Retorts: Stop, you’re killing me with jokes!

“THE SOPRANOS”: ethnic bias or a strand in the American tapestry?

“What are you gonna do?”

That’s a very common line from the now-venerable HBO series “The Sopranos,” about a mobster and his family, made unique by his visits to a psychiatrist.

Marilyn and I have been slow-binge-watching all six seasons of that series and we now are regarding Tony, Carmella, Meadow, Paulie and others as members of an extended imaginary family. Their colloquialisms have crept into our conversations. I have started to wonder if I would look better in all black.

“Sopranos” was somewhat controversial in its depictions of a group of hardy entrepreneurs who happened to a) make their living committing an impressive variety of crimes and b) almost all have names ending in vowels.

There is even a character – the ex-husband of Tony’s psychiatrist – who gets into a moral snit over the bad reputation that La Cosa Nostra (“My thing” or “our thing”) gives to people of Italian descent. Over the years, my written comments in various outlets have brought me some heat from the Sons of Italy and other heritage-minded folks who see an unfair image being perpetuated.

They may be right. But they may have also missed the point. I can’t think of a single ethnic or gender group that hasn’t been the focus of unflattering stereotypes. Women drivers used to be the topic of scorn. It wasn’t so long ago that it was permissible in polite society to make fun of gays, for example, or certain professions, or even hair color. Ever heard any blonde jokes? I’ll bet you have.

Taking some heat has been the weather all along the great American journey, immigrants that we all are. I’m sure that that members of the Wampanoag tribe in the Plymouth Rock area had some choice cracks to make about Myles Standish and his pals with the buckles on their shoes.

It took generations for the Irish to “become white,” and immigrants from southern Europe were often dismissed as “a bunch of garlic-eaters” (see Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life”).

Every group of people seeking admission to the American mainstream undergoes this trial by bias, and anyone who thinks they are above it is probably kidding him- or herself. Folks in Kansas look down on Californians (and the reverse), and those who reside in Ontario (the one in Canada, not the one with the airport) regard people from Alberta as manure-kicking yokels.

This impulse also applies to smaller groups. The veterans of a job or a team or a military unit often razz the newcomers. When I joined my section in my days of wearing an army uniform, the commander introduced me in this way: “When I retire, you will be the ugliest person in this brigade.”

Not all verbal hazing is quite so good-natured, and I’m not defending ethnic slurs and certainly not discrimination based on them. What I am saying is that it is a rare person who hasn’t harbored such an opinion – even fleetingly – or perhaps benefitted from association with your clan.

Current and popular entertainment pokes fun at nerds (“The Big Bang Theory”) and attorneys (“Better Call Saul”). People in advertising are shown as morally compromised (“Mad Men”) and community college students are depicted as mouth-breathers (“Good Will Hunting”).

So maybe “The Sopranos” or “Two Broke Girls” or even Bruce Wayne aren’t exactly great role models or representative. They are, however, part of the American mosaic as much as anyone else. They help us see – and laugh at – the frailness and failings that mark the human race.

And if you still can’t find it in your heart to get a smile out of the foibles of we bipeds, well, what are you gonna do?

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears on Wednesdays. He writes it while eating pizza and listening to Frank Sinatra and Lou Monte records.

Categories: Opinion

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