Monday, June 11, 2007

Mafia Minstrel Show: Good riddance Sopranos

I hate mafia media. Always have, always will. This stems in part from hating to see any group of people clumsily live down to ethnic stereotypes. ("Gangsta" anyone? Who'd have thought that 40 years after the Black Panthers you could sell prison clothes to black kids voluntarily? We have, collectively as a nation, learned nothing over the past few decades.)

This also stems from my partial Italian heritage; seeing your own genetic brethren acting like dago apes for cash always puts the boot in a little harder.
My maternal grandfather was an Italian immigrant who grew up speaking the language at home. His father died when he was very young, he dropped out of school in his pre-teen years, taught himself to read English better through newspapers, and worked two jobs even after the first heart attack to earn an honest living for his family. He got all of about 3 years' retirement in before the second heart attack killed him.

This was the Italian-American experience for the most part, typical of just about any immigrant group; an honest, hard-working life with small rewards when you were fortunate. This is not the way the group is portrayed in the media. More than anyone other group of "whites" (a group Italians were excluded from in the early 20th century), it's more than OK for Italian-Americans to be portrayed as brutal, ignorant, criminal apes. Worse, most of the people doing the writing and acting are Italian-Americans, at least genetically if not culturally, which lets everyone feel good about the venture in the way that having a handful of tapdancing watermelon-munching darkies and pancake-griddlin' Mammy characters in the movies at one time made the average American feel pretty secure in their anti-African racism. Note that I didn't say that The Sopranos is the precise same thing as Al Jolson... it is, however, a lot closer than most would like to admit.

Imagine a TV series called Those Eternal Jews!, in which we track the fortunes of Morty Schwarz and his ever-kvetching wife and princess daughter, all trying to schlep their way through the day in the family pay-day money-lending business in a redlined neighborhood. Naturally there are two sets of books, oy vey is mir. But don't worry, folks, these are really intricate characters and intriguing plotlines, thus the show "transcends cliches."

Shame on the lot of them. For starters, any organized crime group targets its own ethnic group first. The Italian mob hurt honest Italian immigrants more than anyone else. These people aren't heroes, they were/are scum. My grandfather was a hero of sorts; he built America. His brother helped kick the Nazis out of France. You like organized violence, Scorsese? Make a fuckin' movie out of that, you minstrel monkey! In fact, make a movie that isn't about organized crime once every 5 years why don't ya. You know who makes a killing from the mafia? Scorsese and Coppola! (My grandfather had an improperly set broken hip from being hit by a truck on a bike while delivering clothes my great-grandmother laundered. He walked with a limp the rest of his life and thus wasn't drafted into WWII. Needless to say these were not people with "connections" who leeched off of society.)

Criminals? By and large they're not smart, not dapper, not charming and not even really all that interesting as individuals. For the most part they're
complete cowards ("... as Mafia boss Angelo Bruno and his driver John Stanfa sat in a car outside Bruno’s row house in South Philly chatting and smoking cigarettes, a gunman stepped out of the shadows, leveled a shotgun behind the "Docile Don’s" right ear and pulled the trigger...Bruno was getting old and losing control of the family and needed to be moved aside... Scarfo would eventually be brought down by his own people. From 1987 to 1989, five made members of the Philadelphia mob would become government informants. ... Louis Turra killed himself early in 1997 while awaiting trial on racketeering charges.") and total incompetents ("Scarfo gunman Salvatore "Wayne" Grande approached and pumped five bullets into the little man. Incredibly, Riccobene wrestled the gun away from Grande who was 100 pounds heavier and nearly 50 years younger. ... A shotgun blast from Pedulla knocked Testa off a wooden crate he was seated on, and nearly severed his left arm. Although in critical condition, Testa survived and looked forward to the day he could return to the fray. ... Meanwhile, Harry, who had made a quick recovery from his wounds in June, was the target again in August. As he was sitting in his automobile, a gunman, disguised as a jogger, ran by and emptied his gun into the car. Miraculously none of the bullets hit Riccobene.")

The history of the Philadelphia Italian mob in the past few decades in particular is one of an inability to fire a loaded gun at a usually unarmed person from close range and kill them. "Scarfo gunman Nick Caramandi ... talked about stalking Harry [over 70 at the time!] and later Mario Riccobene all over the city. He said the hit team would sometimes work from 7 a.m. until late into the night. They staked out Riccobene’s stepmother’s home, girlfriend’s apartments, the homes of friends and business associates, all in hopes of getting an open shot at their adversaries." The Riccobenes weren't The Flash and the Green Lantern mind you, they were septagenarians without bodyguards.

