Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

Main Page This family-friendly site celebrates Italian culture for the enjoyment of children and adults. Site-Overview



Humor in Italy and Italian Comic Icons


Italians as- Europeans

Political- Humor


Terence Hill



Totó, the most famous Italian comic actor, an icon

No Italian can forget Toto's Pinocchio



Here's a famous scene, the spaghetti scene, from the 1954 film, directed by Mario Mattoli, 'Miseria e nobilita' (Poverty and Nobility).  Click on the arrow to play the scene (sometimes it needs two clicks), stored at



This beautiful clip shows how Italy took the news of Totó's death in 1967.  He was called 'l'ultima maschera della commedia dell'arte' (the last mask-character from the commedia dell'arte tradition).  The last line talks about how today's young Italians quote his routines and hang his poster next to their favorite rock stars.




Roberto Benigni being Roberto Benigni.  His comic routines are 'events' on Italian television, often the feature of the end of year programming, the show no one misses.  Benigni rants for hours about the absurdities of modern life, to the joy of what seems the entire country.




Ugo Tognazzi starred in Mario Monicelli's hit comedy "Amici miei" in 1975, and in Eduoard Molinaro's French/Italian co-production  "La cage aux folles" in 1978.

This scene from 'Amici miei' has entered into Italian comic cinema history.




Two recent photos of Beppe Grillo, who has made a career ranting about the absurdities of modern life.  He's still ranting about everything; a recent quote: "I'm not pessimistic about Europe; I'm apocalyptic. My hope is that we go toward catastrophe, but with optimism."

Beppe recently went to rant at the European Parliament, citing the facts about Italian politics, reducing the chamber to laughter and tears.  No jokes, just the sad truths.




Monica Vitti, sometimes called Italy's Barbra Streisand, and you can see why in this photo

This clip is of the wonderful Monica Vitti from the 1982 film ' Scusa se e' poco', with Ugo Tognazzi as her husband, who she is about to give a pair of horns (to cheat on him).



Alberto Sordi, nickname Albertone, in Nanni Loy's "Detenuto in attesa di giudizio" from 1971, proving he was not only a great comic actor but a dramatic actor as well.


Alberto Sordi in Mario Monicelli's Il Marchese del Grillo from 1981


Alberto Sordi receiving a special Donatello Award (an Italian film award) from Sophia Loren 


A love of wordplay goes hand in hand with a love of poetry.  Part of the amazing talent of Toto' was his poetry writing, and lyric and musical compositions.  He is as admired for his acting skills, but he is worshiped for his songs and poetry.

This clip is from the 1955 film 'Siamo uomini o caporali?' called 'Core analfabeta' (Illiterate heart).




Pocket book collections of Altan's Cipputi Vignette


A rare photo of cartoonist Altan, full name Francesco Tullio Altan


The first civil servant says:  "And if they pass a law that says we have to do work?"  The second civil servant says:  "I'll become a conscientious objector."  Click on the cartoon to enjoy more Altan cartoons.



Totó in Mario Monicelli's "I soliti ignoti" (Big Deal on Madonna Street) 1958


"I soliti ignoti" breaking through the wrong wall at the end


"I soliti ignoti" making due with what they find, "si arrangiano"


Here's the scene in full from YouTube.





Grounded in Reality

Social Commentary

Physical Comedy and Stock Characters

Alberto Sordi


Vignette - Cartoons - Altan and Cipputi




A study in Britain showed that the higher one's education the more irony was appreciated.  Lower educated British preferred physical humor and puns.  Italy is different from Britain, and other places, in this as with so many other things.  All Italians I met appreciated physical humor, puns, and irony.  Irony more than anything else!



Totó is the icon of Italian comedy.  He was in 108 films, wrote 5 of them, composed the music for 4 of them, was a poet, and a writer and composer for numerous stage variety shows.  

