Luca Martera (TV producer and director)

La televisione americana e gli Italiani

Sep 01, 2014 3965 ITA ENG

As we already did with music, radio, religion, cinema, sport, literature, theater, consumerism and cuisine, today we analyze the relationship between Italy and the United States from the point of view of another fundamental paradigm for the last century: television.

We do this with a young Italian talent, Luca Martera: scholar, writer, director, creator of several multimedia projects between Italy and the United States, the last of which is the stage managing of a comedy club based in Milan, Italy, dedicated to learn American-English through humor, satire and comedy. We thank him because what he will tell us is extremely interesting.

Luca, first of all please help us understand which was the role of television in the description, the integration and the evolution of the Italian Americans in the American society.

For any kind of analysis on the representation of the Italians in the United States, we have to start from American cinema, which was the first, since from the era of the silent movies, to widespread stereotypes about Italians based on the three m: mom, mafia and mandolin. In this period two authentic icons of the twentieth century were Italian but they were not perceived as such by the Americans: I'm talking about the first movie star at all, Rudolph Valentino, and the first director to have "the name above the title" of the movie, Frank Capra. The association mafioso-Italian was still too strong. We must get to the end of the 40s to see emerging, in radio or on TV, the first Italian Americans in a positive light, yet still stereotyped: maybe not for being part of the mafia, but always being represented as emotional, womanizer, gesticulating and tacky. This was demonstrated by comedians Jimmy Durante and Lou Costello (who paired with William Abbott with the names of art "Abbott and Costello"), as well as the sitcom "Life with Luigi" aired before 1948 and the fact that Italian boxers like Jake La Motta, Rocky Graziano and Primo Carnera were hosted almost as "freaks" by tv programs of that time.

In the boom years of television ('50 and '60), other stars such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Liberace, Tony Bennett, Frankie Valli did confirm and strengthen these stereotypes.

The 70s are the years of the upright but nicely sloppy Italian American cop, like Lieutenant Colombo and Baretta, the latter partly inspired by the figure of Frank Serpico. There is also a town lawyer, Petrocelli, but it especially is the time of Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, star of Happy Days. One cannot fail to also mention one of the most obnoxiously popular characters of the American television, Louie De Palma, played by Danny De Vito in the sitcom "Taxi," and Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta) in "Welcome Back, Kotter".

The 80s still see the stereotype of cool-with-a-big-heart or nice-and-messy characters as Carla Tortelli in "Cheers," Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel Travanti) in "Hill Street Day and Night, or the musicians Bruno and Dante in "Fame". Although there were important Italian Americans at that times, as the psychologist Philip Zimbardo (famous for his experiment on the group dynamics between prisoners and prison officers) or the civil rights gay activist Vito Russo, even in the 80s the television studios still seem to be unable to conceive an Italian guiding a business, teaching at the university, being a doctor or a leader in other genres such as science fiction, horror, westerns or as a traditional poipular sitcom like "Family Ties" and "The Cosby Show". Well, actually in 1987 the fiction "The Tortellis" was aired, but it was a flop.

The first signs of change came in the early 90s with the single dumb Joey (Matt Le Blanc) in "Friends", Lt. Nick Bonetti (Jack Scalia) that solved cases with the help of the Neapolitan mastiff Tequila, the misanthrope George Costanza (Jason Alexander) in "Seinfeld," the bumbling lawyer Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco) in "The Practice", up to the huge success of the sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" with comedian Ray Romano who plays a sports commentator dealing with his troublemaker family.

Revenge, a little bittersweet given the content, arrives in 2000 with the Dallas of the Italian Americans: "The Sopranos", the masterpiece of David Chase for cable channel HBO, which marked the golden age of the American TV series of recent years because of the complexity of its topics and the high level of acting of the main characters, starting with the mob boss Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini. Chase, along with Tom Fontana (author of "Oz" and "The Borgias"), opened the way to other showrunners of Italian origin: like Liz Tuccillo, one of the screenwriters of "Sex & the City", who in 2005 showed for the first time Italian American girls in New York neurotic just like their wasp girlfriends in the series "Related"; and Greg Berlanti, the mind of "Brothers & Sisters" and "Political Animals", with the first ever President of the United States of Italian origin.

Sure, in recent years we've seen the horrendous faux pas of reality shows like "Jersey Shore", "Mob Wives" and "Growing Up Gotti", but we have to say that by the 2000s Americans of Italian descent are fully integrated into the Studio System, being called upon to play any role and no longer only ethnic ones, as demonstrated by John Turturro, Stanley Tucci and Paul Giamatti.

Who were and who are today the most important Italian Americans in the news, in the commercial, among the producers, at the top of the networks?

Except for the fiction, until a few years ago there were no significant Italian Americans in other television genres. One name, however, is central to the history of American showbiz: Jack Valenti. For 38 years he has been the president of MPAA, the association of producers in Hollywood, one of the most coveted positions of power in America after the White House. Valenti did not change his family name, unlike many Italian Americans who did not want to be penalized compared to the wasp: among them we can mention Garry Marshall, the most famous producer, writer and director of Italian descent, who is now almost 80 years old. His real name is Masciarelli, he wrote for television stars like Dick Van Dyke and Lucille Ball, he invented wildly popular series as "Happy Days", "Laverne and Shirley" and "Mork and Mindy" and directed blockbuster movies famous all over the world as "Pretty Woman" and "Frankie and Johnny".