In short, the mafia was real, were uninteresting scum, they were a tiny minority of a law-abiding ethnic group, are increasingly irrelevant and don't deserve our attention. The macho ape stereotype is BS, the pinstriped suits and greasy hair are BS, the empty claims of some 20 year old Cherry Hill-born dangling cornucopia-wearing prick having some Sicilian - it's never a Sardinian, is it? - cousin somewhere who'll "take care of you" for him if someone scratches the paint job on his Honda because that's all the media has taught all of us about his genetic heritage is BS. I wince when I see these representations in the media and idiots feeding off of it the way I imagine African-Americans flinch when Mike Tyson talks.

All of this is better expressed by the wonderful piece The Legacy of the Mafia Minstrel Show by Steve Antonuccio, and by this awesome letter to a North Jersey paper.

If you really feel the need to be entertained by Italians, read The Decameron while listening to Verdi.


Cowbell said...

I'm not sure what you're upset about. The Sopranos is (was) only one depiction of Italian people among hundreds.

To say "most" depictions are negative, or even stereotypical is incorrect. I'll wager you don't even notice most Italian characters.

Gangster films are made because there are gangsters, not the other way around. People have always has a sneaking admiration for outlaws, and The Sopranos popularity is no different.

There will always be bigots, but they will hate the dagos regardless of how they are depicted.

You're operating under the assumption that all people are morons who can't tell the difference between real life and fiction. Isn't that an offensive generalization in itself?

Look how upset people got over the Da Vinci Code. How stupid was that?

I could get upset by the depiction of women as helpless, brainless, powerless dolts who are obsessed with makeup and shoes, and need a man for validation. ( a commercial that shows a cleaning product being used by a man.)

What I don't like about it is that they really exist, and they weren;t made that way by TV. However, there are numerous depictions of strong, smart women.

TV shows about working-class heros are boring. Give me crime, any day.

If it's any consolation, the Sopranos series finale was total ass.

QuizMasterChris said...

For starters, why do these people have to be Italian? They're not even much of an immigrant group anymore. The Italian mob is done and has been for years. Hell the Italian mob is on the decline IN ITALY, where the Albanians have moved in.

There were as many Jewish and Irish (in the interest of full disclosure I'm also part Irish) mobsters in the same era but very, very few depictions of them. I can think of maybe 1 movie that depicted Jews as mobsters and all of about 3 with Irish. There have to have been hundreds of movies with Italian mob characters, and too many TV shows with one to count.

I have never heard of a TV show that followed an ethnic organized crime group that wasn't Italian, which is fairly remarkable.

These days, as always, actual organized crime has come with actual immigrant groups, thus there are real-life Chinese, Russian, Mexican and Salvadoran organized crime orgs in the US today, and have been for decades. Where's the TV show? Where's the movie? There isn't one because organized crime = Italian in the public mind.

It's not just that these people are playing criminals, who do exist, it's that they're playing stereotypes. It's one thing for a black person to play a slave in a movie about the Old South, it's another for him to play a shuffling, lazy, tapdancing slave who says "sho' nuff love his chicken."

I don't think I ever argued that TV creates criminals. What it does do though is create stereotypes, and glorify idiots. There's no Dumb Pollock Screen Door Submarine Hour, there's no My Three Drunken Irish Spousal Abusing Sons, why do we have an endless stream of Italian gangster crap in the 21st century?

Craig said...

For the record, there are Jewish mobsters depicted in the Sopranos as well. Hesch (an older-school Jewish gangster who bilked black musicians out of their record contract money -- similar to your slum lord scenario) is one of Tony's closest advisers. And early on in the series Tony's crew had run ins with less-than-scrupulous Chasids.

Other movies prominently featuring Jewish gangsters include Casino, Once Upon a Time in America, Millers Crossing (a Nebishy Jew, at that) Bugsy, The Great Gatsby, Scarface (the Al Pacino version. Tony Montana gets his start working for a Cuban Jew). These are hardly obscure movies, and these are just off the top of my head.

Incidentally, a lot of these Jews are played, by Italians. DeNeiro plays two of them (Casino and Once Upon a Time in America). John Turturro plays the Schmatah Kid in Miller's Crossing (but he gets to play Jews all the time, and always plays to stereotypes when he does). And Robert Loggia, bizarrely, gets to play the Cuban Jew in scarface. There were tons of Italians playing Cubans in that movie.

Of course, all of this does, in part, prove your point about Italian stereotyping. In real life, Jews were gangsters. In the movies, people will only believe Jews (or cubans) as gangsters if they're played by Italians.

-- Your friendly neighborhood pizza bagel.

QuizMasterChris said...

A major difference is that most people don't stereotype Jews as mobsters. In fact there are such stereotypes about Jews as people who avoid working or breaking a sweat to earn money that many people are shocked to learn that there was a Jewish mafia in America.

I think my analogy of the "bloodsucker" family of Jews is closer to the bone because that's the one people believe. With Italians the stereotype is mob, thus that's the one that draws ire. We can always blame that on "Sicilian Blood."

