The exchange between George and Tom in the drama's exposition reflects much about the world in which they live and the one they wish to recapture. The subject of Italians as a group arises when both men are talking about Phil Romano. Tom remarks that Phil gave him a "hug and a kiss" to which George talks about how "Italians are like that. Can't keep their hands off you." From this, he offers up his joke regarding Italians: "Hey, what's air pollution? Five Hundred Italian paratroopers." The joke is meant to refer to a cultural stereotype about how Italians possess body odor. This demonstration of humor/ cultural stereotype is enhanced in the next exchange between both men about how Polish people lack intelligence, as Tom asks "What has an IQ of 100" and George responds with, "Poland."
The joke that George offers about the "five hundred Italian paratroopers" is his attempt at humor. He feels comfortable with Tom and the people around him to make statements and jokes like this. George is not being deliberately denigrating to Italians. Yet, it is a reflection of stereotype and humor at the cost of a cultural caricature. In this case, Italians and, in particular, Phil are the target. The reference also indicates how there is a fear of the present. George and Tom are able to make jokes at the expense of groups like the Italians and the Polish because it attempts to capture a sense of superiority for which they yearn. The joke is meant to elevate themselves at the cost of putting down another.
One can argue that the joke is reflective of this larger element. The men that have assembled in Coach's living room are so scared of life and filled with their own insecurity and doubt that they must reach into a past that does not exist. This nostalgia provides a feeling of comfort in a world that is rapidly changing. Being able to make a racially insensitive joke is a part of this nostalgia. It reflects a world in which such humor was accepted and socially tolerated. The current world, one of dissension and independence of thought that Coach derides, is a realm where such jokes would not be accepted. In being able to make such a joke, George is able to capture, if only for a moment, a feeling of nostalgia and of comfort. He is able to find this belonging with Tom as both stand in Coach's living room. It is a setting in which the apex of their satisfaction, that championship season, lives in a world where such certainty no longer exists. While the joke is a passing one and does not constitute much in way of the thematic development of the play, the reference to Italians in such a narrow context does reflect the way in which these men like George and Tom view themselves, the world, and their place in it. Being able to capture the feeling of belonging and solidarity that they no longer feel in the real world is what drives them. The joke about Italian paratroopers and air pollution helps to establish this rapport, akin to a monument built upon a firmament of sand.