The history of family names is curious and symptomatic of the historical periods. Anna Maria Italiano is the real name of Anne Bancroft, married to Mel Brooks and legendary Mrs. Robinson starring with Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate". Again: of Italian descent are Alan Alda (seen in "Mash" and many films of Woody Allen) and Robert Zemeckis, the director of "Back to the Future" and "Forrest Gump"; and Caroselli is the real family name of one of the most famous actual American comedians, Steve Carell.

Speaking of humor, how is it possible that a land of natural comedians like ours has not left a trace in the United States comedy sector? The reason can be attributed in part to the illiteracy of Italian immigrants, and consequently to their slow integration into the American society. Also because, as the great Totò said, lack (of food, of money, of women) is who creates comedy: the enemy of comedy is well-being. And as Italian Americans were poor, it really is a shame we don't have Italian Americans among the giants of the American satire as Lenny Bruce (Jew), Richard Pryor (African American) or George Carlin (Irish American). You have to get to the 90s for the first really popular stand up comedian of clear Italian descent: Jay Leno, who has been on air on NBC from 1992 til this year with "The Tonight Show". The "cultural" delay of comedians, is the same reason that caused the same lack in the information sector: in the long history of American TV there was no Italian American news anchor or presenter comparable in importance to Walter Cronkite, Larry King or Oprah Winfrey. Same thing for anchor-men or women on game shows and quiz.

We know that the American television has had a huge influence on the Italian one. Was there an element, a person, a format that traveled in the opposite direction?

I would say no. Let's not forget that Italy emerged from World War II as a defeated country. The first very popular television program in Italy, "Lascia o raddoppia", was an adaptation of an American format. Even if Rai then found its way in producing excellent variety and drama, we've never exported anything relevant. Browsing through the vintages of famous programs like the Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson Show, Italians are only mentioned when hosted as movie or music stars as Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren, Federico Fellini, Gina Lollobrigida, Domenico Modugno, Renato Carosone, Garinei & Giovannini, Topo Gigio, Rita Pavone until Roberto Benigni's "La vita è bella". There are two exceptions, however: "Jesus of nazareth" by Franco Zeffirelli and "The Octopus" by Damiano Damiani were two blockbusters, and many Americans still remember them.

Among your many multimedia works, two of our favorites are the documentaries "Fiorello La Guardia - the incorruptible" and "The Italian Pioneers in the United States". Are you planning to work again on some topics regarding Italy and the US?

My drawer is full of ideas, but unfortunately buyers are scarce. The competition of the web, where you do not pay to see, and the over-supply of TV channels have dealt a fatal blow to documentary, which takes a little more attention to be followed.

However, if I could, I'd like to make "Italian Roots", a journey into the roots of American music from the great Italian opera singers to the New Orleans jazz invented by Nick La Rocca, from Vincent Minnelli's musical to Louis Prima's swing, from Frank "The Voice" Sinatra to the pop-rock of Madonna, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga. And again, how not to mention the tremendous contribution of the Italian composers for movie soundtracks in Hollywood? Henry Mancini ("The Pink Panther"), Bill Conti ("Rocky"), Harry Warren, whose real name Salvatore Antonio Guaragna (music and songs for Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and the famous "That's Amore" for Dean Martin), Angelo Badalamenti ("Twin Peaks") and then again the rock of Toto's Steve Porcaro, Steve Tyler from Aerosmith, Jon Bon Jovi and even the unsuspecting king of musical parodies Weird Al Yankovic, half Italian.

We learned from you that today the United States archives host a lot of available and almost unprecedented multimedia contents that are a real treasure for those who wish (and have a budget) to do research in depth on many aspects of the relations between Italy and the United States ...

During my year stay in New York I deepened my knowledge of American historical archives that provide a new and interesting point of view to understand many controversial Italian facts. Unfortunately, not having funders or media groups behind me, I had to give up this kind of work in spite of the large amount of stories.

The most important, at least for me, is the so-called "cultural Cold War". Since World War II until now, Italian history has always been influenced by political, economic and social aspects of the United States. It would therefore be interesting to tell how the American government acted towards our country from the Marshall Plan until the Fall of the Berlin Wall through the so-called soft power, in other words through movies, music, television, publishing and large scale retail. This story regards also what happened in the US, because FBI and CIA have been closely monitoring any Italian artist of left sympathies during their travels to America and there are many many secret informations on characters such as Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Giuseppe Ungaretti and even Lucio Battisti.

I am particularly interested in the case of Mike Bongiorno, the character who embodied the epic Italian television that has accompanied and guided the growth of our country, perhaps the most famous Italian American in Italy, with a very interesting history of emigration which concerns him and before him his family ... and still, in America no one knows him. How is this possible? What can we do to tell America, or at least to the Italian American community, this fantastic history, for their incredibly secret?

Mike Bongiorno was the first star of Italian television and was Italian American. Incredible is definitely the right word that best describes his human adventure, full of intensity and twists. Michael Nicholas Salvatore Bongiorno, known as Mike, lived many adventures before becoming the pioneer of television in Italy: from his birth in New York to his adolescence in Turin, from the harsh experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps to the joy of returning to the United States. He definitely was the right man in the right place at the right time and, as fate would have it, in 1954 this young reporter of the Atlantic Pact radio "Voice of America" started to work in RAI because no Italian felt to go on air in television. During my stay in New York, I studied - on behalf of the Bongiorno Foundation chaired by his widow Daniela Zuccoli and their three children Michele, Nicolò and Leonardo - the American period of Mike Bongiorno retracing his life, for a documentary project. Unfortunately most Italian networks, at least up to now, have not shown interest in this project that could be made both in Italian and in English, to promote the distribution in the United States, so as to tell Mike's history in the land of his given birth. We will see in the future.

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