Maybe the producers of the show can now set to work on a charming and intricate series about a family of Chinamen who run a laundry in between kung fu fights and putting pee pee in your Coke.

Cowbell said...

"Why do these characters have to be Italian?"

Why not? It isn't because David Chase is a racist who couldn't think of anything besides Italians for his mob show. It's because David Chase (ne DeCesare) is writing about his own Italian-American upbringing in a screwed-up family in Clifton, New Jersey, and the activities of the near-defunct DeCavalcantes family.

I can think of quite a few movies about Murder, Inc. and the Purple Gang alone, an others about Jewish organizations that were more "gang" than "mob." There have been several films about the Russian/Jewish mob in Brooklyn and Boston, and many, many episodes of Law & Order dealing with ALL the mobs. More of the non-Italians than the Italians.

Films about the Irish mobs include Miller's Crossing, State of Grace, Road to Perdition, A Prayer for the Dying, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Gangs of New York (which sucked), On the Waterfront, The Public Enemy, The Long Good Friday, Last Man Standing. Those are just the ones I can think of, which are pretty much "A" films. I'm sure there are dozens more "B" films. I'm not even counting movies about small neighborhood gangs.

I can think of half a dozen more where there is an Irish mob-type, whose mobness is merely incidental (i.e. Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting). There are many more that straddle the various ethnic groups, such as Goodfellas, which was about Henry Hill and Jimmy Burke. Though associated with the Lucchese family, they were of Italian-Irish and Irish descent, respectively.

Since you have a wild hair about portrayals, I suspect it's a similar effect as on patrons of storefront psychics, who tend to remember the "hits" and forget the "misses."

Many of these "mob" films, like the mob itself, have been rendered irrelevant by time. "Little Caesar" incensed Italian at the time, but now looks like a ridiculous cartoon. Members of my generation were more familiar with Edward G. Robinson as The Frog on Courageous Cat & Minute Mouse than Rico, which rendered any glimpse of Rico utterly hilarious.

The casting of inappropriate people is a staple of Hollywood. Using De Niro as an Italian, Irish, and Jewish mobster is more a testament to Hollywood's inexplicable love affair with De Niro than his believability as a character. Pacino was chosen to play Scarface because he's Pacino, and that movie sucked hard.

How many TV shows have there been that deal exclusively with organized crime? I can only think of a few besides The Sopranos. The Untouchables was one, and the criminals were multi-ethnic. (I never considered Al Capone as "mafia.")

Wiseguy was about an undercover guy with the "Organized Crime Bureau." The show has a unique story arc structure. Out of nine, two dealt with "mafia-like" organizations. While some members had Italian names, there were McPikes and Steins, as well. The Boss was named Sonny Steelgrave, so the ethnicity of that crime syndicate is anyone's guess.

I disagree that The Sopranos portrays Americans of Italian descent in a negative light. What it does is portray the mafia in a negative light. Tony Soprano is not a hero, he's a brutal bastard. The decline of the mob is well documented in the series. Their crimes are petty, and the harm they cause to the law-abiding Italian-American community in which they live is on full display. Most of the whackings that happen in the series are members who flip to the Feds, and they spend most of their time pining for the old days of "our thing."

I have to wonder if you've even seen the show.

The New York mob is not exactly "done," though after forty years of being hammered by the FBI, they are not nearly as powerful as they once were. Crime reporter Selwyn Raab

I might suggest the media depictions contributed to their decline as interest and scrutiny of their activities intensified after the release of The Godfather.

You can holler about stereotypes all you want, but The Sopranos are my in-laws sans (most of) the crime, although there were "cousins in the old country." I grew up in the land of Joey Buttafuoco, and unfortunately, he was far from unique. However I, and many people, know he isn't all Italian-Americans.

Though old hat, the mob will always remain fascinating. The Italian mob in particular, because they did it best.

Cowbell said...

My link got choppped. It's a mob update from the last year or so:

Crandolfini said...

This debate has been quite edutaining and infocational, and while I don't have anything particularly insightful to add, I felt compelled to post something just so I could use this name.

Anonymous said...

How is it stereotyping if there really is a thing called the mafia? Why do americans equate organized crime with italians? Because they are the largest and most well known organized crime group in america even with their diminshing power. Sad to say, but a close family relative of mine was a high ranking organized crime figure in New York and truth be told the show is very accurate about how these men look, talk, and act in real life. Its not bullshit. Very spot on if anything, except in real life they are far more cruel and merciless than tv or movies could ever portray them. But they do exist and its ok to write about them. The italian american gangster has become a part of american mythology. That genre has replaced the western. It extends way beyond italians. For alot of people around the world the gangster is actualy a symbol of empowerment. strange but true. Furthermore the Sopranos and David Chase its creator, also an italian american, often took alot of time to talk about this very issue in show, that being whether or not the mob was an offensive stereotype. Remember the shows strongest character and moral center dr jennifer melfi is not only italian but female. A perfect balance to Tony and what he represents.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask you why this one portrait of italian american bothers you so much? Im italian american and dont feel like "my people" are being stereotyped by a tv show. Nor does it matter to me if they are. I know who I am and that person is not a gangster and Im related to gangsters. Its quality television if you ask me. A well written and acted drama about a man struggling with the two sides of his own nature and the two worlds he lives in. It is about someone trying to learn knowledge of self beyond what he has been conditioned to believe by his upbringing and the world around him. This show is brilliant in how it deals with life in a post modern world and all that entails. There should be more shows that bring such intelligence to TV. I think you have italian american actors in the show because they know its a smart show and that its not stereotyping italians.

