Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Atsamatter With Luigi

Radio situation comedy in the ‘40s was filled with befuddled or bullheaded men, long-suffering wives, ditzy dames, earnest would-be suitors, boy-crazy teenaged girls and snooty neighbours. Characters in two or more of those categories would be mixed and matched in contrived stories that often bore no resemblance to reality. The best shows were able to rise above it through clever dialogue and good acting. But far too many relied on one-note or broad characters and done-too-many-times-before plots.

And to that recipe, ethnic stereotypes.

In radio’s Golden Age, there were still listeners who grew up with parents or grandparents who were new to the U.S., who still carried with them the accent and habits of the Old Country. Because of that, audiences identified with characters like that on radio, no matter how over-the-top they might have been. Well, not everyone in the audience. Some chafed at the clichés, no matter how well intentioned.

That brings us to “Life With Luigi,” a comedy based around a new Italian émigré to the U.S. It was a success on radio, lasting five seasons as the medium sputtered and coughed. The creators evidently realised a half-hour of “atsamatter-for-you” would result in eye-rolling (or worse, radios switching to another network) so they came up with a solution: bathos. One minute, the characters would be engaging in fat jokes. The next, Luigi would be summoning up patriotism in his listeners by almost-tearfully waxing about the Great United States in a letter to his sainted mother who he missed oh-so-much. You’ve have to be un-American to hate that. Or a radio critic.

The astute John Crosby nailed the problems with the show. He reviewed it, first when it appeared on radio, then television. Here’s his radio review from October 14, 1948, via the Oakland Tribune.

Luigi Discovers America

“Life with Luigi,” a new CBS show at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, may not be the best radio idea in a decade or so but it is well up there and I’m sorry it had to come along in what I stubbornly think of as radio’s twilight years.
Luigi Basco, the hero of this radio comedy, is an Italian immigrant. The derivation of his last name is fairly obvious—I’m happy they didn’t call him Christopher Bolumbus anyhow—and supplies a pretty good idea of the show.
Liugi, in short, is an explorer. He is discovering America and he finds the place a delightful though puzzling place to live. He looks at American with the fresh eyes of an immigrant and, in his naivete, he reveals to the rest of us, the older inhabitants here, some of the wonders we have long since taken for granted.
Most of these dazzling discoveries are incorporated in a letter to Moma Mia, who is still in Italy. “In America,” writes Luigi, “when couple has three children they call it triple play. Right away they go on radio program.”
When you come right down to it, America teems with curious customs which, when viewed with the innocence of a newcomer, are just as quaint and possibly even more revolting than the practice of head-shrinking in the upper reaches of the Amazon.
Luigi, to get on with this, takes up residence in Chicago and I heartily approve of his choice. Radio has too many small towns on its agenda, enough New York City locales, and far, far too many Hollywood settings for its comedy shows.
The Windy City is a lovely and refreshingly new spot to locate Luigi. He runs an antique shop jammed to the rafters with Americana. “Everything in da shop is old,” he explains. “I’m da youngest ting in da place.”
In most respects, Luigi approves of Chicago and the United States but there are some things he doesn’t like and doesn’t understand.
When, for example, he names a price for one of his precious antiques (and he’s not at all anxious to sell any of them), he expects the customer to explode into wrath and name his own price, preferably around one-tenth of his Americans, he discovers to his dismay, simply write out a check without haggling.
It isn’t fair, he explains passionately to one American lady, to deprive a storekeeper of his right to wave his arms around and call the heavens to witness. How is a man to get his exercise if a customer won’t bargain with him?
While the aims and much of the execution of “Life with Luigi” excite by the warmest admiration, I have a number of small reservations which better be expressed forcibly right now before these defects become irrevocably imbedded in the show. For one thing, the little immigrant’s patriotism had best be confined within reasonable limits.
Luigi, to take a recent example, explained to an American insurance man why he felt so strongly about a Winston-Salem chair, expounding on the early history of Winston-Salem to the accompaniment of soft, patriotic music in the background.
That sort of thing—Luigi better find out about this before he’s been in this country another fortnight—is known here as corn. Corn, Luigi. Avoid it.
We like the local citizenry to be proud of the place, old man, but we are inclined to be suspicious of the guys who start beating their breasts about how much they love it—especially to the accompaniment of violins in the background.
Reservational No. 2, a minor complaint, concerns a certain vaudeville air that creeps into the proceedings now and then. Luigi and his friend, Pasquale, are made occasionally to sound like burlesque pantaloons and too much of this will rob the little immigrant of his dignity.
On the whole, though, Luigi is a fine idea. Cy Howard, who dreamed up CBS’ highly successful “My Friend Irma”, is also responsible for “Life with Luigi.” According to a press release, Howard spent months in Italy digging up local color for this show; at least, that’s what he told the accounting department, who, I suppose, had to have some reason to justify the expense account.
J. Carroll Naish, an excellent actor, plays Luigi with just enough accent to be amusing and not enough to be incomprehensible.

