Cugine Corner - The Johnny Meatballs Blog
Cugine Corner - The Johnny Meatballs Blog
The Italian Minority On TV: Average Joes!
The following is an exploration of Italian-American sub-cultures, in real life and in the media. This topic has been discussed to death, not just by yours truly over the course of my two-year i-italy and EatItalian blog “Cugine Corner,” but in endless articles, on talk shows and across the internet.
But I am going to take one last shot at it and I will say in advance that this is going to be very detailed and will highlight every angle.
It’s a fact that there are a variety of different Italian-Americans, whether they are in front of the camera broadcast to millions of viewers or unknown citizens. These varieties parallel each other and play off of one another. I’ll explore what behaviors and styles actually originated in America’s Little Italies and which are pure media creations. You have your TV “Guido,” the real life ones, the prim and proper Italian-Americans up on their soapboxes and the regular Joes and Josephines from the neighborhood (to list some). There’s a huge gap between these sectors unlike in any other nationality.
Which of the aforementioned are to be considered “real” Italian-Americans? Which are good examples of the heritage or of people in general? But more importantly, who is anyone to truly judge that? There has been so much attention to this subject since the explosion of all the “unscripted” reality shows—many of which have focused on Italian-Americans from the East Coast (mostly Jersey.) How much of all this is it about being Italian-American and how much of it is about being a New Jersey Italian-American or New York Italian-American? Or a New Jerseyan or New Yorker, without even having any Italian blood? Do these hybrids deserve to be recognized as “real”? But let’s go back a bit and explore the roots of the I.A. in show-biz…
The ‘70s television sitcom, “Welcome Back Kotter” was probably the first to display the Guido image with “Vinny Barbarino,” who by all accounts, was depicted as a young musclehead / ladies man played by John Travolta. But he was a character, like his “Tony Manero” role in the classic film “Saturday Night Fever,” who also possessed aspirations and redeeming qualities. “Barbarino” became a cultural icon, I think due to his authenticity and for the fact that that show also explored and exploited all nationalities in a unique and hilarious way. It was a sitcom, meant to be laughed at, and I’m not sure if things were less uptight in the ‘70s but I don’t know of any protests occurring by Italian activists groups back then like there are now.
Rewinding even further to the ‘50s and ‘60s, Sinatra, Dino and The Rat Pack were perhaps the originators of the party lifestyle. Cocktails, women and wild times were clearly part of their days and nights. Can they be considered the Guido forefathers? It’s a known fact that Frank and Dean affectionately referred to each other as “Wops” and “Dagos” (the Guido/Goomba precursor terms—considered more offensive.) Yes, like any human, they had their flaws and lived hard and fast in Sin City (and everywhere in between) but their unparalleled talents allowed them to rule the world for many years. Was there outrage back then by those who didn’t agree with some of their choices? No—they are looked at as the kings of cool.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the shows “Who’s The Boss?” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” were the most prominent TV depictions of middle-aged, middle class Italian-Americans (the common, working man) in recent history that I can recollect. I was a big fan of “Who’s The Boss,” not so much so of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” My personal thoughts were that even though Tony Danza’s character on “Who’s The Boss” was not a rocket scientist, the character had truly admirable values and was a hard-worker. Yes, he was goofy and yes he looked like a Brooklyn-born stereotype, but in many ways, that’s really who he was. Stereotypes are rooted in truth, and the word “stereotype” is not necessarily a negative one. There are negative and positive stereotypes. There was no denying Danza’s connection to his heritage and background—in real life or on TV—and that is certainly a positive thing. “Raymond,” on the other hand seemed to really portray the title character as a loser—and more often—not really a lovable loser. Beyond his title character’s last name (Barone), there was little Italian-Americana on the show even when the clan vacationed to the Old Country to search out their ancestors. Even so, it was a major success and was the longest running series of all three.
One thing that remains constant in all these shows is that they are fiction. Meant for entertainment, not education. These days, the situation comedy has been replaced by “The Situation” in this reality TV genre. While all reality shows are not the same, the majority are “shock value” TV, akin to Jerry Springer. Whether that is the editing, or the willingness of the participants to act as extreme as possible (as if they actually were actors) is often undetermined. What is determined, is that the majority of Italian-Americans in reality shows are cast in similar lights as a result of the success of “Jersey Shore.” When the producers of these shows are dangling the carrot of instant fame and fortune in return for their ratings-fueled extremism, it does tend to make sense why one would choose to be part of a reality TV program and take that risk.
I took a risk to be on a reality show, but not for fame and fortune. I did it for the reason of using that instant national notoriety to advance my career goals. While I did not of course have total control over everything, it was not a terrible experience by any stretch and it did open many doors which I will get into later. I have grown a lot since being on the Vh1 reality show, “My Big Friggin’ Wedding” last year. But let me start at the beginning and go back even further because before I auditioned for that show, I auditioned for “Jersey Shore” and was asked to attend an event at the Calandra Institute in New York to talk about that experience.