Anonymous said...

Obviously you arent, but Im entertained. And why? Gangsters are interesting and your average hard working american isnt. Most people would much rather be Tony Soprano rather than the UPS man and the reason why is simple. Tony is empowered and the guy who takes shit from his boss all day and comes home to his wife and kids isnt and these days that means more and more.

Incidentally the italian american anti defamation league was started by a mob boss, joe columbo.

Anonymous said...

Anyone that believes a culture stereotype about a particular race or ethnicity is obviously pretty dumb and not worth the effort. Im italian american and not only that I have a "connected" guy in my family and I have never been so insecure as to believe people are going to think that because there are shows like the Sopranos I am connected to organized crime. Thats really aburd and to me its hard to believe that someone like yourself who from what I can gather is an intelligent person would believe the same.

QuizMasterChris said...

It's amusing that people seem more upset over my alleged stereotyping of mafia media than people are over the stereotyping of a real ethnic group. at least people are finally leaving comments though.

I don't find mobsters interesting at all no matter who they are. You almost never see the primary victims of the mob, innocent people. You pretty much only see mafia attacking other mobsters, which is the only way to keep up any interest in these people as characters. In point of fact organized crime operations are fairly boring, and the people running them aren't terribly clever. I'd rather see things on serial killers or art thieves.

Most of the organized crime in southern Italy is now driven by Albanians. Have you ever seen a show about Albanian mob? They're in the US too.

Chinese organized crime runs most of the human sex slavery traffic into the US. How many American movies are about that?

How many American movies are about the Russian mob? They're much more active than Italian mob now.

There's no argument that making these characters Italian makes things "more realistic" because their day is largely passed; organized crime is always linked more closely to more recent immigrant groups. Or social perception hasn't caught up to the reality.

The fact is that Americans like their mobsters Italian, their drunks Irish, their rapists black and their bloodsuckers Jewish.

Have any of you read the piece on the "minstrel" aspect of Italian-Americans enriching themselves by portraying the stereotypes? It's as if I hadn't addressed that at all. You'll also note that I stated directly that I do know that there is & has been Italian mob. There are also some cheap Jews, some stupid Poles, etc down the line, but that doesn't make it OK for media stereotypes to predominate.

Let's please not make any insinuations that I'd have to be stupid to be bothered by something, OK? Thankee.

Cowbell said...

I challenged your perception that mob-related images of Italian-Americans dominate the media, and you ignored it.

I'll reiterate it: You're remembering the "hits" and not the "misses," solely because the Fat Tony image annoys you.

Not what I'd call a fair assessment of the portrayal of an ethnic group.

I gave you a big list of organized crime films and TV shows, and you appear not to have read it, instead demanding a list of films about Chinese sex traders.

There has been exactly one TV show about an Italian-American mob family.

I found a wonderful TV site that breaks down TV characters by ethnicity:

It includes all Italians, including Romans on series and mini-series.

By my count, just in case you don't read it:

TV shows with Italian or Italian American characters:


TV shows with mafia-types:


These are:
- Fat Tony from the Simpsons. (Be offended if you want, but he's funny.)
- Falcone: based on Donnie Brasco, the main character is an FBI agent who infiltrates the NYC mob.
- The Gangster Chronicles: a 1981 mini-series about the Chicago gangland era. The criminals are multi-ethnic.
-The Untouchables. Also multi-ethnic.
- The Sopranos.
- Wiseguy. Also multi-ethnic. The hero, Vinnie Terranova, is himself of Italian descent.

There you are. 211 to 6, and one is a cartoon. Unless you want to count Ponitus Pilate and Caligula as negative depictions of Italians, the number may jump to 9.

Of those 211, a large number are police officers and lawyers. The rest are just regular folk.

What is your perecption of how Italians are portrayed now?

Cowbell said...

How do you post links on this damn thing?

I've read the "minstrel" piece. I'll comment on that after you comment on this.

QuizMasterChris said...

Links are hard to post in the Comments, it's my only complaint about Blogspot. Not a setting I can control. One thing might be would be to convert any long URL to a tinyurl at ..?

I find it extremely hard to believe that in the history of TV there have only been 6 Italian mafia figures depicted.

