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  • Writer's pictureKirby Clark, MMT

Pop Culture Fridays: The Sopranos

Sometimes coming across a depiction of massage therapy in popular media can be about as rare as coming across a character with my first name…

I am Kirby Clark Ellis, MMT, BCTMB and this is Pop Culture Fridays!

We are starting this new series off strong! The Sopranos was a crime drama series that ran for 6 seasons from 1999 to 2007. It also features (in my opinion) the best representations of massage therapy I’ve ever seen!

We are first introduced to the character Tony B (portrayed by Steve Buscemi) in Season 5 after he is released from a 17 year prison sentence for armed hijacking. (Hence this out of date, 80's dinner jacket)

Over breakfast, Tony B and his cousin (the other Tony), the mafia boss (and the show’s main protagonist) exchange ideas on what Tony B's life will look like now that he's out of prison.

Tony B recounts how early into his sentence he was transferred to a big prison hospital and became an orderly; “I really got into this shit” and recalls helping “guys with broken limbs and muscle diseases”.  

He tells his cousin, the boss of the crime family, that this is something he thinks he can really do now that he's released from prison and that he is now only six months away from his massage license. 

Confused, the other Tony asks, “so you wanna run a massage parlor?” Still making the assumption that Tony B’s plan will involve crime in some way.

“No,” Tony B tells him, “I’m gonna be a licensed massage therapist.” Insisting that he’s been away from the life of crime he once lived for so long now and that if he has the chance to set his life straight, he wants to take it.

So the other Tony helps him get a “straight” job delivering linens for a laundry service.

"Going straight" being a phrase that here means, "to stop being a criminal, pursuing legitimate business, and abandoning his former life of crime".

Later in the same episode, we see Tony B bring a massage chair into one of the Mob's favorite hangouts at the end of his work day.

One of the chief henchmen nods to the massage chair and asks, “what’s that for, drying shirts?” in an attempt to mock Tony B for his civilian job.

But Tony B is unbothered and proudly replies, “it’s a Tao Master massage chair.”

The scene immediately cuts to Tony B giving chair massages to the whole crew, many of them groaning with appreciation. (they even abandon their card game to experience Tony B's skills)

In this scene, we see Tony B use all kinds of appropriate and accurate massage strokes; using elbows, fists, palms, petrissage, and tapotament to name a few!

In a later episode, Tony B demonstrates his anatomical prowess by helping a doctor- an emergency room physician, mind you- recall medical evidence to how an injury had to have occurred.

Pointing out that if the patient in question were wearing a seatbelt during a car wreck that there

would be “abrasions to the lateral anterior aspect of her clavicle or the right mid-sternum”.

The doctor asks impressed, “are you a physician?”

“No, I’m a pre-board certified massage therapist” Tony B replies. The E.R. doctor has to agree with Tony B that those injuries were present and would have to indicate an upright position during impact.

It was at this point I had to stop the playback while watching and say, “I know. I just know there is no way that there wasn’t a massage therapist involved in the writing room for these episodes.”

In the very next episode (which is the final one with massage therapy featured), we are shown Tony B studying hard for his licensing examination while the rest of his family is enjoying dinner. (Now, whether New Jersey accepted the MBLEx or NCBTMB circa 2004 is beyond me… maybe one of my good friends from the Garden State could help answer that)

When a family member tells Tony B they thought the licensing exam was like “some big gym test”,  Tony B replies, “people don’t realize what massage involves. I’m practically doing two years of medical school on my own.”

Not to disparage medical school, but that sentiment from Tony B sums up Massage School pretty well (even if it fails to mention that most massage programs conclude within 6-9 months).

Later on,  Tony B is hitting the books again at work (5am before he’s clocked in, in fact), this time making flashcards about the endocardium (thin lining of the heart).

His employer at the linen service invites him to a sit down and tells Tony B that he’s so hard on him because he remembers he’s an ex-con or as he puts it a “professional criminal”. But he admires Tony B for studying so hard.

Tony B tells him that the licensing exam is pretty hard (which it is) and that it has a huge failure rate (which can also be true).

His boss asks about his plans if he should pass his exam and while Tony B uses the word “masseur” to describe being professional/licensed, his pride clearly comes through.

His boss presses him about the idea of setting up a small business to which Tony B muses about “four or five massage tables, a soothing atmosphere, and piping in a little Keith Jarrett.” 

His boss further explains that he admires Tony B’s work ethic and would stake him money in a storefront operation. Tony B gratefully accepts.


Later on still, Tony B struggles to answer a flash card question in full, with the stress clearly setting in.

When a mob member asks him why he’s going to all this trouble, “just so you can touch a bunch of strangers?”

Tony B doesn’t answer except to lament about the flashcards, “I know this stuff and then the next minute it’s gone… my mind’s just all over the place.”

Demonstrating the all too real stress massage students go through prepping for their exams.

Finally, the big day comes and we’re shown Tony B seated in a room full of computers taking his licensing exam(s).

The question on the screen completely stumped me (much like my own experience with the MBLEx & Board Certification exams). The scene jumps to Tony B and his wife waiting in the hall on his exam results.

Tony’s frustration with having to wait so long for the results to “just be spit out” is relieved when a proctor comes out and informs him that his results meet or exceed the required minimum for licensure (which is the case now a days, pass or fail grades, but in my time the MBLEx gave you a numerical score).

The proctor tells Tony B that he is now board-certified in massage and bodywork by the state of New Jersey (which isn’t entirely accurate of how licensing works, he’d have to wait for exam results to be sent to the state licensing agency and  a license to come in the mail).

Tony B’s astonishment in finding out he passed is palpable and relatable- he's literally breathless.

Following this, Tony B is showing off the “flexible” storefront space to his cousin (the other Tony) and shares his vision of “a row of rooms with different themes; Asian themed for Shiatsu, a Danish thing for Rolfing- even though technically it’s Swedish…” 

All in all, The Sopranos is a show full of imperfect and anti-hero type characters. Throughout his journey to obtain his massage license, Tony B is challenged with balancing the requirements of his parole, the urgency to cram as much study material as possible, holding a legitimate and laborious job where he is valued as less because of his ex-con status, and sharing custody of his twin underage boys.

Not to mention being faced with constant taunts and jeers from the mob family he once knew… and Tony B overcomes it all (like many other massage therapists I’ve known) without getting defensive or crumbling under the pressure up to the point of passing his licensing exam.

Without giving much else away, I’ll just say that being a licensed massage therapist doesn’t work out for Tony B– but for better or worse, the episodes where The Sopranos (ever committed to hyperrealism portrayals) highlights massage therapy does a great job of it through the character of Tony B.

Peace and Healing,

Kirby Clark Ellis, MMT, BCTMB

What about you? What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) representations of massage therapy in pop culture? Let me know in the comments below!

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