The Sopranos marked the dawn of a golden age of television. Even though I read versions of this sentence dozens of times throughout the show's run, I refused to watch it. Mob-mythology just seemed so unappealingly macho, so solemn and self-important. The reverent way people talked about it made me roll my eyes. I figured I pretty much got the gist. What I didn’t know until I finally watched the whole series was that yes, it’s a great and possibly the greatest, but it’s also one of the funniest shows ever made.
In fact, the engine of the first season is a joke. While Tony is trying to wrest control of the North Jersey mob from his Uncle Junior, his own mother is scheming to have him whacked as revenge for putting her in an ultra-deluxe nursing home (“It’s a retirement , community!”). Malice comes off of Livia like heat waves from an industrial furnace, but David Chase is careful never to make her over the top. To all appearances, she’s a regular if cranky old lady. She’s a menace to Tony’s life via bitchy conversations with Junior the two conduct while going about standard old folk business. They wait in line for a discounted movie matinee or hold up traffic for miles creeping along in Junior’s old man car while they vaguely discuss whether Livia’s son should live or die. If the show played it straight for humor, it would seem cartoonish and unconvincing. Playing it purely for drama would feel heavy-handed. Who could miss the Madea-ish overtones, the mother murdering her own child for vengeance? Tony even remembers Livia threatening his father after he proposes moving the family, “I’d rather smother them with a pillow than take them to Nevada!” What is wrong with this woman? The way this plot line unfolds works as an extended joke, from Tony’s refusal to believe (“She’s a sweet old lady!”) all the way to Livia’s smirk when Tony tells her that he heard the FBI tapes and knows she tried to have him whacked. “She’s got a fucking smile on her face!” he screams as she’s wheeled away on a gurney. She got him good.
Tony’s relationship with his mother establishes a larger joke sustained through the whole series. He’s desperate to figure out why he feels a loss of control over his life. Is it the ducks in his pool bothering him? RICO? The talkativeness of men these days? The answer lies in the one place he’s most reluctant to look: The women in his life (wife, mother, sister, gummah, therapist), whom he tries to contain within safe, specific boxes but whose attacks he never sees coming. Even the guy who almost gets him thrown in federal prison is called Big Pussy. He’s a giant vagina, Tony, run!! Against all evidence, and despite his own cleverness, Tony refuses to understand it. He’s like Elmer Fudd with Bugs Bunny. He may be the hunter, the one with the gun, but the joke is always on him. His entire life is like “The Pine Barrens,” except the Russian is a series of women. (Speaking of, watch Christopher and Paulie sucking on semi-frozen packets of ketchup to survive, and tell me this show isn’t a comedy.)
The humor isn’t incidental. Take away the jokes, and you take away the life. I doubt David Chase considers himself a comedian, but he explores more sides of humor with more skill than most of the people who consider themselves professional humorists. He’s not afraid of straight-up jokes. The dialogue is full of punchlines and one-liners. But the humor runs the gamut. Having Christopher shit himself during the mock-execution is probably the darkest scat joke I’ve ever seen on television. The mortal terror is real, but so is the poop. Ralph Cifaretto quoting Gladiator non-stop like a complete jackass works flawlessly as character development and as humor. “I have come to reclaim Rome for my people!” he screams at the Bing’s bouncer before whipping him in the eye with a spare piece of chain. Big Mouth Billy Bass represents a potent threat to Tony’s sanity. Chase uses humor to reveal all sides of humanity: broken-hearted, merciless, sentimental, oblivious, cruel. We’re joking, but we’re completely serious. We’re in love, but we’re covered in shit.
The Sopranos lets the malice and morbidity underneath humor boil over. There’s a back-and-forth exchange of energy that keeps the show vital. Lesser shows try to amp up the stakes by frantically pairing up and pulling apart every conceivable couple, or by piling up bodies. The Sopranos is much too nimble for that. The drama of much of our lives isn’t that we’re overcome with lust or filled with murderous rage. It’s that we spend so much time either not knowing what to think, or thinking that we do and being proved hilariously wrong. That’s what fuels the show and makes it so unpredictable. Almost everything that ends up truly surprising Tony plays as a comic moment. Gloria Trillo nails him with the steak. Janice proves sexually irresistible to Richie Aprile. All Christopher really wants to do is write a screenplay about a man who has cleavers for hands.
Conversely, humor also expands into actual danger or depravity. Ralph’s joke about the size of Ginny Sacrimoni’s ass almost gets him killed. Christopher’s lightning-fast replacement of Adriana with Kelly echoes the ambiguous ending of As I Lay Dying, “Meet Mrs. Bundren.” Is this supposed to be funny? Every detail about Janice Soprano seems designed to turn her into a walking punchline: her disability benefits for carpal tunnel, her insistence on being called Parvati, her shameless relationship with a teenager who can “go all night.” But she’s deadlier than made guy Bobby Baccalieri. The humor and drama move each scene, each story, each season like a seesaw, keeping things perpetually off-balance without ever tipping into farce or melodrama.
When people defend their comic misfires by saying that humor shouldn’t have any boundaries, they should be thinking about Livia shuffling around Green Grove with murder in her heart, not half-baked rape jokes and whether or not they can use the n-word. The Sopranos never ignores humor. The show finds it everywhere, truly without boundary. I would say The Sopranos is a cautionary tale against taking oneself too seriously, but that’s a useless thing to warn against. There is no end to the ways we can laugh and be laughed at, and there is no end to our self-regard. In that way I was correct about The Sopranos at first glance. It is a show about self-importance, just in the best way possible.