Back in January 2010, I was an invited guest to the much publicized “Jersey Shore / Guido” colloquium held at the acclaimed Calandra Italian-American Institute. Now I was not exactly sure why I was invited, other than the fact that I was a young Italian-American who identified (to some degree) with the Guido sub-culture. I say to some degree because I did not then (or now) relate to the majority of the practices displayed by the MTV variety of the Guido. I was not sure if I was there to be made a spectacle of, and I felt quite out of place among the professors and other speakers. The New York Times made it a point to write about my wardrobe choice in their article covering the day—specifically notating the juxtaposition of me in my leather jacket and pinkie ring sitting alongside suited gray-haired scholars. Although I must say, everyone was quite respectful and we all had intriguing dialogue to share. At the end, the proceeding of the colloquim where even printed in a book. However, I do not think there was any resolutions made to change the Guido perception amongst those who still do not get it or if there was any bridging of the wide gap between the two Italian-American sides. When I refer to “sides,” I am referring to the extremists on both ends which are the Guido extremists (the aforementioned MTV variety) and the activist extremists (those members of the elite class who protest any TV depiction of Italian-Americans for being below their standard).
As an Italian-American with my own personal television experience, I can speak from the inside with regards to the topic of Italian-Americans and television. As I said, prior to my appearance at the Calandra Institute colloquium, I had been in the final running for a role on MTV’s “Jersey Shore.” I have always been interested in the entertainment industry, and having the opportunity to be part of a national reality show seemed like the perfect springboard. Plus, it looked like the ideal match for me, as the audition headline I responded to read: “Seeking Young Italian-Americans From New Jersey For New Docu-series.” I was a young Italian-American from New Jersey, so this truly looked like an opportunity to not only showcase my talents, but my heritage as well.
As the audition process went along, it became clearer and clearer that the producers were not looking to do a family style show about food and culture, but rather a program which centered around mayhem and chaos. When I said before that I identified with some aspects of the Guido sub-culture, what I meant by that was a few similar shared traits: the clothing and style (hair spiked with gel, Fila jogging suits and gold jewelry), the affinity for classic Cadillacs, cigars and cannolis, coupled with an East Coast Italian-American slang vernacular heard on shows like “The Sopranos.” In fact, if you remove the mob from “The Sopranos,” that show captured all the glory that is Goomba with regards to the above traits. To quote another work of fiction (the movie “My Cousin Vinny”—in my views the best depiction ever), David Chase’s masterpiece drama was “dead on balls accurate.” Yes we have swagger. We have tattoos and are tan and like to look good and be seen, but it’s not an obsession. We do hang out at the corner pizza parlors and go to the Italian feasts, but only occasionally to dance clubs. We definitely go down the shore but not to “Sleazeside.” Ok, these may seem like silly stereotypes, but a large number of Italian-Americans from New Jersey share these characteristics and connect them to the Guido or Goomba sub-culture. This has nothing to do with the Mafia and it has nothing to do with the endless hedonistic behavior seen on “Jersey Shore.”
An outsider may not know this, but beyond that basic exterior I just described, the Guido (or as I prefer to call it, the Goomba or Cugine) lives in a world where food, family, Roman-Catholic religion and true Italian-American traditions are a huge part of life. But not really the high-brow aspects like Renaissance art, gourmet cuisine, opera and history. Every nationality has its levels of class—that doesn’t just mean low-class and high-class but class as far as poor, blue collar and rich. We Cugines prefer peasant food like nonna would make—not regional dishes made by some know-it-all chef in a black tie restaurant. We listen to Lou Monte, not Pavarotti. Jugs of Carlo Rossi are perfectly fine, no need for an $80 bottle of vino. The house really does have framed pictures of The Pope and Dean Martin hung side by side and there was always plastic on the furniture. All six of the “Rocky” movies are in the tape collection. Yo! Yes, we do pronounce capicola as “gabbagool.” (For more or this particular “dialect,” search youtube for my 3-part video series “Goomba-Italiano.”)
Look, I know this may seem arbitrary to many and points of deprecation, but it is accurate and really not anything bad. It’s a simple mentality but it’s filled with passion and love usually revolving around loud Sunday dinner gatherings where nothing is considered taboo around the table. The good, the bad and the ugly is at the forefront—nothing is held back. Back in the day, the original immigrants were called “greenhorn” if they were too ethnic so they developed their own habits, characteristics and ideals—which were a little bit Italian and a little bit Jersey (or Brooklyn, Philly, etc.) The following generations sprinkled in their own twists but still kept it old school. The great Pat Cooper was someone who really conveyed a lot of what this is all about.