Regardless, would one Chinee Laundry Put Pee Pee in Your Coke Show be OK? Would the Jewish show I described in the OP (original post) make it to TV? People would complain about those. (I've never been asking anyone to censor anything by the way; I'm just using the same 1st Amendment rights HBO is using.)

Fat Tony is something of a stereotype of a stereotype. I would take the assumption that Springfield has a Little Italy with a mob in the same vein as them having a 10-year tire fire or a Hammock District.

I never claimed that there weren't any non-Italian mob movies, just that the proportions of them have been Italian out of proportion to the reality of how mob in America is actually distributed. The Godfather trilogy by itself likely outstrips the Russian and Albanian mafia output of this country combined.

It took about 4 months, but I've finally hit upon a subject people want to post about! I have to get around to actually updating the rest of the site now, will check in again on this in a couple of days.

Cowbell said...

It's getting pretty obvious that you're not going to allow your perception to be changed.

You've taken a rigid "I'm right about this" stance which is difficult to converse with if you're going to dismiss evidence to the contrary.

I didn't say there were only 6 mafia figures depicted on any TV shows. What I said was only 6 TV shows had regular characters that were mob figures.

There were 211 shows with people of Italian descent. That seems to me that the portrayal of Italian-Americans as regular folk and heroes far outstrips the bentnoses.

You find it hard to believe, I think, because you don't want to.

I watch TV all day, every day. Especially cop shows. On the 3 CSI series, most of the organized crime is Colombian and Russian. On the 3 Law & Order shows, most of the organized crime is Russian, Chinese Tong gangs, and South American drug cartels. There are more Italian cops and lawyers than wiseguys.

Your examples of racist shows that don't exist are a tad facile, as the Sopranos is not, and never was, The Big Dumb Wop Hour.

You say that there's an "endless stream" of this stuff, so name some.

What was the last major motion picture about the Italian mafia?

What other TV show besides the Sopranos?

Cowbell said...

That tiny link is for the Cosa Nostra page at the Department of Justice website.

They report the mob as greatly diminished, confined largely to New York, but with 11,000 members, not quite done.

655321 said...

"Who'd have thought that 40 years after the Black Panthers you could sell prison clothes to black kids voluntarily?"

"Prison clothes?" How do you figure?

From the article about white t-shirts:

"Shapiro and Janha both reject the more sinister explanations that have dogged hip-hop fashion trends since sagging pants hit schoolyards in the mid-1980s: that they mimic and glorify a violent prison culture, where beltless cons stash contraband in the folds of one-size-fits-all uniforms."

Intereting conclusion you drew from that tiny passage in a long article.

When you see orange jumpsuits or pink underwear riding out of those ridiculous droopy drawers, perhaps then you can draw that conclusion.

I'm just glad no one is wearing their pants backwards anymore.

QuizMasterChris said...

Sigghhh... I never got the impression that the prison clothes look is what it is from that one article. I have seen several sources on that and I happened to link to that one article for some views of the long t-shirt phenom.

Look at this:

There's a hip hop line of clothing CALLED "State Property" and they sell something CALLED a "jail jacket." This is one example of many.

Denial ain't just a prison camp in Egypt.

QuizMasterChris said...

Cowbell - This is the first I've known you to accept a scary gov't stat at face value. Do you really think there are 11,000 mob members in NY? (Is that Italian mob..?)

Let's say that each one commits 10 criminal acts per year, which is less than 1/month, an absolute minimal amount of crime to be organized. That'd be 110,000 criminal acts per year! I don't think Liberia has had numbers like that in a bad year with a complete power vacuum.

According to the Sopranos Family Values fan site, there were 79 murders on the show over 6 seasons. How many actual mob members are depicted on the show? Let's say 10. Is that fair? That'd be 1.31 murders/mob member.

If we run the numbers, if Sopranos was an accurate portrayal of reality and not a cartoon, there should have been 100,870 mob murders (alone) or there about in the NY area over the past 6 years. This is quite remarkable as the entire US hasn't had that many murders.

I love that we're counting ancient Romans as Italian-Americans! Why argue the accuracy of Little Caesar when we can jump straight to Caesar?

If we must, here's a very short, incomplete list of Italian mob films all made while the Italian mob was in steady decline:

Is there any other ethnic-American group with that many films in the same period?

You're right, Cowbell, no other single-ethnic group mob show, Ital-Amer or otherwise, is on TV now. It is rare. To my knowledge, despite the fact that the Italian mob has long since not been a factor compared to other organized crime in this country, no other group got "their own" show. Thus it's Italians 100% All Others 0%.

This numbers game is all quite aside from the fact that one stereotype show is one too many. We can have 100 Cliff Huxtables and 100 Fresh Princes, but given one show of chicken-stealin' dice throwers the NAACP will make noise, as is their right.

As I've always said, I don't want to censor anyone. But I will use my right to speech to say "Hey, this blows."

