James Thurber said that humorists lead an existence of "jumpiness and apprehension." "In the house of Life," he wrote, "they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats." There is a lot of opinion in a similar vein, from Woody Allen's "The trouble with writing comedy is that no one takes you seriously" to Dorothy Parker's comment that the world is stacked against those who write humor because anyone "has the right to read what they write and say 'I don't think that's funny'." And Neapolitan playwright and actor, Peppino de Filippo, the subject of these few paragraphs, said, "It's harder to make people laugh than it is to make them cry."
There is no doubt that, internationally, Peppino de Filippo is not as well known as his older brother, Eduardo de Filippo, the "other" great Italian playwright (after Luigi Pirandello) of the 20th century. That may be due to the fact (quite aside from the much-debated existential worth of comedy as opposed to drama) that comedy does not translate very well from language to language and culture to culture. Yet, within Italy, and, particularly in Naples, Peppino de Filippo is one of the best-loved writers and actors of the last 100 years. He would have been 100 years old a few days ago (he died in 1980) and a lot of air time on local and national television was given over to his long career.
He made his debut at the age of six in a play written by his and his siblings' (Eduardo and Titina) natural father, Eduardo Scarpetta, one of the most prominent Neapolitan playwrights of the early 20th century. Both Peppino and his sister were part of the theatrical company formed by their brother, Eduardo, in 1930. The company enjoyed great success throughout Italy for well over a decade. They performed, of course, works by Eduardo, but also some by Peppino. The company dissolved in 1944 due to a misunderstanding. No one seems to know if it was an artistic problem, sibling rivalry or what, but it was not amicable, and the two brothers never resolved their differences; they led totally separate careers, Eduardo as the great playwright and Peppino as a comic actor and minor playwright destined to remain in the shadow of his older brother. Peppino traveled and worked internationally, and his comedies were well received.
In films, he is
best remembered for a popular series in which he is
teamed with Totò, certainly Italy's most popular comic
of the last century. It would not be fair to call
Peppino a "second banana" in these films, but his career
does seem to be one in which he is always struggling by
being compared to someone else. Outside of Italy, he is
probably best remembered for his role in the Fellini
segment of Boccaccio 70 called "The Temptation
of Doctor Antonio" in which Peppino plays the prudish
and repressed professor who is scandalized by and
obsessed with a gigantic billboard ad for milk featuring
a gigantic and very milky-looking Anita Ekberg.