Come fa ridere: The Geography of Italian Humor

[11 September 2007]

By Christine Forte

The advent of YouTube has enabled amateurs and professionals alike to make video footage of their choosing available to global audiences. This website has not been without its scandals; videos of schoolchildren fighting is one of the first that comes to mind, but it is far from the only one.

YouTube has also provided a venue for artists that may not normally have one: lesser known bands can promote their concerts and videos, comedians upload their routines, actors and directors are also able to exhibit their work. And the general public can use it to entertain or embarrass their friends. Italians, as I’ve learned in my work with Italian teenagers this summer, love to put on a show. They have not been slow to jump on the YouTube bandwagon; singing, dancing, and acting at the drop of a hat.

One Italian phenomena that has hit it.youtube.com (the Italian section of YouTube) in the last year or so is parodies of scenes from feature films and television programs in various dialects. Napolitano, Romano, Sardo, Palermitano, and Catanese, which are the local dialects of Naples, Rome, Sardinian, Palermo, and Catania respectively, are among those that can be found amongst the parodies. The scripting of these dubbed parodies is usually crude, often bordering on vulgar, featuring a lot of what a generation prior to mine might refer to as “bathroom humor”. For example, the most common word featured in these parodies is cuolo which is the Italian word for anus, in all its dialectic varieties and derivatives.

For example, in a version of Gladiator, dubbed in Catanese, the Roman Emporer, played by Joaquin Phoenix, commands the gladiator, Russell Crowe, “Avanti, girati, levati il casco e dimmi come ti chiami.” (Come forward, turn, lift your helmet, and tell me your name.) While Crowe wears the most serious of expressions, a chirping voice replies, “Sugnu Savvatore figghiu ri don Saru Alliccaricchi u Canchieri ri Piazza Palestro, e ora cecca ri tagglialla o ti rumpu u cuolo.” Which translates roughly as “I am Savvatore, son of Don Saru, Earlicker and Butcher of Palestro Square [a famous square in Catania], and now you have to shut up or I’ll break our ass.” From the amount of Sicilian laughter I heard at this particular line, I gather that it’s much funnier in the original Catanese than in the English translation.

Savvatore - favolosa parodia de “Il Gladiatore” in Siciliano

Another thing that viewers enjoy about these parodies is the mismatching of the voices. For example, one Catanian parody of Beverly Hills, 90210, blesses Brandon and Steve with the deep and scratchy voices of a couple of middle-aged toughs. Just hearing the voices, without knowing what they are saying, one might imagine from their gravelly timbres that they are discussing whose legs they are going to break rather than which party they’ll attend that night. 

Or in a Catanian parody of Gangs of New York, renamed “Briscola in New York”, Briscola being the Italian name for the card game that’s played at the beginning, one of the particularly tough looking card players speaks up in a squeaky soprano while two or three others have the exaggerated voice of someone whom has done more than his share of smoking and drinking (a popular choice for these parodies). Likewise, in “Savvatore”, the aforementioned Gladiator parody, the character of Joaquin Phoenix is dubbed with a squeaky cartoon voice, making him seem very small when compared with the exaggeratedly masculine voice given to Crowe.

And then there’s the vocal gender swapping. In one Romano parody of Dr. House, one of the female staff members is given a throaty masculine voice while the other in the dialogue has a flirty Betty Boop voice, making them sound rather more like a gangster and his doll than two female staff members, and of course the content of the dialogue has also been altered from relatively innocuous to one of strong sexual reference.

The titles themselves can be made into Parodies, such as “Butanic”,which combines the title “Titanic” with the Catanese word for whore, butane. Many of the parodies are very professionally produced, retaining original sound effects and music, such as a Sicilian parody of Lord of the Rings.

Il Signore degli anelli parodia ridoppiaggio M&P Siciliano

About halfway through, however, the soundtrack switches to the intro for Star Wars, giving the darkened scene of the swordfight a mock seriousness.

In all these examples of crude parodies, the common thread is that Rome is the farthest north of the list. As my friend from Catania explained to me, “Most of the parodies are made by people from the south, because if you go north, the dialects and the people are not as funny. Except for the Florentini [people from Florence]. They are very funny. But, in the north, people are more interested in ‘high culture,’ such as Dante Alighieri. Dante is not funny.”

While my friend’s humorously sweeping generalizations are just that, generalizations, there lies within, as with most stereotypes, a kernel of truth. Northern humor can be categorized as more of a dry wit, while southern staples are slapstick and hyperbole. For this particular Sicilian to prefer one over the other is a blatant example of campanilismo, which refers to loyalty to one’s city or region. Literally, it can be defined as ‘loyalty to the bell tower’; however, in practice it means that according to every Italian, his or her city is basically the best at everything. In the case of humor, it seems that the north can appreciate southern humor but alas, not vice-versa. The best examples of this are Ficarra and Picone (known simply like this; without first names) who are the most widely known stand-up comics in Italy and hail from Sicily. One would be hard pressed to find an Italian who hasn’t heard of them. 

Ficarra and Picone

Ficarra and Picone

The Sicilan equivilants of Will Ferrell and Chris Katan, they are anchormen to a humorous ‘news’ show which prende in giro (makes fun of) the real news, Saturday-Night-Live style. They’ve also made two feature films and travel Italy doing stand-up comedy.  And of course, numerous of these sketches (and their imitations) can also be found on it.Youtube.com.  Not only are they witty, but the physical humor (antics like fake fighting, falling down, breaking things) is amusing even to those who don’t speak Italian.

The time and effort put into producing the YouTube parodies, as well as the sheer volume of them, demonstrates just how important humor is to Southern Italians. The absence of such parodies produced in northern dialects can more than likely be attributed to the fact that dialects are no longer used nearly as much in the North. There are some parodies produced by Milanese in Italian, but they tend to be much more toned down by comparison to the off-the-wall humor of the Sicilian parodies and they are certainly fewer in number. For example, a Milanese parody of Lord of the Rings jokes about fashion, referring to a particular beaded garment as a Prada t-shirt. The viewer will also notice that there is nary a mention of the cuolo. Likewise, the voices, while exaggerated, are not as wildly inappropriate to the appearances of the characters as can be found in Southern parodies.

Nothing is sacred when it comes to Southern Italians and humor: there are parodies on everything from Berlusconi, to marriage, to illnesses, to death, to Hitler. They even manage to find ways to joke about pasta; I found one parody in which the main character was a box of Barilla. Where does this famous southern humor come from and why is the north of Italy so much more stereotypically ‘serious’? In view of all the bad turns fortune has handed Southern Italy in the last 100 years or so, maybe they’ve become experts at making lemonade from lemons. Or maybe with the sun and sea in such abundance, no one can find much of a reason to take anything very seriously.  And why should they? Call me mal educato (uncultured or rude), but I’d take a bit of slapstick bathroom humor over Dante any day.

Christine studied extensively at two different US universities to obtain degrees in subjects relatively unrelated to her interests. When questioned about this, she always stoically maintains that said degrees have contributed immeasurably to her development as a human being. After deciding to get a bit more education in the culture of Europe, Christine has been living and traveling in Italy, wherein she has focused her energies on improving both her wine-tasting abilities and her Italian language skills: sometimes simultaneously. A covert bookworm, her passions include the literary and historical, which combine to form her next life goal: to write a brilliant historical epic. In the fall of 2008 she hopes to begin working on an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Universities interested in supporting this venture should contact her without delay.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/come-fa-ridere-the-geography-of-italian-humor/