Ask a comedian who their influences are and most likely they’ll name other comedians, perhaps a well known luminary or two–a Carlin or a Pryor, say–or maybe a few of their comedy peers, or even a family member, just to keep it folksy.
But if you dug deep enough, I bet you’d eventually hit the day jobs: the mail rooms, warehouses and kitchens, and the bullshitters, yarn-spinners, fuck-ups and class clowns encountered there.
It’s a natural proving ground for the comedically-minded. How else to cope with work’s dread dissonance–the crashing of your imagined self against the 8-hour-a-day reality you inhabit?
Guys used to call it busting balls.
It’s fucking up, having a laugh, getting through the shift.
But you need a way in, a shared language, a shorthand that says, “I can trust you.”
I have had many, many jobs–day, night and otherwise. After compiling extensive data and performing a precise set of statistical calculations, I have determined that, in all my working hours, only 1.2% of words spoken represent original thought.
The other 98.8% is all movie quotes.
The movies are the third man of male camaraderie. I don’t know why, but I imagine it was ever thus.
Go back far enough and you’ll find a pair of Athenian laborers on their lunch break, legs dangling over the quarry, dropping Lysistrata on each other while they fill their faces full of roasted goat.
The obvious answer might be that, lacking emotional availability and the ability to experience actual intimacy, guys use movie quotes as a surrogate, a stand-in for real connection.
Or, maybe we’re just not that interesting.
What I do know is that a good movie quote is like an ID card that can grant you safe passage across all spectra of American manhood.
Hell, a basic knowledge of Will Ferrell’s oeuvre can get you from Brooklyn hipsters to Joe Rogan aggro-bros to erudite comedy nerds to suburban dork dads and back in one piece.
I used to bartend at this place in Queens.
One night I was put on a shift with Paulie, an older, saltier guy from the Bronx. I was a WASP-y transplant who exuded little-to-no NYC energy (still am, for the record).
I didn’t exactly think we’d hit it off.
At some point in the shift, I pointed out some minor error Paulie had made, on a check or a pour.
“Don’t make a big thing out of this, Patrick,” he said.
I quickly, unconsciously shot back, “Why don’t you go fuck yourself, Paulie?”
He smiled. A friendship was born, and an ass-kicking (mine) averted.
Only when understood as moviespeak can one see that we were not, contrary to appearance, on the verge of violence.
We were, in fact, having a moment.
Substitute “Spider” for “Patrick” and “Tommy” for “Paulie.”
You have it?
Earl and I waited tables at a now-defunct place in Harlem. It was an all-night place manned by a crew of fuck ups. We’d hang around and get drunk and high after work. Then, before work. Then, during work. Like I said, a 24 hour operation.
We leaned on Eddie Murphy, hard.
There were a pair of Ghanian cooks who were, um, not very good at their jobs: wrong orders, slow orders, lost orders, that kind of thing.
One night, after an irate customer stomped out, Earl turned to me, completely deadpan.
“That guy’s been here 3 times in the last month. But I don’t think he’ll be back. Thanks to my…African connection.”
I fell out laughing.
There’s a way to use this argot. Quoting a movie is good. Sneak attacking a quote with faux earnestness is better.
Why? I don’t know. These are the mysteries of the movie-obsessed male brain.
Here’s another one he used to get me with:
“Hey, you see the game last night?”
“The Giants of New York defeated the Packers of Green Bay by kicking an oblong ball made of pigskin through a giant ‘H.’ It was most exhilarating!”
There was, of course, only one thing I could say in response.
If you know what it is, please recite it…
Colleen, who managed the place, would lock the late-night customers in at a certain hour. All the better to keep the weirdos out.
She’d say “Now you’se can’t leave.”
I was working at that same restaurant when Chapelle’s Show aired and Rick James landed like an H-Bomb in the popular consciousness. For a period, it totally replaced our filmic lingua franca. But, as with Borat after, the fever eventually, inevitably died away.
Goodfellas, The Godfather, Trading Places, Coming to America, though–these are evergreen.
One summer vacation, my father-in-law and I watched minor masterpiece Rob Roy on DVD. I fell in love with this moment, with John Hurt’s perfect, just camp enough delivery. It became my response to any perceived slight. The more trivial the better. The neighbor didn’t clean up after his dog? “Damn his priiiiiide.” The cashier short changed me a few cents? “Damn his priiiide.”
As in all things, there are power dynamics at play, issues of culture and status. Assuming one shares your movie quotes is like assuming they share your prejudices.
You come at me with The Boondock Saints or The Fast and The Furious movies and it is clear that we’ve misunderstood each other.
Hit me with Caddyshack or Stripes? A generation too soon.
If you go too British, I’ll feel self-conscious, like I’m not clever enough.
Hit me with a Breakfast Club or a Back To The Future, though and we’re back on solid footing. Both are technically before my time, but era doesn’t always matter, in terms of quotability. The 70’s are filled to the brim with quotables.
You ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?
One time, I witnessed two of my African-American friends spontaneously reenact Samuel L. Jackson’s big Menace II Society scene word for word, expanding my idea of canon.
I spent a summer waiting tables down at the Harbor in my native Baltimore. There was a busboy from Mexico named Juan who spoke limited English and lived to bust my balls.
On my last day, I recited Dickie Greenleaf’s entire pre-bludgeoning diatribe from The Talented Mr. Ripley at him, reveling in his inability to determine just exactly how his goat was being gotten.
Usually I wouldn’t engage in such linguistic power games, but a) Juan had earned it, b) we had beers together every night after work.
In a pre-meme world, a single line became an all-purpose tool, passed back and forth among friends, bent into a shape suitable for any use in almost any situation.
Often, bent into nonsensicality, and so much the better for it.
Here’s a partial list:
“Yeah? Well who the hell are you, man? Isaac fuckin’ Newton?”3
“It ain’t cool bein’ no jive turkey so close to Thanksgiving!”4
“Please Gary, step into my car.”5
“Armani doesn’t make a Blue tuxado!”6
“So let’s change that, lemme buy you a Heineken!”7
“That sounds good, I think I’ll have that.”8
“You fellas been doin a bit o’ boozin’ have ya? Been suckin’ back on grandpa’s old cough medicine?”8
“Samsonite! I was way off!”8
“Kick his ass, Sea Bass!”8
Sorry got a little stuck there. Proceed–
“He had a mechanical–arm!”10
“You see what I have to wear, man? Fucking diapers!”12
“What am I gonna do, paddle to New Zealand?!”13
“Gimme all ya got! Gimme all ya got!”14
As I get older, I fear more and more that I suffer from that condition peculiar to middle age–the belief that they don’t make anything good anymore. “They” being…movie studios? Screenwriters? Actors? Directors? I don’t know.
You know– “they.”
Memes seem to serve much the same purpose that the secret code of movie quoting used to: a relief valve for our shared fears and frustrations, a way to see each other as we sit with our legs dangling over the quarry and know that we’re in it together, whatever it may be.
Now go get your fuckin’ shinebox.