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Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno

Italy’s Most Famous TV Host

“Gaffes were his secret weapon.”

“Allegria, amici ascoltatori! Allegria!!!” 

(“Glee, dear listeners! Glee!!!”) 

For decades, Mike Bongiorno, Italy’s most famous TV host, opened every show with his trademark greeting, wishing joy and cheerfulness to the public. 

Perpetually dyed hair–combed back the same way throughout his lifetime–thick glasses in an oversize frame, suit and tie: Bongiorno (also called “Signor Mike” or just “Mike” by Italians) entertained at least three generations of Italians. His distinguishing traits were a strong Milanese accent–vowels all open–and a certain degree of condescension that has always reminded me of that annoying uncle you only see at Christmas who keeps asking you why you haven’t got a girlfriend yet.

Born in 1924 in New York to parents of Italian descent, Bongiorno emigrated back to Italy after the Great Depression and eventually owed his fame to the many popular quizzes he readapted for the Italian public from American formats. I mostly remember him for conducting the Italian version of “Wheel of Fortune” in the 1990s, for several variations of quiz games for kids and for hosting quite a few editions of the Festival di Sanremo.

Bongiorno’s popularity started in the 1950s with “Lascia o Raddoppia?”, a quiz derived from the American “The $64,000 Question”, in which participants answered trivia as experts in a particular subject. Among his many guests, the American composer John Cage once randomly took part in the game as an expert on mycology, combining his passion for post-war avant-garde music and mushrooms. At the end of the episode, Bongiorno channeled his inner music critic to say goodbye to Cage. The scene has been carefully transcribed: 

MB: Well done, Mr. Cage. Goodbye. Are you going back to America or are you staying here [in Italy]?

JC: … my music is staying. 

MB: Ah, you’re going away and your music is staying… but it would have been better if your music went away, and you stayed here! [APPLAUSE]

“Lascia o Raddoppia?” turned quickly into a social phenomenon. The whole country would stop to watch it, glued to the TV screen. Because TV appliances were still rare and pretty expensive, people would gather in bars or at the house of better-to-do friends who owned one in order to follow the show. And cinemas, in the hopes of retaining their audiences, would interrupt normal programming to screen the quiz instead. In 1956, the owners of restaurants, bars and other public places asked and succeeded in moving the show from Saturday to Thursday nights, because their clients would stay in to watch TV instead of going out, tapering profits on the most lucrative evening of the week. 

“Rischiatutto”, another popular quiz conducted by Bongiorno in the 1970s, was based on the American “Jeopardy!” and had similar effects. The 1974 episode of the ultimate victory of Signora Migliari, one of the game’s historical champions, was watched by almost 30 million people, more than those who had followed the moon landing five years before. 

The multitude of Mike’s devoted spectators even included Pope Paul VI and the President of the Republic Giovanni Leone, who once allegedly pushed back a formal dinner to watch the quiz show. (We don’t know if the pope ever postponed his rosary for “Rischiatutto”.) After centuries of disputes, spiritual and political powers were finally reconciled by Mike.

I suspect part of the popularity of these TV shows, and of Bongiorno too, lies in their American character. How could Italians not love them, at a time in which we would go crazy for anything Americana? In our social imaginary, Americans were–and still are, in part–those beautiful, tall people with immaculate teeth that liberated us from Fascism, bringing us chocolate, nylon socks, movies and TV shows. (My grandfather, who had been imprisoned by the US Army for three years during WWII, kept an unrestrained passion for anything American nonetheless. With democracy, he once explained to me, the USA had given him Western movies.)

Years before Bongiorno became Italy’s “King of Quiz”, his American origin had saved his life. It’s still little known that during the early 1940s, Mike had joined the Italian resistance movement, delivering secret messages between Italy and Switzerland. Captured and imprisoned by the Gestapo, he would have been shot dead if somebody hadn’t found his American passport at the very last minute. Considered a far too precious prisoner, he was eventually set free by the Germans during a prisoner exchange. 

Mike didn’t talk often about his past. Instead, he presented himself as a common man, who would go as far as to mispronounce English words on camera (him, who in youth had to take elocution lessons to soften his American accent!) to be perceived as “one of us”.  

Gaffes were his secret weapon. He often said things that would lead to double entendres–often of a sexual nature–or that were simply out of place. Roman numerals confused him. Mike made one of his most famous gaffes when, talking about Pope Pius X, he said Pius “ex”. (In the end, he had done nothing but establish himself as a trendsetter: decades later, Apple, although not directly influenced by Bongiorno, branded their 10th smartphone the “iPhone X”, which everyone called the “iPhone ex”.)

The internet keeps a wealth of material on Mike’s bloopers: hours and hours of videos archived on Youtube, which give me the same effect of a shot of serotonin on a gloomy day. A classic from the repertoire sees him asking a female competitor about her husband, only to be told he had died. And then: Mike accidentally reading aloud the answer to his questions during the game; Mike patronizing the participants in his kids shows; and, my absolute favorite, Mike having an inflamed argument with one of his “vallette” (the young female assistants, usually a little undressed) over a fur coat awarded as a prize. Ah, the joys of Italian TV from the 1990s! 

The scholar Umberto Eco, who in the 1960s would write some of the questions for Mike’s games, had his own thoughts on the popularity of the TV celebrity. In the 1961 short essay “Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno”, Eco theorized that Bongiorno was the “everyman”: a figure so close to the average Italian man that he was regarded as part of the family. “Idolized by millions of people, this man owes his success to the fact that there’s absolute mediocrity in every act and in every word of the character he brings to life in front of the cameras… Mike Bongiorno is not particularly handsome, athletic, brave, or intelligent. He represents, biologically speaking, a modest degree of adaptation to the environment.”

Rumor has it that when Bongiorno read Eco’s pages, he started crying, assuming his career was over. Of course, that never happened. Bongiorno kept working on TV almost until the day he was struck down by a heart attack at 85. A state funeral was held in Milan’s Duomo. 

One more proof of his immense popularity was the grim events that followed his death. A few months after he was buried, his tomb was ransacked and his body stolen, by whom we still don’t know. It was recovered nearly a year later.

“There is one thing we must not forget: those in our field, the artists, do not retire. The artists die on stage,” Mike had once stated in a remarkably banal comment. But in his case, it almost turned out to be actually true.