Seen as Talmadic reference for show biz
AMONG THE COGNOSCENTI, VARIETY RULED THE ARGOT
By Jack Zink, Theater Writer, Florida Sun-Sentinal
October 9 2005 – Variety, the entertainment trade journal known as the Bible of Show Business, turns 100 on Dec. 16.
Coast exex are readying a centennial edition due out next week, with a H’w’d celeb gala planned Dec. 2. Meanwhile, former Muggs huddled at a private reunion hosted by the original regime Sept. 24 at Sardi’s Restaurant in Gotham, closer to the site of the rag’s 1905 preem. A complete account of the confab is posted on the infopike at Simesite.net.
If you understood any of that, congratulations. For most of its history, Variety has been the essential Talmudic reference for showbiz cognoscenti on pop culture, cast in a patois virtually unintelligible to nonplayers. Yet, like other religious tomes, its pronouncements seeped into the mainstream.
For instance, how long has it been since you used “movie” in a sentence? Supposedly coined by a Variety Mugg (more about that later) in the 1920s, it was among a list of slang terms banned from the paper by 1935 because they had become conventional.
Those were the prime decades for the evolution of Variety slanguage, a streetwise, in-crowd shorthand that served much the same purpose as today’s text-messaging abbreviations. “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” is still arguably the world’s most famous headline – also from 1935.
Common but never conventional are socko, boffo and whammo – seemingly interchangeable but with nuanced definitions. According to Simesite.net, the Web address for old Muggs (chill on that for just a little longer): “Socko equals damned good, strong showing; boffo means big box office, a top winner; and whammo is the ultimate, big beyond expectations, a mammoth hit.”
Some terms are no longer in vogue at today’s Variety, which is why founder Sime Silverman’s grandson Syd recently had to redefine a Mugg (always with two “g’s” in Variety) for The New York Times, which misspelled it anyway: “A mug sic was a rough-and-tumble guy who went to all the performances and saw everything and reported on everything going on in the business.”
It stems from an argot coined by carnival and circus gypsies, later mingled with vaudevillians’ backstage lingo and raised to the level of journalism by Sime and his maverick newshounds.
Other examples range from the vintage “ankle” (to quit or be fired) to “zitcom” (TV comedies for teen audiences). Payola and striptease, once jargon, are now common usage.
A famous story quotes George Bernard Shaw, circa 1938, saying, “I thought I knew the English language until one day I saw Variety in a friend’s home. Upon my soul, I didn’t understand a word of it. I immediately subscribed.”
>Today, slanguage is explained on both the Mugg site Simesite.net and the slick corporate Variety.com. But back in 1977, when I became a Variety correspondent, there was no dictionary to help me parse the subtleties. In any event, a courteous style memo to us eager Mugg wannabes explained that, to Variety’s expanding foreign readership for whom English was a second language, it was counterproductive for us to enforce a third.
Showbiz and journalism were changing, too. In 1987, publishing giant Cahners (now Reed Business Information) offered to buy Variety and its Los Angeles-based sister Daily Variety from the Silverman dynasty, a move that promised to propel the family biz into showbiz’ new electronic epoch.
That’s what happened, but in a shattering makeover that ended the era of the Mugg and left scars that will die only with the people who wear them.
Syd’s brief remarks at last month’s Sardi’s reunion thanked the former, worldwide newspaper family members for their roles in the publication’s history, from day one “to the corporate changeover.”
Some Muggs extended the reunion to watering holes all weekend, where I prodded former Daily publisher Michael Silverman about the status of us “stringers.” With a nod from his father, Syd, he announced that stringers counted as Muggs, too.
Anachronism or not, it’s a pleasure to finally wear the label.