Schtick Shift

The Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions defines the word “schtick” as: “a routine or act that is the trademark of an entertainer, especially in vaudeville. (Yiddish.) : His schtick was a trained dog and cat act.”

Examples of this would include the late comedian Henny Youngman, and his trademark joke:  “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?”  (“That was no lady – that was my wife.”)  Or the late great Rodney Dangerfield and his “I don’t get no respect” act.

The thing implied in schtick, in becoming the “trademark of an entertainer”, is that it has to be repeated over and over.   It’s the humor of repetition.  Plus it helps if it is corny.

I learned to love schtick not from the trademarks of famous entertainers, but rather from the routines my own father would perform over and over.   The amazing thing about them was that the more he did them and the more predictable they became, the more I loved them.   For some reason, they were funnier the thousandth time than they were the first.

Some examples of my dad’s schtick:

–    Christmas or birthdays, when pressed, he’d always tell us that we were getting a “galloping gopher,” without ever explaining what that was.

–     When the school year would begin, we’d tell him we needed money to buy art supplies and gym shoes.  “Let Art get his own supplies, and let Jim get his own shoes” would be his response.

–    Whenever he’d argue with us and make a point, he’d add, “Us kids are good and you kids are bad, ha ha hee.”

–    His routines when answering the phone:  “French embassy, DeGaulle speaking”, or “Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood speaking,” or “Sam’s Meat Market, Sam’s not in, this is Bill,” or one of my favorites that he used not long before he died, “Sam’s Taxi Service:  Our rates are so low we pay you to ride with us.  Sam’s not in, this is Bill.  How may I help you?”  (Sam was never in, and if you asked “where’s Sam?” he always gave a long and detailed answer so that by the time he was done, you had forgotten why you called him in the first place.)

–  Perhaps his strangest (and funniest) – when we’d be going on family trips and he was driving, if he ever saw a pine tree standing by itself, he’d say “Look!  There’s a lonesome piiiiiiiiiine tree.”  He’d gasp out and prolong the pronunciation of the word “pine.”  None of us were ever able to ascertain where this routine came from, and what the significance of a lonesome pine tree was, and he never explained any of that.   The fact that it made no sense at all was what we loved about it.

I was so taken by my Dad’s schtick that when I became a father, it was inevitable that I would develop schtick of my own.  This is perhaps the best reason to have kids – they are captive audiences.  Among the routines my children have had to endure:

–     If someone says that I’m weird, or strange, I reply, “I’m perfectly normal.    And”, here comes the part they have heard so often they help me finish, “normally perfect.”

–      If we are leaving for somewhere, I ask, “Are we ready to hit the road?” to which they answer, “Why, what did the road ever do to us“?

–       If, while out for a drive we see a policeman,  in my best James Cagney imitation I say, “You’ll never get me alive, copper”, and they join me in the punch line, “you either, aluminum.”

–    “Every night when I get home from work I do a magic trick – I turn into our driveway”

–    If someone asks me how much something costs, I’ll give one of these pat answers:  “More than a little but less than a lot,” or “half as much as it’d cost if it’d cost twice as much as it does.”

My personal favorite, because it made absolutely no sense, was the routine I’d break into when coaching my son Nick’s softball team.  I had just purchased a plain green hat in St. Louis.  For a while, during every practice or game, somebody from the team would ask me about the cap.

“There’s an interesting story behind this cap”, I’d offer.

“Oh, really?  Let’s hear it.”

“O.K.  I bought this cap at A DOLLAR STORE IN ST. LOUIS”, I’d reply, loudly emphasizing the “a dollar store in St. Louis” part for some strange and unexplained reason.

“What were you doing in St. Louis?”, they’d logically ask.

“That’s not important”, I’d reply, acting annoyed, and I’d quickly change the subject.

It doesn’t make sense, but then again, neither did a lonesome pine tree.

It’s not really schtick, but for some reason, I’m reminded of the time when I was 12 years old and my Dad and I were in the car, he was driving, I was in the passenger seat, when we saw a deer in the roadside field.   A little while later, as we discussed the sighting, an argument began, with each of us claiming to have been the first to see it.  Things escalated for about a week, neither one of us backing down, until my Dad asked me, “how big would you say that deer was?”

“Oh, it was pretty big, probably bigger than average,” I replied.

“Ha!”  He pounded the table triumphantly.  “That proves I saw the deer first.”

“How does that prove anything?” I replied.

“Because when I saw it,” my Dad said, “it was just an itty bitty fawn.”

Some nine months after his death, thinking about my Dad still makes me laugh, and I realize how much I miss him.   Without him, I suspect that the lonesome pine trees are a little more lonesome.  I know I am.

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