Someday I may sit down and craft a cogent, well-thought-out discussion about why Americans love catchphrases. I would look at how and why our discourse became peppered with such bon mots as “ayyyyyy!” and “dy-no-mite!” and “hey, Mikey!” This is not that day. (And if you don’t understand those references, you’re not my target demographic.)
No, today, I am going to make the problem worse. I am going to offer up my suggestions for unsung pop culture quotes for any occasion. Everyone knows the “sung” pop culture quotes for any occasion. They include:
“Where’s the beef?” – A highly useful query when something of substance has been promised but not delivered, originally derived from a television commercial and successfully reused by Walter Mondale during a political debate.
“I’m shocked, shocked.” – Capt. Renault’s disingenuous line to Rick in Casablanca is the height of ironic hypocrisy.
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” – Chief Brody’s tremulous line to Quint in Jaws when he first sees the shark, indicating a general need for more resources than are currently available (another good one from Jaws: “This was not a boating accident”).
The following are my favorite – though less popular – responses for many, if not all, occasions when you’d rather not answer a question, or when the situation just begs for something witty … or snarky.
No. 1. In a Saturday Night Live skit lampooning the 1976 presidential debates, Chevy Chase as President Ford was asked a complicated question about the federal budget, taxes, or something fiscal, to which he replied:
“I was under the impression there were going to be no math questions.”
As someone with a degree in English, I have put this to use so frequently that I should probably be paying royalties to an SNL sketch writer.
No. 2. Early in Casablanca, Rick is badgered by his current paramour Yvonne for his lack of attention. “Where were you last night?” she asks, to which he responds:
“That’s so long ago I don’t remember.”
When you think about it, that’s really a great response to almost any question you don’t want to answer, including, “Why weren’t you at that meeting?” and “Why didn’t you pick up my dry cleaning?”
No. 3. Even better, Yvonne pushes on after Rick’s dismissive comment by asking, “Will I see you tonight?” to which Rick responds:
“I never make plans that far in advance.”
Anytime you don’t want to be pinned down for a commitment, even if it’s in the next ten minutes, use this.
Note: the Casablanca script is actually a mother lode of great lines, from “Go back to Bulgaria” to “There are certain parts of New York I’d advise you not to invade.” Pop in the DVD and find your favorites.
No. 4. Now for a couple of political quotes. Back in the 20th century, there was a wonderful satirist named Mark Russell who, like Tom Lehrer before him, played the piano along with his patter. In early 1988, long before the primaries were over, he made the most prescient prediction of a presidential race I’ve ever heard:
“If this thing’s going to be Bush vs. Dukakis, there’s not enough caffeine in America to keep me awake.”
Take out the reference to Bush and Dukakis, and you have a handy dismissal of any potential snoozefest. Consider, for instance, if last month’s AFC and NFC championship games had gone the other way, it would have been easy to say, “If the Super Bowl’s going to be Falcons vs. Patriots …”
No. 5. When Ronald Reagan was president, and Democrats had won the White House in just one of the last four elections, Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder said:
“There are three things the Democrats must do to win the White House. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
While funny, this is a rather defeatist comment. But it comes in handy in lightening the mood of meetings when none of your options seems to be capable of solving the problem. Ironically, if he substituted “Republicans” for “Democrats,” John Boehner could start using it.
No. 6. Like Casablanca, the five Dirty Harry movies are a gold mine of great lines. How many times in our youth did we ask each other, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” or growl, “Make my day.” One of my favorites, however, is a little known riposte from the second of the quintet, Magnum Force. Hal Holbrook, of all unexpected people, played the villain, about whom Harry wisely said:
“A man’s got to know his limitations.”
This comes in especially handy when it comes to identifying the shortcomings of co-workers. People may have forgotten Dr. Laurence Peter and the Peter Principle (“People rise to their level of competence and then get promoted one step further”), but no one will ever forget Dirty Harry.
No. 7. Here’s one that’s especially for baby boomers, ironically because it comes not only from a movie made when we were much younger, but a movie that’s just uncool to quote. Nonetheless, I love Airport (I always wondered why “Speaking of headcounts, have you counted yours lately?” never caught on). Pilot Vernon Demarest enlists the help of stowaway Ada Quonsett to foil a planned bombing. When he asked her if she frightened easily, she sagely replied:
“When you get older, there isn’t a lot left to be frightened of.”
I find myself agreeing with this sentiment more and more. Feel free to use this anytime you want – royalty-free.