Totó also dubbed the voice for Danny Kaye in all his films released in Italy.  He met Danny Kaye once in a Roman nightclub where they proceeded to entertain the crowd with an improvised pantomime routine that lasted several hilarious minutes.  They were both masters of physical humor, and easily able to entertain the mixed language audience without speaking a single word.


Totó in Mario Mattoli's "Miseria e nobiltá" (Poverty and Nobility) from 1954


There is an incredible site dedicated to Totó full of information, quotes, and a wonderful biography.  It is all in Italian, but if you can read Italian, it is worth a visit.  Click here to go to the opening page of Totó's site.


Grounded in Reality

The most appreciated humor in Italy is that which points out the absurdities and ironies of daily life.  For this reason, Italian humor is grounded in reality. 

Italian comic characters are eccentric, but not exaggerated. This link to reality helps make Italian humor and Italian comic characters more poignant.  It also makes Italian comedies a mixture of tragic and comedic in what I have recently heard called "dramadies".  Others call them "tragi- comedies".  

Recurring themes in Italian comedies of the past were hunger, poverty, misery, old age, sickness, and death.  Roberto Benigni's film comedy Life is Beautiful, set in a Nazi concentration camp, is just one in a long line of Italian comedies that seek to point out the ironic absurdities in tragedy. 


Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" from 1997


Modern Italian comedies tend to focus on the absurdities of modern life and how removed it can be from the reality of humanity.  The gap between the perfect technological world we try to create around us, and the flawed human beings that we remain and always will remain, is a recurring theme.  

Real life ends most often in failure or tragedy or reduced expectations because we are never as wonderful or talented or lucky as we want to believe we are.  That gap between who we think we are and what we really are is another recurring theme in Italian comedies.  

Also, the art of adapting to one's circumstances, or l'arte d'arrangiarsi, is valued very highly in Italy, and shows up again and again at the end of Italian comedies, as the characters accept their failings and just get on with life.  

This link to reality helps explain why Italian comedies rarely have happy endings.  The romantic film comedies so popular in English-speaking countries and in Germany (for some reason), are not as popular in Italy.  They are seen as too unrealistic to be truly funny.  They are fantasies peopled with unrealistic human beings. 


Social Commentary

Social criticism and commentary are integral to Italian comedy in all it's forms.  The goal of comics in Italy is generally to consider the reality around them from their comic perspective and then communicate this to their audience

I watched a Ligurian-Italian comic, Beppe Grillo, on TV one evening as he had the audience in tears from laughter by simply reading a list of accidents from the previous year at Italian nuclear power plants.  

The audience was not laughing at the near nuclear meltdowns.  They were laughing at the absurdity of humankind thinking that just because we discovered the power that created our universe, we assumed we were capable of controlling it and using it safely.  

Accident after accident that he read off the official report showed how wrong we were. 

Each accident was caused by a "human error" that was only too human.  Each person listening could easily see themselves doing something similar in a bad moment. 

This was long before Homer Simpson, of The Simpsons TV cartoon, was invented and placed behind a control board at a nuclear power plant, pointing out just the same thing.  


Physical Comedy and Stock Characters

And in every performance the physical aspect of life and the character is as much a part of the performance as the dialogue. 

Most Italian actors receive stage training so they are adept at using their bodies to express emotion and to create comedic moments. 

The Rowen Atkinsons and Jim Carreys that we find so rare are ten a penny in Italy.  For this reason, most shots in Italian film comedies are medium shots or long shots, rather than close-ups.  Close-ups are reserved for communicating dramatic emotions.  

Italian comedy continues the traditions of Commedia dell'arte and Greek and Roman theatre in the use of archetypal characters, or stock comic characters.  They people the supporting roles so the audience can relate to them immediately without any long introductions.  

This use of many stock characters is the reason the Italian comic star is rarely the sole comic character in any work.  He or she (Monica Vitti comes to mind as a wonderful Italian comic, and dramatic, actress) is surrounded by other comic actors well known to the Italian public, often playing the same characters again and again.