As I will reiterate, a stereotype in itself isn’t automatically negative. All that word means is a characterization shared amongst a group of people. All such factors are clearly known within the group and serve as a way for one to easily identify themselves with other members, and distinguish themselves from another group. Beyond that, each member of whatever particular group to which you are referring has their own personal traits, feelings and behaviors—whether that’s displayed privately or outwardly within the group setting. The point I’m making is that, any individual who shares linking traits towards one social class of people also has other defining attributes, which may not always be at the forefront of that groups’ general activities. Based on this, they cannot be judged in a positive or negative manner solely by their membership in the group. Any logical person should know that that is the only way another human being should be properly perceived. None of us are robots or Xerox copies, we all have human elements, and that should always be understood before anyone points the finger. I may not agree or live like the “Jersey Shore” clan, yet I don’t condemn them either. If you find me on the boardwalk, it will be with my wife and kids at Point Pleasant trying to win a stuffed animal on a prize wheel. Maybe if I was single it would be different but I doubt it. Would I be an evil person if the latter was the case though?
All the negative backlash and hostile tension occurs only as a result of someone’s lack of understanding, or a misconception of the group in question as a whole. This is done by an individual outside of that particular stereotyped group (who in turn is ironically part of their own stereotyped group) who only focuses on one bad apple of the bunch, or focuses on one negative aspect of the group—and let’s face it—no group is flawless or perfect. When one passes judgment in this manner, they are labeling an entire group as bad and turning all stereotypes into pejoratives. See on their own, a stereotype (unless blatantly harmful) cannot be automatically negative. Some are harmful; some are playful but most are pretty accurate and not detrimental in any way. But when any of them are taken out of context, or when one particular negative stereotype is continually perpetuated—it gives the entire group a bad name. It then only adds fuel to the judgmental individuals who spend their own lives disparaging an entire group that’s unlike their own because of a fixation on the one particular aspect.
One must look at all of the stereotypical traits to achieve the proper balanced conclusions, while taking every individual’s personal characteristics into consideration and exploring that person’s other side as well. If you take in the scope of everything I’ve just explained, again I’ll say, stereotypes cannot automatically be bad things—unless a group has only bad characteristics and qualities—or the groups’ sole purpose is to cause harm. And in that case, you are no longer talking about the issue of a stereotype, you are simply dealing with a bad group of people, which you can ignore or attempt to reform.
We still however, should be extra cautious in our classifications of what’s bad for society—the socially accepted “norm” is often a matter of opinion or personal taste—and this is displayed daily in conservative vs. liberal political battles. The moderate voice in the middle is not heard enough—because the battles (or, the drama) is what entertains the mass audience. Overall though, if a person trying to achieve fame and fortune can’t have a sense of humor and also be self-deprecating at times, the fact is, you aint gonna make it to the top. You just have to watch the fine line of crossing over into complete stupidity if you still want to be respected.
Although obviously in Italy (and anywhere in the world) there are these different levels of society just like in America, but suddenly now, it’s chic to be “European,” where only formal language and aristocratic cuisine is considered “authentic” to the pretentious elite and the Guido/Goomba is relegated as a trashy second-rate wannabe. This has all come as a result of the MTV world. In the MTV world, that’s where only bad stuff is exemplified and glorified. The MTV Guido is only consumed with getting drunk, getting into fistfights and getting laid. None of that really has anything to do with the Italian-American Guido and it certainly never defined me as a youth. When this became evident to me, I decided to remove myself from the “Jersey Shore” audition process and focus on making meatballs and building my business. I could out dance any of them though!
Fast forward six months and I went on another audition, this time with my wife for another new reality show which was casting for “Young Italian-American Engaged Couples From New Jersey,” which is what I was at the time. Initially, the show was to be called “The Wedding, The Family,” a series that was to focus on just that—weddings and families going through the process of planning one. It turns out, that show (which happened to be produced by SallyAnn Salsano who produced “Jersey Shore”) got revamped and retitled “My Big Friggin’ Wedding,” and was now being advertised as “Jersey Shore Goes To The Altar.” Again, while my then fiancé at the time and I may have resembled certain “Jersey Shore” cast members in the way we look, we were not at all like them and still aren’t. We have different beliefs, different lifestyles and different priorities.
Nevertheless, we got picked for the show and filmed for six months—unsure of how we’d ultimately be depicted in the final editing process—but still confident we made the right decision to go through with it for several reasons. While the producers encouraged us to “ham it up” during filming, we made a pact to not be pigs. I think overall, we were satisfied with the final product, and those nine episodes we were in gave me just what I was looking for. And that’s the springboard to grow my meatball business (where I first developed the persona of “Johnny Meatballs”) and to put me in a position to do other things in the entertainment business. I went on to record a humorous song (“The Meatball Song”) and publish an autobiographical cookbook (“My Big Friggin’ Book”) and made a number of TV and radio appearances. It led to me being offered my own reality show by another production company where I am currently developing my own TV project. I am also preparing to launch my meatballs on QVC after six straight months of selling them at outdoor feasts across the Garden State with Johnny Meatballs On A Roll – The World’s First Mobile Meatball Cart—a traveling cart I designed and built.
