'Jersey Shore' to Shock Italy? You've Never Seen Its Super-Sexy 'Striscia'
Chris Pizzello, AP
To find out, I called up Venice -- where Lido island pretty much invented the idea of beach vacations back in the 19th century -- to talk to Roberto Zammattio, a Baldwin-brother look-a-like who runs the wonderful little Pensione Guerrato hotel near the Rialto market.
"Snooki?" Roberto said. "I'm sorry, but I haven't the faintest idea what a 'Snooki' is."
Even though "Jersey Shore" has been broadcast on MTV Italia, Roberto had never heard of it. I outlined the show's basic premise (it helps that Italians watch "Grande Fratello", their own version of "Big Brother"). I then tried delicately to describe -- without insulting Roberto -- the show's celebration of that none-too-flattering stereotype of the preening, body-obsessed, gleefully ignorant Italian-American.
"Ah," he said finally. "You're talking about 'tamarri'!"
Who knew Italians had their own word for "Guido?"
"Excuse me, but are these people for real, or are they actors?"
I told him they were all too real, and that they were about to bring their boorish behavior to Italy. Roberto snorted.
"We don't need the Jersey Shore. We have Berlusconi. We have reality."
Sex, bad behavior, and beach house bacchanals are regular front-page news in Italy
Italians would probably never notice the Jersey Shore cast if they didn't have cameras following them around-and even then, they will likely barely register as a blip on the national radar.
After all, this is a country where the headlines are filled with lurid allegations swirling around the 74-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire media baron who has compared himself (favorably) to Napoleon and Jesus Christ.
The newspapers are regularly filled with accusations that Berlusconi hosts raucous sex parties at his Milan estate and his beach villa in Sardegna, or that he's paying underage girls to strip naked. And let's not forget the hookers. Few Italians-even many of his supporters-doubt at least some of this is true.
I did mention that Berlusconi is also Italy's Prime Minister, right?
So Italians have far sexier-and more worrisome-scandals to obsess over than Sammi socking Ronnie. (And, yes: there is footage of Berlusconi being bloodied in public, too.)
Besides. Italians also already show more skin than they know what to do with on regular TV.
Bring on the Showgirls
Watching TV at home makes you a couch potato, but when you do it on vacation it counts as an anthropological inquiry into a foreign culture -- like reading National Geographic, only with more bare breasts.
Italy never quite got over the variety/burlesque era of TV, and has dragged many of its elements-including showgirls-into modern programming.
Remember a young Goldie Hawn bopping to groovy tunes on Laugh-In clad in nothing but a bikini and body paint? How about the chicas flanking Steven Colbert's gum-snapping, pencil-moustached "Esteban Colberto" persona?
Dancing girls like that are alive and well on Italian TV -- and I'm not just talking about Italy's old late-night game show in which housewives compete in a strip tease hosted by a seedy-looking man dressed as a louche Captain Kangaroo flanked by 18–20 applauding, topless women. (You think I'm kidding, don't you?)
Few shows, it seems, are serious enough to do without a writhing variant on Vanna White.
One of the most watched programs on Italian TV is Striscia La Notizia, or "Slither the News." This satirical news program is hosted by a pair of reporter-comedians, but it opens with the über-popular Veline.
This pair of leggy, preternaturally pretty 20-somethings-one blonde, one brunette-perform brief, high-energy dance numbers that are choreographed (and costumed) by someone who, if I had to guess, I imagine normally works on routines involving more brass poles and G-strings.
(Veline are swapped out every two years, and the contest-style reality show to pick the new dancers is one of Italy's biggest summer programs, drawing a 22% to 45% audience share.)
Sometimes they dance around the studio (and yes, there is a pole), but usually they dance right on the desk. In fact, on an older version of the show they used to arrive on set via giant Hamster tubes, like the pneumatic mail system in old office buildings, which dumped a Velina onto either end of the desk.
This program has won an Italian "TV Oscar" every year since 1994.
It also releases popular "Stricia La Compilation" CDs of the songs danced to on the show, with album covers featuring that season's Veline in outfits that would give a Hooster's hostess pause. The albums sell like hot cakes. Maybe Mtv should be looking into this instead.
If the Jersey Shore does inspire you to rent your own Italian beach house (see sidebar), you can get your dose of anthropological research by watching Striscia. It's easy to find, broadcast-just like Grande Fratello-on the top-rated Canale 5 channel, which is part of the Mediaset corporation... which is owned by Silvio Berlusconi.
Italian viewers even watch amateur striptease shows such as All Music's Tutti Nudi ("Everyone Nude") -- click here to see a contestant named Leonina who, like Jersey Shore's Deena, loves showing the country her business.
So good luck, Jersey Shore. It's going to take a lot more than the feud between J-Woww and Sammi Sweetheart to get the TV attention of Italians.
Reid Bramblett has been channel-surfing Italian TV since age 11.