Running Joke: Criticism of Italian American Culture through Comedy in The Sopranos
Often read as tragic realism, The Sopranos has rarely been seen in the light of the comedy created in every episode. While a number of television critics and commentators have compared the series to the tragedies of Shakespeare (Bushby, Macintyre, Varble), none have focused on the comic elements, which, as I will show, are descendants of Italian Commedia dell Arte and Shakespearean comedies. The best way of seeing this is to focus on the character Paulie Walnuts, whom I see as an Italian American version of the zanni of the Commedia or the fool/clown of Shakespeare. In this article, I present David Chase’s serial narrative as a comedy that serves not only to create laughter but also to criticize U.S. and especially Italian American culture through the character Paulie Walnuts. Before I launch into this reading I want to present a few words on just how we might read the seriality of Chase’s narrative. Through Paulie Walnuts, the writers of the show are able insert a running joke throughout the entire series that enables them to poke fun at traditional notions of Italian immigrant culture, and at the same time, show that those notions also serve as viable criticisms of U.S. capitalist culture. Paulie, who is certainly more reactionary than revolutionary, reflects the many Italian Americans who assimilated quickly into American culture, in spite of holding on to traditions and superstitions of Italian folk culture.
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