A thief, in anyone's language

Giacinto Palmieri on the Italian comic stealing English material

Few things in life make you feel sadder than being disappointed and betrayed by your heroes. This is how I felt recently watching a documentary called Il Meglio [non e’] Di Daniele Luttazzi –The best [is not] of Daniele Luttazzi.

You might not heard of him, but Daniele Luttazzi is one of Italy’s top comedians and a favourite of mine. Before moving to Britain, I found his brash, caustic, sometimes highly controversial material and deadpan delivery highly original for a country where character, sketch and physical comedy are more common. Since moving to Britain and discovering English-language comedy, the reasons for my admiration changed a bit and I started to admire him as the more Anglo-Saxon of the Italian comedians. I didn’t know back then I much right I was.

The structure of the documentary is very simple: extracts from Luttazzi’s television and live shows are alternated with extracts from English-speaking comedians There is no commentary because none is needed: showing them side-by-side is enough to expose Luttazzi’s routines as almost verbatim rip-offs. The list includes: George Carlin on God, the commandments and the sanctity of life; Chris Rock on men always wanting sex from women; Bill Hicks on the health benefits and risks of drugs and jogging; Robert Schimmel on premature ejaculation; Steve Martin’s forgetful waiter sketch.

To represent Britain there is also a verbatim rip-off of Eddie Izzard’s routine about creation, dinosaurs and Jesus, which like often happens in the case of fake paintings contains even an interesting revealing error: in Izzard’s original the fishermen recruited by Jesus as apostles compere the size of their conversions, while in Luttazzi’s rip-off they compare the size of their caught fish, so the joke gets completely lost.

The most chilling part of the documentary, however, is constituted by some interviews given by Luttazzi himself in the course of his career. He solemnly declares, for instance, that comedy requires originality, that he is proud of writing his own material and that he would take no pleasure in delivering something written by somebody else.

In another interview he even accuses a rival television program of having stolen one of ‘his’ jokes (‘How do you know when a mosquito farts? It flies in a straight line’) despite the fact that it is now clear that he stole it from George Carlin.

How could this happen? The aforementioned interviews leave no room for a justification based on an alleged lack of sensitivity for questions of authorship in comedy, such as the prevailing mood among British acts before the alternative comedy revolution.

Luttazzi tried to defend himself on his blog, with arguments so captious that they remind me of the verbals gymnastics performed by those Little Britain politicians to justify their sexual escapades. His main argument boils down to these two points: 1) a joke cannot be extrapolated by its context, so translating a joke to a different context is akin to creating a new joke; 2) what actually counts is “how it is told”, so even a small modification in the joke’s delivery makes it a new joke.

If accepted, this argument would be the death knell for any claim of originality and authorship in comedy, since any stolen joke would become as ‘new’ as any original joke. Another argument is that those plagiarisms were actually ‘hidden quotations’ and part of a ‘treasure hunt’ with the fans, who were implicitly challenged to find them. In Luttazzi’s own words, this is a ‘simple but genial’ way to prepare a defence against any censor’s accusation of doing not satire but gratuitous vulgarity (like Sabina Guzzanti, Luttazzi was once at the receiving end of Berlusconi-inspired censorship), since he could one day reveal the game and tell his critics: these jokes are actually from the likes of George Carlin and Bill Hicks, see how little you understand about the true value of comedy?

Of course these two lines of argument are in clear contradiction with each other (how can those jokes be the same jokes and different jokes at the same time?) and the pseudo-technical language used by Luttazzi in his defence along with the accusations of ignorance against his critics smelled so much of desperation and intellectual dishonesty that made me lose any residual respect for him.

An interesting question is why it took so long to unmask Luttazzi and why it happened when it did. The reason is that until recently very few people in Italy had the chance to see these classics of English-speaking stand-up.

Italy is far from being a cultural island, to the contrary it has always been very keen on foreign imports, particularly American ones. But a big role in this has always been played by the tradition of dubbing films and TV programs, while dubbing did not seem a valid option in the case of stand-up comedy.

Growing up I knew, for instance, Richard Prior and Steve Martin only as Hollywood actors, I had no idea that they were also stand-up comedy legends. With the increasing diffusion of English as a second language and with so much material now available on the internet, however, the game has changed. Maybe one day stand-up comedy will stop being one of the few areas of human communication where the so called ‘language barrier’ is still sometimes considered impossible to surmount.

As an Italian now living in Britain I can’t help comparing this ‘scandal’ with what here was dubbed Cheggersgate. As with the political scandals, the difference in gravity is staggering and the difference in the level of indignation is equally staggering, although in inverse proportion.

Luttazzi didn’t feel the need to apologise and his comedy career will probably not be finished by these revelations. The fact that such a display of cynicism comes this time not from Berlusconi and his cronies but by a man once considered a quasi-martyr of honest talking and free speech makes it even harder to accept, a sign of how much the contagion has spread and how deeply the Italian psyche is affected by it, across all sorts of divides.

In comparison these islands look almost blessed: here politicians and comedians are still expected to behave according to some principles and the public is still able cry foul and feel indignation when this does not happen. One more good reason to defend the value of originality in comedy.

The list of Luttazzi’s plagiarised jokes can be found here (in English): http://ntvox.blogspot.com/2008/02/luttazzis-plagiariezed-jokes.html

Luttazi’s defence can be found here (in Italian):http://www.danieleluttazzi.it/node/743

Published: 13 Sep 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.