Interestingly in places in the world where organized crime is really effective and really runs things, you don't hear much about them in the media. That's because the people in the media who report or write the fiction end up dead.

Cowbell said...

"Thus it's Italians 100% All Others 0%."

Now there's a terrific use of statistics. It reminds me of the time Harvard claimed that 50% of the students caught stealing were Jewish. Actual number of student thieves = 2.

Though you did mention the one TV show yet again.

Here's an analysis of the highest- rated basic cable crime drama, The Closer.

Number of episodes: 30
Number of episodes with organized crime: 3
Ethnic breakdown of organized crime figures:
Italian: 1
Albanian: 1
Russian: 1
Number of episodes with a postive Italian-American figure: 30

The show is about the Priority Homicide Division, so most criminals are Snooty Rich White Folks (10), and a few about street gang violence (3).

Your made up numbers are amusing, but you failed to produce evience of the "endless stream" of Italians as organized crime figures.

You see only what you want to see. Or do you have a list? From what you say, it should be a big one.

QuizMasterChris said...

Hey, I'm only using your numbers. At the rate the Italian mob killed people on The Sopranos, and at the claimed numbers of such by the feds, Ital-Americans in the NE United States should be pretty much wiped out in a month or two.

Do you really expect me to compile a list of all of the mafia characters on TV through the decades? I can't do that.

Let's answer an interesting question or two - why is that The Sopranos was developed because David Chase was approached to do a Godfather series? Puzo's fairytale was 3 decades old by then. Italian mob apparently has a "high Q rating." He wasn't approached to make an Irish, Russian or Albanian mob show. Why did he have to sell the family experience drama as a mob drama?

Cowbell said...

Apologies, I missed your list tucked under your imaginary numbers. (Shame on you. Would you accept that nonsense from anyone else?)

I will actually read it it, and get back to you.

QuizMasterChris said...

The 100%/0% thing was tongue-in-cheek.

The amortizing-the-Sopranos-whacks seems reasonable enough to me. I don't know how many actual mob guys are regular characters on the Sopranos, but I took a stab (no pun intended) at 10. Those ten managed to kill 79 people in 6 years.

If we're going to claim that there are 11,000 mafia members in the NY area who actually operate this way, we should expect about 100,000 murders since 2002.

Have the purported "Five Families" of NY killed 100,000 since '02? Have they "whacked" 79? That's all 5 families combined, have they killed that many people? Have they been implicated in 8 murders since 2002?

If we set the series during Prohibition this would still be exaggeration. To set it now and say "This is what Italian-Americans do near NY today" is just cartoonish, and obviously unrealistic. No problem in sci-fi, but attach the behavior to a real-life ethnic group and I'm surprised more people aren't upset.

QuizMasterChris said...

I took another look at the link that provides the 11,000 number for Italian mob in the US. In fairness it claims that there are 1,100 "made" members in the entire US, with 10,000 criminals who "work for" them. I imagine these subcontractors had the choice between this or orange jumpsuits in hollowed-out volcanos when getting signed up at EvilManpower.

In any event, the site claims 80% of these "made" men are in the NY area. Thus using Sopranos math [1.31 mob hits per member per annum] (and assuming "all work was done in-house" so to speak), there should be 6,917 Italian mob murders in the greater NY area since 2002.

Consider that the entire US has about 18,000 murders/year by the entire population of 300 million people.

How interesting also that there are over 15,600,000 self-identified Italian-Americans in the US and that 0.000705% of them are "made" mafia according to your figures. Are we really going to argue that less than one-thousandth of one percent of media depictions of Italian-Americans are mafia types?

Cowbell said...

"Let's answer an interesting question or two - why is that The Sopranos was developed because David Chase was approached to do a Godfather series?"

This is incorrect. David Chase pitched the idea as is, as he has stated in a number of interviews. When playing with ideas for a show about a guy in therapy to cope with the pressures of his job and dysfunctional family, he realized early on that a "regular" would just come off as a whining yuppie wuss.

He wanted a "tough" guy to talk about his problems. To a guy who grew up in Jersey, Tony Soprano is what a tough guy is.

Mario Puzo, on the other hand, freely admits he wrote The Godfather for a buttload of cash.

To quote, "I was forty-five years old and tired of being an artist. Besides, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. It was really time to grow up and sell out as Lenny Bruce once advised. So I told me {sic) editors OK, I'll write a book about the Mafia."

Cowbell said...

More numbers. I don't know what point you're trying to make with them. My only point was that the mafia still exists, though in a greatly diminished state, after you claimed they were "over."

Remember the TV shows with non-mafia Italian-American regular characters in the majority with 211 to 6?

Those are just the shows, many of which have more than one Italian character, which brings the margin even higher. Those are real numbers, without any statistical manipulation.

I have a question about your criteria for inclusion on a list of depictions.

