x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

There's no business like show business - except politics

The private language of certain trades or professions tells you just how trivial they really are.

A friend of mine, the scion of a legendary entertainment industry family, once used a great piece of old-timey show business jargon to describe a recent Broadway production.

"It was too 'centre door fancy' for me," he said with a shrug.

Centre door fancy? I'd never heard that expression before, and I pride myself on collecting - and using - odd and anachronistic show business slang. I drop it into conversations to appear worldly and experienced. That's the trick of getting old gracefully - you can't really fight it, so you have to do it in a cool way.

It's an affectation, I know, but when I talk to young people just starting out in the entertainment business, I salt my conversation with hard-bitten, Rat-Pack-tinged jargon. Phrases like "hang a lantern on it" - which means, essentially, calling obvious attention to an unbelievable plot coincidence in an effort to make it seem less cheap and flawed. Then there's "too much sunny Spain", which means too much exposition, as in a Shakespeare play when two characters walk onstage and announce, "Here we are in sunny Spain!" to let the audience know where they are. And I'm partial to the phrase "too Mousetrap" to describe anything overly complicated and hard to explain in a story.

All of these make me sound like a wily, seen-it-all old-timer. Which I almost am. I even refer to movies as "pictures", like one of those old-timey movie moguls.

When my Hollywood-born friend used "centre door fancy," it was new to me, though it wasn't hard to figure out what he meant: the show was a little overdone, a little overproduced, a little too perfect. Nice looking, but too nice looking.

The solution to being too "centre door fancy" is to "throw it away", a phrase I heard a lot from an older, hugely successful television director I worked with. He'd approach an actor after a take, think for a moment, and then say, "You know what? Try this. Just … throw it away."

He meant: don't work so hard. Don't push it so much. Just throw the line away and it'll work better.

It's almost impossible to imagine this kind of jargon working in any other business.

It's just not imaginable, for instance, for a lawyer to write in a United States Supreme Court brief that the lower court reasoning seems a little too "centre door fancy". It's hard to wrap my head around the possibility that right before he makes his first incision into a patient's brain, the nurse will remind the neurosurgeon that he really should just "throw it away". And I have yet to meet the CFO who looks at the miserable quarterly performance of his company and decides to "hang a lantern" on it.

Every other business just seems too consequential and concrete, too sturdy and fact-based, to need a silly language of its own. Investment banking has its "workouts" and its "short squeezes". The energy business has "fracking" and "wildcatting". Dentistry has its "canals" and its "temporary crowns". All of these seem more purposeful and adult than "centre door fancy". They all seem more, well, businesslike.

Every business, that is, except for the only business more frivolous and spendthrift than the entertainment industry - the capricious mess called "American politics."

What can you say about the Obama presidential campaign, with every press release touting the unemployment rate and every joyful announcement that his approval rating is now around 48 per cent, but that he and his team are doing a very good job "hanging a lantern" on some otherwise grim milestones?

And how else could you describe the chaos now unfolding in the frigid states of Iowa and New Hampshire - the sites of the first two primary elections among Republicans selecting a candidate to face Barack Obama in the fall - except that the front-runner, Mitt Romney, seems a little too "centre door fancy" for a lot of voters.

On second thought, why single out US politicians? They are not uniquely suited for entertainment industry slang. For instance, try as she might, it's hard to think of hapless, desperate German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her frantic attempts to shore up the euro without thinking, "I don't know. Seems a bit 'too Mousetrap' to me".

Show business may be a frivolous enterprise filled with inconsequential people, but at least we've got a colourful vocabulary. Not every business can say the same thing.

 

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood.