Mike Bongiorno has passed away. An American-born Italian television host, he was undoubtedly one of Italy’s most enduring and beloved TV personalities, the man who popularized quiz shows for generations of Italians. He was also known by the nickname il Re del Quiz (The Quiz King), and his gaffes—real or presumed—were legendary almost as his trademark greeting to viewers—“Allegria!” (“Cheers!”).
As most of my fellow countrymen, I am mourning his loss, though I have never been a follower of that kind of TV show. What I most liked about him was his professionalism and, at the same time, his “ingenuousness,” that is to say, the extraordinary way he performed his job, though I was not a lover of it.. And this in a country much less ingenuous—at least as it was supposed to be, because of its history and culture—than he himself was. But evidently his audience was made up of very ordinary people, the new Italians, less “subtle” and more pragmatic than their ancestors (and perhaps also more sensitive upon the subject of money and “success”). The Italians who made up the wealth of the country, after centuries of poverty and emigration.
Mike also happened to became so popular that the lefty Umberto Eco wrote a learned and ironic essay called the “Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno.” Here is an excerpt from the essay:
Mike Bongiorno is not particularly good-looking, not athletic, courageous, or intelligent. Biologically speaking, he represents a modest level of adaptation to the environment. The hysterical love he arouses in teenage girls must be attributed partly to the maternal feelings he arouses in a female adolescent, and partly to the glimpse he allows her of an ideal lover, meek and vulnerable, gentle and considerate. Mike Bongiorno is not ashamed of being ignorant and feels no need to educate himself. He comes into contact with the most dazzling areas of knowledge and remains virgin, intact, a consolation to others in their natural tendencies to apathy and mental sloth. He takes great care not to awe the spectator, demonstrating not only his lack of knowledge but also his firm determination to learn nothing.
On the other hand, Mike Bongiorno displays a sincere and primitive admiration for those who do know things. He emphasizes, however, their physical qualities, their dogged application, their power of memory, their obvious, elementary methodology. A man becomes cultivated by reading many books and retaining what they say. Mike Bongiorno hasn't the slightest inkling that culture has a critical and creative function. For him, its only criterion is quantitative. In this sense (having to read many books in order to be cultured), the man with no natural gifts in that direction simply renounces the attempt.
Mike Bongiorno professes a boundless faith in the expert. A professor is a man of learning, a representative of official culture; he is the technician in the field. The question goes to him, to his authority. . But true admiration of culture is found only when, through culture, money is earned. Then culture proves to be of some use. The mediocre man refuses to learn, but he decides to make his son study. Mike Bongiorno's notion of money and its value is petit bourgeois: "You've now won a hundred thousand lire! A tidy sum, eh?"
Mike Bongiorno thus expresses to the contestant the merciless reflections that the viewers will be making at home: "You must be very happy with all this money, considering the monthly salary you earn. Have you ever put your hands on so much money before?"
Mike Bongiorno accepts all the myths of the society in which he lives. When Signora Balbiano d'Aramengo appears as a contestant, he kisses her hand, saying that he is doing this because she is a countess (sic).
With society's myths he accepts also society's conventions. He is paternal and condescending with the humble, deferential with the socially distinguished.
Handing out money, he instinctively thinks, without explicitly saying so, more in terms of alms than of deserved rewards. He indicates his belief that in the dialectic of the classes the one route of upward mobility is represented by Providence (which, on occasion, can assume the guise of Television).
Mike Bongiorno speaks a basic Italian. His speech achieves the maximum of simplicity. He abolishes the subjunctive, and subordinate clauses; he manages to make syntax almost invisible. He shuns pronouns, repeating always the whole subject. He employs an unusually large number of full stops. He never ventures into parentheses, does not use elliptical expressions or allusions. His only metaphors are those that now belong to the commonplace lexicon. His language is strictly referential and would delight a neo-positivist. No effort is required in order to understand him. Any viewer senses that he himself, if called upon, could be more talkative than Mike Bongiorno.
Mike Bongiorno rejects the idea that a question can have more than one answer. He regards all variants with suspicion. Nabucco and Nabuccodonosor are not the same thing. Confronted by data, he reacts like a computer, firmly convinced that A equals A and tertium non datur. An inadvertent Aristotelian, he is consequently a conservative pedagogue, paternalistic, reactionary.
Mike Bongiorno has no sense of humor. He laughs because he is happy with reality, not because he is capable of distorting reality. The nature of paradox eludes him; if someone uses a paradox in speaking to him, he repeats it with an amused look and shakes his head, implying that his interlocutor is pleasantly eccentric. He refuses to suspect that behind the paradox a truth is concealed, and in any case he does not consider paradox an authorized vehicle of expression.
Perhaps a bit harsh? Yes and no, in my view—I wonder whether I (to say nothing about the vast majority of the public) could have tolerated the kind of hosts Umberto Eco would have presumably liked in the days when he wrote his essay, back in 1963..
However, I suspect that Umberto Eco would have never be able to invent such a nice way to say goodbye to a friend: “Your allegria, the true one, has just begun. And will never end!” (Adriano Celentano, singer, songwriter and TV host). Luigi Accattoli is right: this was the best comment. Quite similar, in a sense (and equally nice), to the one another singer and songwriter, Lucio Dalla, made for Luciano Pavarotti back in September 2007: “His absence will be a temporary one, because I consider death as the end of the first half of an individual’s life.”