Where does a movie like Goodfellas fall? It was about Henry Hill (Irish/Italian) and Jimmy Conway (Irish),though they were associated with an Italian crime family. Does that count as a deciption of an Irish mobster?

What about The Departed, in which the Italian and Irish gangs were fighting?

Cowbell said...

Where did the 79 figure come from? It seems a little steep, as there have been 86 episodes.

QuizMasterChris said...

I have to run off to the day job (& then the Tues quiz), but the body count is detailed and comes from what's described as the "biggest fan site."

Are there even 10 "made" characters on the show? If there aren't then using the same calculation method we might expect the NY area "made" mob to be responsible for as many murders as the entire US produces in a year. I suspect in fact that the govt's figure includes A) the elderly, B) the incarcerated and C) the elderly incarcerated.

Has the real NY area Italian mob even kept pace at 1 murder/year over the past 6? (And what lame-ass "organized crime" that is!) If so The Sopranos would still be exaggeration by more than a power of 10.

Cowbell said...

I found the site in question. Their body count of 79 includes every death on the show, including those from natural causes, suicides, and murders alluded to in conversation.

After reading the episode guides, I counted around 35 actual murders, some of which were committed by the Sopranos rivals.

Some of those were not "mob hits," but things like a woman shooting her abusive husband.

The show is also not "real time." Time bewteen episodes can be weeks or months.

Tony's core group of made guys is Paulie Walnuts, Silvio, Christopher, and Bobby. Those are the ones that lasted all six seasons.

There have been others who have lasted only one season, like Richie Aprile, Tony Blundetto, Ralph Cifaretto, Big Pussy, and Spoons.

Another thing you need to take into account is that much of the whackings take place during power plays within the organization, and wars between rival groups. Between these are long periods of calm.

The body count on the Sopranos if far less than that on your average crime drama. If I were chose a town based on a TV show, I'd pick North Caldwell, New Jersey over Cabot Cove, Maine, for sure.

Cowbell said...

If you don't like to include Romans as a positive depiction of Italians on TV, we can cross those off the list then.

The number changes from 211 to 209.

From your list of movies from the "endless stream" there are a few that have nothing to do with the Mafia, and four that are gangsters, but not mafia. (Al Capone is not mafia.)

Half of them are comedies poking fun at the mob. "Corky Romano" is a "mafia" movie? That's like calling "Johnny Dangerously" a "gangster" movie.

Not quite the "hundreds" you complained about earlier. If there were so many, surely you could have come up with a lot more.

What's wrong with a move like "A Bronx Tale"? It's based on Chazz Palmintieri's experiences as a boy in the 60s, and the rejection of the "mob" life in favor of the wisdom of his hard-working blue-collar father.

What's wrong with "Donnie Brasco"? It's based on the story of Joe Pistone, an FBI agent who was instrumental in the downfall of the Bonnano family, at great personal hardship. It's an interesting story.

I have no idea how many murders were committed by the "real-world" mafia since 1999. We only find out about them when someone gets caught.

It's been happening more and more as one guy flips on others to reduce his sentence, then they start yapping. The days of omerta are over.

There are quite a few high-profile trials happening now. Most notable are the two NYPD detectives (with regrettably Italian names) convicted last year of eight murders, along with assorted racketeering charges.

There was a big splash last year as well, when 32 mob guys were indicted on murder and racketeering charges.

This stuff is easy to Google, but you have to want to.

Jerry Capeci has been writing the Gang Land column since the 80s for various New York papers. It is now online:

His writings confirm that the New York mob is a dim shadow of its former self, but not dead. (With the rate they rat each other out, they will be quite soon.)

This one is quite interesting:

It's a list of all deaths with alleged mob ties in North America, gleaned from newspapers and magazines. It includes all deaths, including suicides and natural causes, through 2003.

I think the NY wartime hits of the 90s come pretty close to the 35 hits on the Sopranos.

Now you have some real numbers. I have no stomach for that kind of nonsense, especially coming from you, who are one of the smartest people I know.

The most irritating aspect of this discussion is that you are criticizing a show you have never seen, and probably never will.

And that's too bad. It's high-quality television.

You can either insist you are right about "hundreds" of movies and TV shows in an "endless stream" of mafia depictions OR

You can take comfort in the fact that mafia films are far fewer than you perceive, and that the vast majority of appearances of Italian-American characters are doctors, lawyers, cops, bus drivers, and everything else that normal people are.

It's too bad you don't notice them, because they do your grampa proud.

Cowbell said...

btw: This story was my favorite.

Smoking Ban Sparks Mob Fisticuffs

QuizMasterChris said...

Smoking ban article - funny!

This is how the list of the Family Values site ( bills itself:

"TOTAL Body Count: Shot by Shot

Death toll so far = 79"

It's not like I'm trying to mislead people; this is the way the fan site itself describes the deaths. I didn't go through every season's listings in the assumption that there were natural causes involved; clearly that's not why people are watching the show either. Is there a Body Count for House fans?

