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Last week I was reading this post about a famous Muppet's sketch with Fozzie and Kermit (featuring in episode 110), so I watched it (the video can be easily found on several streaming service, and, even more easily, on the internet).

I must admit that my English is quite bad, and in fact, even after watching it with subtitles several times, the joke is still unclear to me:

  1. what is the connection between Kermit's "bear" and Fozzie slang "No, he-is-a-not, he is wearing a neck-a-tie"?

  2. why Stadler, when asked by Waldorf at the end of the sketch if he understood the joke, replied "no, but I don't speak Italian" ?

Given that I AM Italian, I am quite interested in understanding the dark of this joke.

I googled it quite a bit, but as of now I've found no clear explanation.

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    "the dark of this joke"? I've no idea what this is meant to be; jokes don't have darks.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 14 at 14:55
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    I haven't listened to anything but I'm quite sure "No, he-is-a-not, he is wearing a neck-a-tie" is "mock Italian", which is probably relevant. And I'm also certain that the reference to a neck-tie is because that's what the famous cartoon character Yogi bear wears. Without background knowledge of Yogi Bear, the reference to a necktie wouldn't make sense. Mar 14 at 18:34
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    @FumbleFingers Although your alusions to Yogi Bear and Peanuts are interesting, I don't think either are significant in this joke. "Good grief" is just an exclamation like "Oh my!" (although people do associate it with Peanuts). Fozzie himself is wearing a necktie, so no need for a reference to Yogi. Astrabee's answer below explains it quite well.
    – Mark Meuer
    Mar 14 at 20:25
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    @MarkMeuer: You're quite right. I never really saw much of the Muppets. Didn't realize how much they apparently "borrowed". Mar 14 at 20:50
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    @FumbleFingers the Muppet Show episode is from December 13, 1976, so four and a half years before Mario's first outing in "Donkey Kong". I suspect mock Italian accents in the USA date from 19th century Italian migration (during 1880-1914 four million Italians migrated to the US, comprising 4% of the total population and concentrated in the northeastern states) Mar 15 at 21:07

2 Answers 2

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There are three things you need to understand in order to comprehend the joke:

  • It's an old comedy trope that Italians, when speaking English, add 'a' sounds at the end of words. Like many such tropes, it's just a stereotype. But as Italian words tend to end in vowels whilst English words tend to end on a consonant sound, adding an exaggerated vowel to the end of English words makes it sound like someone is Italian to a native English speaker. A modern example of this you might know is Nintendo's famous Italian plumber saying "it's-a me, Mario!".

  • "A bear" is an animal, which Fozzie is.

  • "Bare" is a homophone of bear, and means naked.

In the joke, Kermit cries "good grief, the comedian's a bear!", in response to Fozzie being a bear.

Fozzie's punchline "no he's-a-not, he's'-a-wearing a neck-a-tie" adds in numerous exaggerated 'a' sounds, implying that he is an Italian and has mistaken "he's a bear" as "he's bare". His response that he is wearing a tie is a protest against the accusation that he is naked (which the puppet mostly is, aside from his trademark tie and hat).

Stadler's comment after the joke is funny because it is paradoxical and ridiculous - he claims not to understand the joke, but as I have explained, recognising that Fozzie is doing a mock Italian accent is the key to understanding the joke. There is also the suggestion that, by speaking English in such an accent, Stadler thought he was actually speaking the Italian language.

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    @FumbleFingers What does Yogi have to do with the Muppets?
    – Astralbee
    Mar 14 at 19:22
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    Fozzie Bear (the comedian) also wears a necktie. Mar 14 at 19:39
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    @FumbleFingers "Good grief" is an expression frequently used by Kermit, and not uncommon in society at large. While it's conceivable this was originally inspired by Peanuts, it's hardly obvious on the face of it. The first Mario Bros game came out in 1983, seven years after this episode aired. And animals dressed as humans has been a common comedic theme since time immemorial. Just because [A] reminds you of [B] does not mean [A] was referencing or "pinching" from [B].
    – Jay McEh
    Mar 14 at 20:51
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    I think there is a fourth thing you need to understand: Fozzie is a bad comedian. That's part of the joke whenever he is involved. If there's any Yogi involved, I'm guessing it's Yogi Beara. I don't have any real evidence of this other than the 'fork in the road' in the "Muppet Movie". As Yogi (Beara) said, "take it".
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 14 at 21:44
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    The pseudo-Italian doesn't just add "a" at the end of words, but at the end of syllables in polysyllabic words - such as "neck-a-tie", and "That's a spicy meat-a-ball".
    – Kirt
    Mar 15 at 1:59
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This answer elaborates on part of AstralBee's excellent answer (+1).

Definitely "I don't speak Italian" refers to the accented and broken English spoken by Italian born migrants who emigrated to English speaking countries in a diaspora after World War 2. The accent often persisted longer for women who spoke Italian at home but never entered the paid work force and so had few opportunities to speak English on a regular basis.

If you want an idea of what it sounded like, check out "Shaddap You Face" by Joe Dolce on YouTube, an affectionate parody of the style. Super Mario's accent was based on this style of accent as well, not the other way around.

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