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The Town that Built Its Fame on a Joke

Itu: the Brazilian city famous for its oversized modernity.

 

On a Sunday morning in 1973, a shy crowd gathered around Matriz Square in Itu, a semi-rural town 100 kilometres north-west of São Paulo. The 12°C temperature, freezing for tropical standards, couldn’t keep families from leaving their homes. They waited to see if the Minister of Communications, Mr. Higino Corsetti, would keep his word. Months earlier, he had promised he would install a 7 metre (22 foot) telephone booth in the main square. The citizens, wearing their warmest garments up to their noses, would have to see it to believe it. The giant booth he’d promised them was a monument to a popular punchline — recognition for a town that had become, in the positive sense, something of a national joke.

That joke was the work of one Francisco Flaviano de Almeida, a comedian who in the early 60s played a recurring role on Praça da Alegria (Joy Square), the first comedy show in the history of Brazilian television. Almeida’s character, called Simplício for his simplicity, was a typical hick, burdened with a heavy accent and a deep-set fear of being considered ignorant by São Paulo city slickers.

In his sketches, the paulistas would brag about their city’s so-called progress over the last decades — the size of their new avenues, the amount of scattered concrete, the scores of new cars barrelling into an area that not that long ago was still making a living out of substinence crops. Simplício would inevitably respond to these provocations with manic conviction, stating that in his hometown everything was bigger than in São Paulo. The buildings were ten times taller! The cars much more spacious! Don’t get him started on the fruit — there wasn’t even any basis for comparison.

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In a way, this skit was the exact opposite of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, where four well-dressed men at a vacation resort compete who’s poorest, making more and more absurd claims about their past (you were lucky to live in a hole in the ground – we lived in a lake!). But Almeida’s jokes were for a different class. The prejudices his character faced were real, lending his outbursts a revelatory quality.

In one fateful episode, as he tried to convince his friends that the tallest building in his town was 539 floors high and had over a thousand lifts, Simplício let out one valuable piece of information: the name of his hometown.

For a long time, that question was the Brazilian equivalent of the which Springfield? mystery upheld by The Simpsons.  From that day on, the city of Itu was a regular on the show and a fixture in the national consciousness: the town where everything is huge.

That joke took on a life of its own. At the time, fans of Praça da Alegria had no way of knowing whether the stories about Itu were true or false. The only way to find out was to squeeze your family into a car and find out for yourself whether Itu’s louses were really the size of cockroaches.

Itu is considered the birthplace of the Brazilian Republic. Roughly a century before Simplício’s breakthrough on TV, the town hosted the Magna Convention, which marked the founding of São Paulo’s Republican Party and, eventually, the fall of the empire and Proclamation of the Republic. The convention building still stands, and is now the Republican Museum of Itu. Going deeper into the center of town, on Matriz Square, one can find one of the most important icons of baroque architecture, the Nossa Senhora da Candelária church. But none of these wonders have quite the draw of Simplício’s gag.

Every weekend, during the 70’s, Itu would welcome three to five thousand visitors hoping to see the disproportionately large objects they had heard about on TV. To not disappoint these visitors — and to take financial advantage — the inhabitants of the town soon began to turn the joke into reality. And thus came the quail egg from Itu — the size of an ostrich egg; the tea cup from Itu, which could be used as a helmet; the flea from Itu, which had to be kept in a birdcage; the hot-dog and ice-cream, each one metre tall.

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The joke was not completely baseless, it turns out. The name Itu does mean big waterfall in the native Tupi language. This contributed to the myth, along with a passage from French naturalist Auguste Saint-Hilaire’s Trip to Province of São Paulo and Summary of the Trips to Brazil, which noted that Itu possessed onions of extraordinary size.

Completing the tourist attraction, Simplício was soon named Secretary of Culture and Tourism of Itu. Until this day, it is nearly impossible to leave town without a huge cotton swab or at least a pencil sharpener from Itu – which could probably be used to sharpen a human arm. In the crossing that leads to the market, a 4 metre traffic light directs local traffic. Not to speak of that phone booth, inaugurated in 1973 with the carefully chosen words: Brazil may be big, but I know Itu is bigger.

Illustrations by Bia Sanches.