“Luigi” came to television on September 22, 1952. It was a dismal failure. The show left the air on December 22nd, returned on April 9, 1953 with a new cast and vanished for good on June 4th. Variety of September 24, 1952 praised its “warmth.” The Associated Press talked to the man who came up the show, who championed it for not being full of loud, vaudevillian physical comedy (words like “Lucy” and “Berle” were diplomatically omitted) and for showing people of various ethnic origins working in harmony. Here’s that interview, published in the Tribune.

‘Luigi’ Presents New Comic Technique for Screen Fans

HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 27—(AP)—TV viewers watching the first “Life With Luigi” show on their screens this week must have been slightly baffled by the proceedings, if they had never met up with Luigi on radio. A video program billed as a comedy but having none of the equipment typical of TV’s funnies is as rare as a seven-inch screen.
Luigi, played by Irishman J. Carrol Naish, throws not pies, squirts no seltzer, and generally acts as an immigrant with his background might be expected to act.
To a host of fans who have pushed “Life With Luigi” into radio’s “top ten” during the past four years, Luigi and his friends (Schultz, Horowitz, Olson and Pasquale) are funny yet believable characters. Only the next few months will tell if they can gain the same fame on TV. The constant striving for the big boff (laugh) on TV has conditioned most viewers to a type of humor built on rapid-fire gags and side-splitting situations. Most comics on TV make you believe it’s funny by mugging into the camera.
This kind of diet does not prepare the video viewer for the show and more painstaking chuckle-type of humor which Luigi dispenses. There is more warmth and a touch of pathos where the little Italian immigrant is concerned.
Mac Benoff, writer and producer of “Luigi” is confident, however, that he and Naish can sell their brand of comedy on TV as they have on radio.
“I don’t believe,” says Benoff, “that humor has to be based on man’s inhumanity to man. Humor with a tear can be just as funny as being hit in the face with a pie.”
Both Benoff and Naish are convinced they are making the “Luigi” show a mission in life. “We’re keeping it honest, and I believe we’re doing more to break down racial prejudices than any other program on the air,” Benoff adds.
As a comedy writer of long standing, Benoff has formed some definite ideas about his craft. When he was first approached on doing “Luigi” for radio, his reaction was more or less negative, because he never liked dialect comedy.
He decided to do it as a challenge and to prove dialect could be done without making the characters look like clowns or fools. “Viewers won’t find Luigi in exaggerated physical situations and yelling ‘botcha galupe.’” Benoff states.
A two-man mutual admiration society developed between Benoff and Naish. Each claims he wouldn’t be able to do the job on “Luigi” unless he had the other to work with.
“The minute I saw Naish on the TV monitor as Luigi, I knew we were in,” says Benoff. And Naish wouldn’t think of doing “Luigi” without Benoff’s dialogue.
All they have to do now is convince TV viewers there are other ways of making people laugh than having a comic pull his hair over his forehead and throw his face out of gear.

Cue magazine didn’t buy any of that. Its summary: “‘Life with Luigi’ is back, and it's transparently evident that the vacation has not dulled its capacity for being one of the phoniest, unfunniest sessions around.” That assessment was shared by John Crosby, who also took exception to Benoff’s heart-tugging and “Hurray for America” flag-waving. This column was published September 30, 1952.