Absence of evidence doesn't equal evidence of absence. You can't say that because I haven't taken the time to make a comprehensive list of mafia films and TV programming that it just isn't there.

Here's a particularly egregious example:

"Mafia Doctor"! Sheesh. If your doctor has a vowel at the end of his name, clearly he was put through med school by the Cosa Nostra to sew up their bullet wounds on the sly. That was made in 2003, not 1933. Major network.

Can we imagine the equivalent of this show being made about any other ethnic group? "Christian Baby Blood Harvesting Yid Doctor," or "Free Access to Cafeteria Chicken and Watermelon for His Homies Darkie Doctor" maybe. "Me Put Pee Pee in Your Bladder"

I have to leave for work again (sigh...), see you this evening.

Cowbell said...

So, your refusal to give evidence proves your point?

In our house, this is called The Fingers-in-the-Ears-La-La-La Defense.

I didn't think you were trying to mislead, I think you did shoddy research.

It's an unfortunate tendency of the passionate to see only that which supports their point, and ignore that which detracts.

If you're going to claim hundreds, be prepeared to show hundreds, or you're not going to be believed. (except by someone who alredy believes it.)

But who needs evidence of anything these days? That's how we ended up with a smoking ban (which I know you oppose, so sit domn.)

Just saying. Interesting parallel.

You're still one of the smartest people I know, even if you have a small percentage of dumb stuff in your head.

Tony Soprano said...

"There is no mafia."

QuizMasterChris said...

What refusal to give evidence? That I haven't drawn up a comprehensive list of all Italian mob characters in the history of TV and movies? Is that reasonable?

What I have done is demonstrate that the numbers of murders by Italian mob depicted on the Sopranos is out of all proportion to those which actually occur by an order of magnitude or three.

I have also shown that less than 1/1000th of 1% of Italian-Americans are in the mob. Now why don't you tell me, given that, what makes a movie like "Mafia Doctor" appropriate?

To "Tony Soprano" - I never claimed that no mafia ever did or does exist. Go back, read for meaning, then try and post a relevant funny again.

QuizMasterChris said...

Cowbell -

Two problem-framing problems:

You've spent a lot of time arguing that I don't notice the positive images of Italians in media (partially by citing my failure to list every mafia movie ever made as prove of their non-existance!). But this has never been my argument. My problem is the fact that when mob movies are made, the chracters are Italian-American out of proportion to the actual organized crime which is Italian-American in the US. That's a larger problem.

The logical hole, I just realized, in comparing the Sopranos to the NY mob (by the figures you provide from the feds' website) is that you're not only comparing what happened over a decade ago to today (and over a longer period than the Sopranos was on the air), but comparing the activity of about 10 characters at maximum to the criminal output of at least 880 people!

We should be, even rather conservatively and generously to your side, multiplying that 35 figure by at least a factor of 88. That's 3,080 murders! Were there 3,080 mafia murders by the NY mob over the past 17 years or so? Anything close to that? If not, again, the Sopranos was a cartoon (which is, incidentally, a word modified from the Italian...)

I only bring this up because the defense of the Sopranos is its "realism," and I call shenanigans on said "realism."

Another good article:

Chill Planter said...

OK, so I am late coming in. I have known you long enough to know what a pain in the ass person you are to deabte, since you never allow one inch to the other person. Sigh, you can be a frustrating person--but, you are putting yourself out there. Kudos.

That said, here's my 2 pennies:

The Sporanos is a wonderful show because it is written well and has very interesting characters. It is a show about the loss of humanity and goodness in a heartless, soulless, consumerist, disconnected, suburban society. The opening credits where Tony drives from NYC to his McMansion is a metaphor for the entire Northeastern United States and the ethnic experience in America.

I am aware you have not watched much of it.

The show deals much more with living and coping in our modern world. The mafia shit is really in the back seat. In fact, the past two seasons have been more about masculinty and homosexulaity (Vito), family issues, dreams, and psychology.

People in my office complain that not enough people get whacked.

Anyway, like any wonderful work of serialized fiction (and I am comparing this body of work to Dickens), the show uses some stock characters and some stereotypes to move its story forward.

It also has a wicked sense of humor, something you possess. Give it a chance, Crand-O. For the children.

BTW, Mean Streets, you don't like Mean Streets!!???!! I hear movie night calling.

QuizMasterChris said...

If the show really isn't about the mafia, why is it set in the mafia? Why must it be Italian mafia? No one is even attempting to answer that question.

Apparently Tony Soprano's original name was Tommy Soprano, but that wasn't stereotypical enough. Apparently HBO had a gun added to the logo in case viewers had the mistaken impression that the show was about opera, which while Italian has the distinct disadvantage of being cultured.

Why not just call the character Guido Wopface?