Don't forget the funnies!

Giacinto Palmieri on comedy in his native Italy

I’m currently reading The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott, a truly compelling biography of the great Regency clown and a fascinating reconstruction of comedy in 18th and 19th Century Britain, and it made me think of the status of comedy in my native Italy.

What struck me was how the Italians were considered at the time to be the best comedians in Europe, to the point that Lord Shaftesbury felt the need to write by way of explanation: ‘Tis the only manner in which the poor cramped wretches can discharge a free thought. The greater the weight is, the bitterer will be the Satire. The higher the slavery, the more exquisite the buffoonery.’

By reading these words I couldn't help thinking of modern day Italy and of the increasingly prominent role comedians seem to play in public life.

The most striking example is probably Beppe Grillo, often described as ‘the Italian Michael Moore’. For years Grillo’s target was the corporate world, to the point that he was interrogated during the investigation on the bankruptcy of Parmalat and asked to justify how he could joke about the dodgy balance books of this big dairy conglomerate well before the scandal broke out. Grillo’s defence was that he had simply researched information in the public domain.

But with time, Grillo’s focus has shifted more and more towards politics, with his blog becoming one of the most read and influential in the blogsphere. His campaigning culminated in a massive anti-establishment demonstration named Vaffanculo Day, or ‘Fuck-off Day’, and the foundation of the Five Stars political party. In the course of this transformation, however, Grillo has progressively become less of a campaigning comedian and more of an former comedian who campaigns. These days I find very little humour in his tirades, often quite apocalyptic in tone.

This danger is not alien to Sabina Guzzanti either, a comedienne whose TV show’s censorship at the hands of Belusconi’s government became a cause célèbre in Italy.

She told her side of the story in the documentary Viva Zapatero!, released in the UK few years ago and now available on DVD. The film shows how many journalists and commentators, even on the left, justified the decision to shut down the show by arguing that it didn’t constitute satire but just propaganda – and therefore fell foul of impartiality rules on political programming.

In his strongest form, this argument boils down to the clearly absurd assertion that comedians should simply ‘do their job’, without any pretension to convey a political message. In the film, the defence against this argument is left to Britain’s own Rory Bremner, whose Bremner, Bird and Fortune Iraq special was praised for its well researched content as well as for its wit.

However, the comparison between Bremner’s show and the highlights of Sabina Guzzanti’s programme shown in the film reveals how she was too exposed to another line of attack. While Brenmer’s show never failed to find humour in the deceptions surrounding the beginning of the Iraq war, an extract shows Guzzanti delivering a completely straight political speech where the only humorous element is represented by the simultaneous and incongruous sign language translation.

The best chance comedians have to express their political message effectively is by never forgetting that making people laugh is their first duty. And in Italy, while ‘serious’ political shows on public TV are expected to be unbiased (an argument often used to be sure that they are biased in the ‘right”’ direction) the same level of impartiality can hardly be expected from a comedy show. Now as in Lord Shaftesbury’s time comedy is often the most effective way to ‘discharge a free thought’ – but if the comedic layer becomes too thin the thought is left dangerously exposed.

A comedian who never forgets to put funny first is Roberto Benigni, known outside Italy for the film Life Is Beautiful.

Soon after Silvio Berlusconi declared himself, without a shadow of irony, as ‘the most persecuted man in history, Benigni found himself performing for some priests, and quipped: ‘I really admire Jesus Christ. For me he is the second most persecuted man in history.’ Not only this is a very funny line, but it also unmasks Berlusconi’s paranoia and sense of self-importance.

Italy is experiencing difficult times for the freedom of expression under Berlusconi. But this is both a great danger and a great opportunity for Italian comedians. If they claim persecution and take themselves too seriously they risk becoming not only unfunny, but as pompous as their targets. But if they resist this temptation they will find themselves in a wonderful position to play the time-honoured role of revealing that the king is actually naked.

  • Giacinto Palmieri and fellow Italian comedian Giada Garofalo are performing at Laughing Horse @ The Temple as part of the Brighton Fringe on May 1 and 2 at 5.30pm. Admission is free, with a voluntary donation at the end.

Published: 20 Apr 2010

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.