Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Best Medicine

The Best Medicine
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, July 2007)

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” – Kurt Vonnegut

When I first came to Italy, I didn’t really speak the language at all. I could get across basic information, but truly expressing myself seemed all but impossible. And what was worse, I couldn’t understand anything. On the one hand, that was nice. Any kind of bad news would just bounce off my ears, and I was left innocently unknowing. But there were times when I really wanted to understand. Whispered flirtations by a handsome stranger, the price of my lunch, or directions to the train station for example. But the one thing that appealed to me more than anything, the one thing that I yearned and physically ached to comprehend, was the laughter. It seemed that Italians laughed all the time. I needed to know…what was so funny?

I love to laugh. Laughter has been a best friend to me throughout my life. Through every dark period, through every rough time, I always found that laughing somehow kept me afloat, and kept me going. After outgrowing a very introverted and fragile adolescence, I discovered that there was something inside of me that could apparently make people laugh as well. How cool was that? Giggles on command! No matter what happened to me, as long as I could have laughter, everything was possible.

But when I came to Italy, the laughing stopped. At least most of it. I was still very capable at laughing at myself, thank goodness. But in everyday life, I was missing out on something very important. I witnessed the waving of arms, the exaggerated facial expressions, the twinkly “Ya-know-what-I-mean?” looks…but the core of it all was a mystery to me.

And that period was a time when I greatly needed laughter. Although there are definitely worse things in life then to find oneself in a small Tuscan village, surrounded by art, beauty, great food, gorgeous sunsets, amazing dancing flocks of swallows, fields of sunflowers, wine, music, and air that always smells of jasmine. (Hmm…yes, that does indeed sound pretty torturous, doesn’t it?) But in the midst of all this wonderful-ness, my solitude became all the more apparent to me. When one is immersed in all that beauty and goodness, but has no one to share it with, that empty space next to you is felt more profoundly. I had no friends yet, and making any seemed impossible unless I learned the language. And so, “pian piano”, slowly-slowly, I started to learn, and the ice began to melt in my fortress of solitude. And I began to laugh again. I began to live again.

But I was to find out that it was not simply a matter of learning the words, but learning the culture as well. So much of humor is based on a tribal-esque association to like qualities in a society. Take for instance, Spam. For those of you fortunate enough not to know what Spam is, I’m not talking about getting blasted with unwanted emails, but a bizarre meat-ish food product. Over the years, in America and England, Spam has been a fantastic resource for comedic material. (One of the best laughs available about Spam is the official Spam website at Self effacing humor is always a riot…) But whereas laughing about Spam in America is possible, in Italy it’s not funny, simply because Spam doesn’t exist. In that same vein, lots of Italian humor is lost to foreigners, not because of a lack of vocabulary, but for a lack of cultural exposure. “Inside jokes”, or “being in the know” is essential for understanding cultural humor.

So I initiated a very serious study on modern Italian culture…and I began to watch television. Hours and hours and hours of television. Game shows, sitcoms, dramas, talk shows, mystery shows, but best of all, comedies. At first glance, it seemed to me that Italian humor was based solely on three main things: 1- The bounciness of a young woman’s overly abundant breasts while she dances in a bikini, 2- The inability of an older, usually not very good looking man to speak after witnessing the bounciness of a young woman’s overly abundant breasts while she dances in a bikini, and 3- The angry reaction of the overweight, poorly dressed wife of said older, usually not very good looking man, and his inability to speak after witnessing the bounciness of a young woman’s overly abundant breasts while she dances in a bikini.

I was extremely disappointed by the results of my research. That was it? Sophomoric T and A humor was the height of my favorite population’s wittiness? This is what I worked so hard for to understand? No, no…there had to be more.

And with time, I was to find out that certainly there was. There is a grand playing with words in Italian. Wonderful works of clever, witty turns of phrase, double entendre, and rapid fire banter. Velvet gloved insults, that aren’t really insults at all, but rather invites to a type of word battle, a type of humorous provocation. Roberto Benigni stands out as a great comedian, because of his intelligence and incredible skill with words, as well as his ability to speak them all at an unbelievable speed. Benigni’s cross-over work, the 1986 American film “Down By Law”, demonstrates even when playing in English, his possession of the Italian language and his gifted comedic timing and delivery.

One of the finest works in Italian comedy has to be the dubbing work of Alberto Sordi and Mauro Zambuto as the voices of Laurel and Hardy. In America, I found Laurel and Hardy to be amusing, as any sentient creature would. But in Italy, the humor has been brought to another level, and I have actually felt pain in the left side of my abdomen, the result of how hard I was laughing. Whereas nearly all foreign films are dubbed in Italy, the thing I find strange is that whether the character is American, Russian, or Chinese, they all speak the same manner of Italian, completely lacking any form of accent. That is not true for the Laurel and Hardy films. Sordi and Zambuto may have dubbed these films in the 1940’s, but the wit is timeless. Both men are speaking Italian, but with a very played upon English and American accent, and it is absolutely hilarious. I feel though that I must point out that whatever the great Alberto Sordi did was absolutely hilarious, as anyone who has seen the films “Un Americano A Roma” or “Il Moralista” would surely agree with me.

Medical researchers have evidence that laughter boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and rids the psyche of negative emotion. There is even evidence to suggest that laughing 100 times is equal to 15 minutes on an exercise bike, giving the body an entire aerobic workout. Laughter is without a doubt, the very best medicine there is. But the Italians have known that for centuries. Apart from their famous Mediterranean diet, it’s their laughter that explains the mystery of their long and Dolce Vita.

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