Luigi Discovers America

“Life With Luigi” has just been transposed from radio to television where its manifold imperfections are terribly visible as well as audible. The trouble with “Luigi,” I’ve decided after long and profound thought, is that it’s almost completely phoney.
A comedy about the misadventures of an immigrant is not a bad idea. In fact it’s a very good one. But not when it’s conceived, written, directed and acted by a lot of Hollywood wiseacres whose concepts of immigrant life in this country are heavily larded with grease paint. “Life With Luigi” was dreamed up by Cy Howard, the creator of “My Friend Irma,” who has been described aptly by one of my friends as CBS vice president in charge of malaprops.
Like “Irma,” “Luigi” is loaded with malaprops, some of which will make your flesh crawl. (“That remark is incompetent and irrelevant,” a lawyer shouts. “You’re an incompetent elephant too,” retorts one of the characters).
Luigi struggles helplessly not only with the language but with every aspect of American life from bus travel to banking. Walking into the Case National Bank, he asks to see Mr. Case. “Mr. Case is dead.” “I’d like to see Mrs. Case.” “Mrs. Case is dead.” “Everyone’s dead. Whosa watching the business?”
Well, I don’t know. They have banks in Italy and Luigi must have seen one before.
That’s my chief objection to “Luigi.” There is hardly a credible line, or situation or character in it. Everyone is trying too hard, from the writers to the actors. There are beads of sweat on virtually every line of dialogue. “O ho,” says Pasquale, who is the comic villain of the piece, “what a monkey I gonna throw in his wrench!” And he winks at the audience like the villain in an 1890 melodrama. Both the line and its method of delivery are an insult to my intelligence.
J. Carroll Naish plays Luigi on the radio (where it still remains) and also on television and is described in a rather hysterical press release at my elbow as “one of the greatest actors alive,” a rather too extravagant estimate.
Naish is a good actor when he doesn’t overplay, but the type of material thrust on him requires him to act from hell to breakfast. So does everyone else.
The first installment revolved around Luigi getting his first citizenship papers. Three of the characters were his classmates in a citizenship class, each of them so horribly picturesque they made me faintly ill.
All the characters are similarly overdrawn. Rosa, for example, Pasquale’s daughter, is the bane of Luigi’s existence. Pasquale keeps trying to thrust Luigi into matrimony with her, a project Luigi strenuously resists. It’s not a bad comedy idea, but Rosa’s simpering, mincing, smirking demeanor belongs in nothing later than Restoration comedy.
This stanza ended in a courtroom where it looked for a moment as if Luigi would not only be denied citizenship but might, though the machinations of Pasquale, land in jail.
His three picturesque classmates showed up, spouting broken English, everyone talked at once and had a good cry and the scene ended with a pledge of allegiance to the flag, a bit of sentimentality which drove me to the kitchen in search of strong waters.
I suppose that in all fairness I ought to add that these sour opinions are not shared by just everyone. “Life With Luigi” was and is astonishing popular on radio and I’m afraid it looks as if it will repeat its popularity on television.
A Trendex survey in 10 cities gave the opening program a husky 42.6 rating which is frankly pretty terrific. I prefer to believe the citizenry was too paralyzed with astonishment to turn the darn thing off.
I’m not automatically against all immigrant comedy. “Mama,” another CBS operation—CBS-TV is getting to be one big immigration course—is playing the same side of the street. But then the original of “Mama” was written by the daughter of immigrants who plainly knew whereof she spoke; it’s a good deal more honest drama and the people in it, while drenched in sentiment, are fairly plausible.
Even in “Mama” though, I find that whining monotone of a Scandinavian accent wearisome. Does everyone in Scandinavia talk in that monotone?

Interestingly, while tastes in situation comedy were changing, one top show of the 1960s—crafted by former radio writers—had some similarities to ‘Luigi.’ The starring characters were immigrants of a sort, having packed up and moved to where they tried to figure out their new neighbourhood. They had stereotypical accents and a clichéd lifestyle. But people set aside the unbelievability of it all and embraced them, even when critics didn’t. They were the Beverly Hillbillies.


  1. Maybe that's how John Crosby saw "Luigi" back in 1952. Today, I find the show very enjoyable as caricature. As a cartoon lover, I love extreme caricature of all kinds, both physical and ethnic. In listening to Luigi and Pasquale and Rosa, among the other characters, I imagine swarthy, very fat people, and in Luigi's case a very tiny little guy, greatly put upon. Of course, they are in stereotypical Italian garb, with the little "goomba" hats and earrings, who cares? All of Luigi's classmates were broad caricatures as well, Swedes and Germans, but all of them had good hearts, and wanted to help Luigi. At it's core, there was great heart and sympathy in this show, it was never mean, nor trying to gross it's audience out, as so much contemporary comedy does. I'll trade ethnic caricature, however "wrong", for most of what passes as comedy today. Mark Kausler

    1. Yep, I'm with Mark...I like it for the same reasons. Mond you, I agree with Crosby in that I don't care for the sentimental patriotic stuff which dates it badly, but otherwise I too love the caricaturistic vocal elements, and the broad situations. Being a lifelong cartoon lover I enjoy this show along with MY FRIEND IRMA, RILEY, THE MEL BLANC SHOW, BURNS AND ALLEN and many other Hollywood based comedy series for their constant employment of Blanc, Arthur Q. Bryan, Hans Conried, Alan Reed, Jim Backus, Bea Benaderet and several other animation legends. Keith Scott

  2. The problem was, most Italian-Americans saw the TV version of "LIFE WITH LUIGI" as too "broad", and "stereotyped". Never mind that it earned high ratings following "I LOVE LUCY" on Monday nights- ANY controversy surrounding a TV series General Foods sponsored at the time, including "THE ALDRICH FAMILY" and "THE GOLDBERGS", which they eventually dropped because one of their supporting players was suspected of being a "Commie", and listed in "Red Channels", was dealt with by cancelling the show {General Foods replaced "LUIGI" with the "inoffensive" Red Buttons, in January 1953}. CBS, however, believed that "LUIGI" had a chance on TV, IF "properly handled". They took no chances, and hired a real Italian actor, Vito Scotti, to play "Luigi Basco" on TV, beginning in April 1953. Although Thomas Gomez wasn't Italian, he wasn't as "broad" as Alan Reed's "Pasquale" was. No matter- the show was opposite Groucho Marx's "YOU BET YOUR LIFE" on NBC, on Thursdays at 8pm(et)....and NO sponsors stepped forward to sustain it. The network couldn't afford to "sustain" the show, and finally threw in the towel, cancelling it after nine episodes in June 1953. The radio series, ironically, also ended at the same time.

  3. Some people in the 1950s didn't like Luigi, but to me, far from being phony, I thought the series was very sincere and heartfelt. Of course, it would offend our sensibilities today, but it's got a good heart.