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Ethnic Stereotyping: Going, Going, Gone
Why It Was Okay To Laugh At Little Immigrant Luigi Bosco In The 1940s, But Not So Today
by Cookie Curci
When is it okay, in today's socially enlightened world, to laugh at someone's ethnic background? The answer is, of course, never! There was a time, however, when a generation of people of ethnic backgrounds laughed the loudest at ethnic humor.
As an Italian American I grew up in the 1940s and '50s, a time when an avalanche of humorous Italian American portrayals permeated the media. I also remember that my own Italian American family enjoyed many of these impersonations and laughed right along with them.
But Italians weren't the only ethnic group to be spotlighted for comedy, there were others as well. Leading the NBC radio lineup from 1929-1934 was a show called, The Goldbergs, a weekly comedy about immigrant Molly Goldberg and her Jewish American family etching a life out for themselves in the big apple. In 1951 CBS featured The Amos 'n' Andy show a weekly story about two black men and their friends Kingfish, Calhoun, and Sapphire. Another was detective Charlie Chan, the Chinese detective and his number one son were featured on ABC's line up from 1957 to 1958.
Back then, my Italian American family loved a program called, Life with Luigi. The show featured an immigrant Italian named Luigi Bosco, portrayed by J. Carrol Naish. Each week Luigi wrote letters to his mama back in Italy telling her of his life in the New World. The show ran on CBS radio from 1948 to 1953. Luigi, who spoke broken English, owned an antique shop and was working hard to obtain his American citizen ship. Luigi, his wife, Rosa, and daughter, Rosalie, where a caricature of the immigrant Italian. I can recall how my family and I rocked with laughter as we listened to Luigi and his family speaking in broken English.
Was the show really all that funny? Or was it that we, as first and second generation Italians, felt reassured at hearing an Italian family on the radio, speaking in accents we recognized in our own grandparents. Did laughing along with the show and the funny Italians make us feel more accepted? I believe that it did. At that time the only TV and radio shows we had to compare ourselves to featured Robert Young in the weekly hit series, Father Knows Best, the blonde Eve Arden in Our Miss Brooks sandy haired, Richard Denning and Barbara Britton, starring in Mr. and Mrs. North, William Bendix in The life of Riley and Penny Singleton's Blondie. Not much for an Italian kid to identify with. Perhaps it was that indefinable difference between us and them that made Italian kids of the 1940s need a program such as Life with Luigi to give us some identification of our own.
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