Italian humour has many forms, and those who weren’t born and didn’t grow up in Italy may struggle to comprehend it. I would like to try and explain its various aspects, because I think that humour is a key element to understand a culture, Italian culture in this case. I am dedicating this first part to a characteristic of the majority of we Italians: self-deprecating humour.

Both at a collective and individual level, Italian people have a strong tendency to mock their own flaws. Our irreverence doesn’t spare any personal nor public sphere: political situation, daily life, couple, regional differences, sexuality, traditions, family, historical events, religion, language and dialects, crime, physical flaws, moral shortcomings…

In contrast with the humour of other nations, Italian self-mockery is not an expression of understatement, nor fishing for compliments, but a sincere form of self-criticism. Indeed, for the most part, we Italians have an uncommon level of critical thinking and disillusionment, that allows us to laugh about our paradoxes and life in general.

In Italy, political correctness is not as sacred as in other places, because we love feeling free to laugh about absolutely anything, and we are not so easily offended or scandalized. Even exponents of minorities, despite fighting for their rights, often choose to have a certain sense of humour about themselves rather than demanding censorship. Furthermore, it is very frequent to witness Italian politicians and celebrities laughing out loud about their satirical mimicking.

The great poet Giacomo Leopardi already highlighted this aspect of Italian humour. In his “Discorso sopra lo stato presente dei costumi degl’Italiani” (1824) he wrote [my translation]: “Italians laugh about life: they laugh about it so much more, and with such a greater level of realism, deprecation and cold-heartedness, than any other nation.”

Regretfully, much of our humour is hard to understand on the part of foreigners, because it’s centered on the manifold Italian reality, with both popular and cultured allusions, often combined with dialectal elements. In other words, we make even excessive use of inside jokes. But, besides local instances, this kind of humour expresses also sharp observation on the essential aspects of human nature and condition. I invite those who are sincerely interested in Italian culture to delve into this key element of our people, and I’m willing to provide suggestions and clarifications.

Some of the actors and directors who made the most piercing irony about their own culture are Alberto Sordi, Paolo Villaggio, Totò, Eduardo De Filippo, Mario Monicelli, Nino Manfredi, Dino Risi, Nanni Moretti and many more… It’s often been observed that, when Italians laugh thanks to the satire of those artists, they are actually laughing about themselves. This is undoubtedly true but, despite the fact that being capable of self-mockery is an asset, maybe it can also function as an anesthesia not to perceive the most unpleasant aspects of reality. A ferocious humour expresses, in a sense, cynicism, which is probably not the best motivating factor for changing reality.

What do you think? Does the habit of mocking oneself and one’s reality have more pros or cons, in your opinion? Do you think there is something to learn from this approach to life? I personally think that a sharp sense of humour is always a synonym of intelligence, but a compulsive use of irony can desensitize to responsibilty towards the dysfunctionality of one’s environment and attitude. From this point of view, maybe Italians should be self-critical in a constructive and pragmatic way, more than humourously. Said that, I strongly prefer the ability to laugh about oneself to the defensiveness and dead-seriousness of many international debates. Am I being too Italian? (I am joking, and this has just been an improvised example of Italian self-mockery)

In conclusion, I’m adding some quotes of Italian authors that exemplify the kind of humour I treated in this first article [the translations are mine, but you can find the original quotations in the Italian version of this post]:

“The political situation in Italy is critical, but not serious.”

“In Italy, the shortest way between two points is an arabesque. We live in a web of arabesques.”

“Others’ stupidity fascinates me, but I prefer mine.”

(Ennio Flaiano)

“In London, except for the pope, there is everything. In Rome, except for everything, there is the pope.”

“We Sicilians are not even masochists: we continually hurt ourselves, but without finding any pleasure in it.”

“He was an atheist. He became religious only to curse God.”

“If the pope, once dead, should discover that in the afterworld there’s no God, he would convince the dead that He exists in our world.”

(Pino Caruso)

“I had to choose between death and stupidity. I survived.”

“Happiness exists. I heard somebody talking about it.”

(Gesualdo Bufalino)