Monica Vitti, who went from acting to teaching acting, specifically comic acting at an academy in Rome


Together, the main comic and the stable of supporting comic actors create an ensemble piece celebrating many comic types easily recognizable to an Italian audience.  

In films and TV shows, group shots are favored so each character can react simultaneously to the events taking place, just as if they were performing on a stage, or as if it were happening in real life before passers-by on the street.  Italian neo-realism is not dead, it has just lost it's sharp edges and has worked it's way into every production.


Alberto Sordi

Probably in second place in the Italian comedy pantheon, just after Totó, is Alberto Sordi.  He was in 149 films, wrote 39 of them, and directed 18.  He began his career by dubbing films, providing the voice for Oliver Hardy in his films released in Italy. 

There is an official site that is just as creative as the man was.  To go to the opening page, click here.  This site is in Italian only, so if you can read Italian, there's a lot to enjoy.



The dialogues in Italian comedy can be manic, but they are about real situations and real emotions, not fantasies.  There are lots of plays on words, and joy is taken in combining and contrasting dialects with standard Italian.  

The voices of the various actors are generally very expressive and entertaining in their own right.  This isn't surprising since most Italian actors study dubbing others in films as part of their acting training.

I completely missed a play on an Italian expression in a famous film comedy, Mario Monicelli's Il Marchese del Grillo, starring Alberto Sordi, from 1981.  The Marquise, played by Sordi, falls down a flight of stairs.  Someone approaches and asks what happened.  He's told that the Marchese é caduto (the Marquise fell down). 

The audience roared with laughter and the group of all male students I was with were laughing all the way home about that line, but they refused to explain it to me, insisting I had to ask a woman to explain it.  I understood what they meant when I found a woman and explained to her the scene in the film.  After she finally stopped laughing, she told me it was an Italian expression meaning a woman's menstruation had begun!

Verbal interplay is so vital to Italian comedy that every website dedicated to comic stars features sections recording verbatim their most famous dialogues.  These are memorized by many young Italian males and recited over and over again when they spend any length of time together.  It is something of a rite of passage to be able to recite certain scenes from certain films.  


Vignette - Cartoons

Italians don't laugh easily at themselves and don't like to be the butt of jokes.  However they do appreciate jokes about life in general, and about politics in particular. 

This is what is behind the long Italian comic tradition of the political cartoon, or vignetta.  To this day, one appears on the front page of the newspaper La Corriere della Sera, that almost always virulently attacks the government for some recent move or lack of movement.  

The cartoons are not laugh-out-loud funny, but instead provoke a recognition of the ridiculousness or futility of our arrogant attempts to control the world around us.  Hubris is a favorite target of the Italian cartoonist, which probably explains why the Silvio Berlusconi is such a favorite target. 

Altan is a famous Italian creator of vignette and fumetti, cartoons and comic strips.  One of his more memorable characters is Cipputi, a died-in-the-wool communist factory worker who is continually dreaming of the day the worker's revolution will transform Italy.  

I have several collections of Altan's cartoons, given to me by an Italian friend who insisted that if I could understand Altan's humor, I could then claim to understand Italians and Italy.  I don't know if that is true, that guy was pretty full of it, but I can appreciate Altan's humor, to a certain extent.  

I've put together a page with more information about Altan and some of his cartoons with English translations.  If you're interested in viewing that page, click here.



A classic example of all these points on Italian comedy is Mario Monicelli's 1958 film I soliti ignoti (The Big Deal on Madonna Street). 

The film is about a hapless group of petty criminals who want to make a big score.  They are doomed from the beginning by their own incompetence, but their basic humanity and the desire to make it big to escape the poverty in which they live endears them to the audience.  

When in the end, after all their preparations, they break through the wrong wall and find not a safe loaded with wealth, but instead a refrigerator containing a bowl of pasta with beans, they accept their defeat and make do. 

They sit down around the table and eat the pasta, commenting on the cooking skills of the woman who made it, and arguing about what ingredients it's lacking.