to them immediately without any long introductions.

    This use of many stock characters is the reason the Italian comic star is rarely the sole comic character in any work. He or she (Monica Vitti comes to mind as a wonderful Italian comic actress) is surrounded by other comic actors well known to the Italian public, often playing the same characters again and again. Together, the main comic and the stable of supporting comic actors create an ensemble piece celebrating many comic types easily recognizable to an Italian audience.

    In films and TV shows, group shots are favored so each character can react simultaneously to the events taking place, just as if they were performing on a stage, or as if it were happening in real life before passers-by on the street. Italian neo-realism is not dead, it has just lost it's sharp edges and has worked it's way into every production.

    Probably in second place in the Italian comedy pantheon, just after Totó, is Alberto Sordi. He was in 149 films, wrote 39 of them, and directed 18. He began his career by dubbing films, providing the voice for Oliver Hardy in his films released in Italy. There is an official site that is just as creative as the man was. This site is in Italian only, so if you can read Italian, there's a lot to enjoy.

    The dialogues in Italian comedy can be manic, but they are about real situations and real emotions, not fantasies. There are lots of plays on words, and joy is taken in combining and contrasting dialects with standard Italian.

    The voices of the various actors are generally very expressive and entertaining in their own right. This isn't surprising since most Italian actors study dubbing others in films as part of their acting training.

    I completely missed a play on an Italian expression in a famous film comedy, Mario Monicelli's Il Marchese del Grillo, starring Alberto Sordi, from 1981. The Marquise, played by Sordi, falls down a flight of stairs. Someone approaches and asks what happened. He's told that the Marchese é caduto (the Marquise fell down). The audience roared with laughter and the group of all male students I was with were laughing all the way home about that line, but they refused to explain it to me, insisting I had to ask a woman to explain it. I understood what they meant when I found a woman and explained to her the scene in the film. After she finally stopped laughing, she told me it was an Italian expression meaning a woman's menstruation had begun!

    Verbal interplay is so vital to Italian comedy that every website dedicated to comic stars features sections recording verbatim their most famous dialogues. These are memorized by young Italian males and recited over and over again when they spend any length of time together. It it something of a rite of passage to be able to recite certain scenes from certain films.

    Real life ends most often in failure or tragedy or reduced expectations because we are never as wonderful or talented as we want to believe we are. That gap between who we think we are and what we really are is another recurring theme in Italian comedies. Also, the art of adapting to one's circumstances, or l'arte d'arrangiarsi, is valued very highly in Italy, and shows up again and again at the end of Italian comedies, as the characters accept their failings and just get on with life.

    Italians don't laugh easily at themselves and don't like to be the butt of jokes. However they do appreciate jokes about life in general, and about politics in particular. This is behind the long Italian comic tradition of the political cartoon, or vignetta. To this day, one appears on the front page of the newspaper La Corriere della Sera, that almost always virulently attacks the government for some recent move or lack of movement.

    The cartoons are not laugh-out-loud funny, but instead provoke a recognition of the ridiculousness or futility of our arrogant attempts to control the world around us. Hubris is a favorite target of the Italian cartoonist, which probably explains why the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is such a favorite target these days.

    Altan is a famous Italian creator of vignette and fumetti, cartoons and comic strips. One of his more memorable characters is Cipputi, a died-in-the-wool communist factory worker who is continually dreaming of the day the worker's revolution will transform Italy.

    I have several collections of Altan's cartoons, given to me by an Italian friend who insisted that if I could understand Altan's humor, I could then claim to understand Italians and Italy. I don't know if that is true, that guy was pretty full of it , but I can appreciate Altan's humor, to a certain extent. I've put together a page with more information about Altan and some of his cartoons with English translations.

    A classic example of all these points on Italian comedy is Mario Monicelli's 1958 film I soliti ignoti (The Big Deal on Madonna Street). The film is about a hapless group of petty criminals who want to make a big score. They are doomed from the beginning by their own incompetence, but their basic humanity and the desire to make it big to escape the poverty in which they live endears them to the audience. When in the end, after all their preparations, they break through the wrong wall and find not a safe loaded with wealth, but instead a refrigerator containing a bowl of pasta with beans, they accept their defeat and make do. They sit down around the table and eat the pasta, commenting on the cooking skills of the woman who made it, and arguing about what ingredients it's lacking!

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