Now this is nowhere near the multi-million dollar endorsement deals that “Snookie” and “The Situation” from “Jersey Shore” have gotten. But at least I can look myself in the mirror and be proud of who I am as a husband, father and entrepreneur. That being said, I still was singled out from the cast of “My Big Friggin’ Wedding” by various members of the extremist activist groups—being called a “sell-out” for participating in a show that depicts Italian-Americans as below their standards. I admit, the show did have its unflattering moments, but it was not nearly as crazy as some of the scenes on “Jersey Shore.” Remember, this was about engaged couples, so sex and partying was not an underlying theme—planning a wedding was. Still, the wrath was thrown towards SallyAnn Salsano and as I said, to me personally for being the most vocal and popular cast member. By contrast, The New York Times did call me the “breakout star with mannerisms and speech reminiscent of a young Joe Pesci.” That I took as a big compliment!
Going forward, I am gearing myself towards food-related TV projects, but because I do have that initial “Jersey Guido” look about me, I am sure producers will encourage me to be more “Jersey Shore”-ish. But I won’t. Nor will I act more “sophisticated” to appeal to the other side. I am what I am. And in time, the “Shore” kids will grow up and move on to other things as well. They still have a chance to redeem themselves. In the meantime, due to the intense popularity of that show, there will continue to be shows focusing on New Jersey Italian-Americans. Right now alone you have “Jerseylicious,” “Jersey Couture,” “Jersey Housewives” and “Cake Boss” to name a few. Are those all “bad” shows? Well, if you ask the extremists they sure believe them to be.
New York is now getting into the mix with shows like last year’s “Carfellas” and this year’s “Brooklyn 11223” (an exact replica of “Shore”) and “Mama’s Boys Of The Bronx” (a much more tame, family-oriented show.) But, the activists already made their knee-jerk reactions and condemned both, even though the latter focuses on positive aspects of friends who love their mothers and their Arthur Avenue neighborhood. What’s wrong with that? Oh yes, because they have the Goomba “look” about them they must be bad people! There’s something quite ironic about the Italian-American activists who have spoken out against “Mama’s Boys,” considering in Italy, the “Bamboccioni” (those between the ages of 18-34 who still live at home) now make up 60% of the population. I don’t see any outrage over this in Italy—in fact—they are proud of it!
All of this stuff ties back to the lack of a resolution and bridging of the gaps which never took place at the Calandra Guido Colloquium I attended two years ago. You have your extremists on both sides who can’t grasp the middle ground, just like in politics. The staunch left and staunch right will never be able to reach a moderate conclusion and it seems that this is the case with the representatives of both Italian-American groups. “The Situation” does not represent all Italian-Americans and the head of an activist group does not represent all Italian-Americans. The majority of ethnic Italian-Americans are in the middle. They are working class Joes and Josephines who may indeed call themselves Goombas and Cugines like I do…
But these Goombas are not into partying and hedonistic behavior. By the same token though, they aren’t necessarily into art, opera or history lessons either. From Milan to Sicily, every single Italian across the boot isn’t an “intellectual” either. To once again hammer down the point, people come from all different backgrounds no matter where they live on God’s green Earth! And that’s what the holier-than-thou activist extremists don’t seem to want to understand or acknowledge. They instead shun every Goomba and even if they aren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths, they seem ashamed if they come from that type of upbringing. The bottom line is, the everyman needs more representation on TV. I, Johnny Meatballs DeCarlo, am that everyman. Perhaps, the next “Tony Micelli.” I don’t mind being caught in the middle. In the future, I plan to display that when I return to TV and until then I will seek out those representations as my viewing shows of choice. Unfortunately, not too many of them are out there. If the extremists on both sides could somehow meet in the middle I think that moderate voice could become a more common one. That would be the first step to finally bridge that gap and have some peace and understanding within our great nationality because things are far too divisive and hostile now.
In closing, the one thing I would like to say which I think both sides should unanimously agree on is the horrendous depictions of Italian-Americans in Olive Garden (and similar chain “Italian” restaurant) commercials. Being in the food business and the entertainment business, I am offended by the actors involved in these ads with their overwhelmingly clear lack of any knowledge of Italian-Americana. The menu items those places try to pass off as “Italian” are completely made-up dishes which look as appetizing as a TV dinner. Their attempts to fool the majority of the country into thinking that visiting such eateries replicates some sort of Italian-American experience is laughable. I am all for protests on those ads as I think they cause much more damage than any of the antics seen on MTV.