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Bill Sutton

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Carrying a Big Shtick

Variant(s): also shtik /'shtik/
Function: noun
Etymology: Yiddish shtik pranks, literally, piece, from Middle High German stücke, from Old High German stucki; akin to Old English stycce piece, Old High German stoc stick

1 : a show-business routine, gimmick, or gag

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Yes, I know, starting out with a definition is fairly cliche. The word shtick is so cool, though, that I just couldn't resist the temptation.

What we are concerned with here is a bit narrower definition for shtick as used in filk and the filk community. For the purposes of this discussion, let's define it as any humorous activity taking place during the presentation of a song that has something to do with the song. Here are some examples:

  • "Pies" by Phil Allcock: The shtick here is a parody of the sign language done by Technical Difficulties when singing "Lies" (by Stan Rogers. Of which "Pies" is a parody. See how convoluted this is?)
  • " When I Was a Boy" by Frank Hayes as sung by Steve Macdonald: The shtick here is not really physical. It's mostly a "Statler and Waldorf" style heckling, with elements of the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch's one-downsmanship involved.
  • " The Unicorn Song" by Shel Silverstein as sung at any 'Irish' bar: Audience participation shtick at its most ... er ... obvious. The "Green Alligator" dance is handed down from one drunken bar patron to another in the finest folk dance style. For those of you who stay out of those kind of places, the same shtick (the unenlightened call it "choreography") is done when the song is sung for children.
  • " Thais" by Newman Levy as sung by Juanita Coulson: The shtick to this involves one person playing the monk Athanael and the other playing the courtesan Thais, using nothing but the table covers provided in the filk room!
  • Most of "The Totally Tasteless and Tacky Revue" performed at ConChord: Do I really have to spell it out for you? Costumes, dances, being rude, crude, and socially unacceptable - all have been part of filk shtick for many years.
  • " Never Set the Cat On Fire" by Frank Hayes: In some areas of the world this has developed a set of movements done by the audience to the chorus.

With any luck, you will have run into one or more of these and so will have a picture in your head of what I'm talking about.

Take note that serious activity during a song (the sign language done to "Lies," for example) is not called shtick. This activity is not meant to crack up the audience or the performer and therefore will (hopefully) not be disruptive to the performance. Shtick, by its very nature, is extremely disruptive.

Let's go a little deeper into the analysis of shtick and put together some categories. I tend to think of shtick in a combination of the following ways:

  • Number How many are involved and who are they? Is the entire audience involved, or only the singer, or only a few people other than the singer?
  • Prearrangement Is the shtick planned? Is it traditional and does everyone know (or get taught) how to do it? Is it a spontaneous and improvised reaction to a song in the midst of the filk?
  • Surprise Who knows that this is going to happen? Does the singer know? Does the audience know?
  • Situation Is this in the middle of a filk circle? Is it during a concert? Is it a bunch of people sitting together in a room?

As you might guess, the appropriateness of doing shtick is heavily dependent on the combination of these categories. It is this etiquette that I want to focus on for the rest of this week's column. Just like any other activity that we want to have associated with filk, we need to be sure we are taking full account of others' feelings when launching into shtick for a song.

The easiest perspective is when you yourself are the singer. You can choose to do a song that has a traditional shtick associated with it and enlist the help of others in the room to work with you on it. If you know the song has shtick associated with it and you do not want anyone to participate (for instance, you have a different arrangement or a new shtick you want to try) then be sure to let everyone know. That way they won't unknowingly step on your toes.

Where real judgement comes into play is when someone else is doing a song and you (singular or plural) want to do some shtick. What is the line between "everyone having a good time" and "stealing the limelight from the performer"?

Full audience shtick is usually OK. If the song is accepted to have a "dance part", then we hope that the singer knows it exists and in fact may have chosen the song specifically to allow everyone to participate in just this way. If the singer begins to look shell-shocked or unnerved, it may be a good idea to tone the shtick down a bit.

Solo or small group shtick takes much more care to be sure that all involved enjoy the situation. If it is an established shtick (say, " Have Some Madeira, M'dear") don't try to jump into a group already performing it unless it is clear that volunteers and expansion are wanted. If you are planning the performance, be sure you know the song and how the shtick goes. Rehearse it (with your group if possible) just as carefully as you would rehearse a song.

I recommend strongly that you do not try to surprise a performer with shtick unless you know the performer well and have worked with him or her before. It would be very sad to come across as a scene-stealing jackass or to destroy the confidence of a singer instead of creating a moment everyone can enjoy. If you have a shtick you simply must do, talk to the target performers about it beforehand and give the option of refusal - after all, it is their performance you will be disrupting.

Above all else, remember that shtick should be an accompaniment to the performance, not the primary focus of the performance. There are a very few songs that have become known over the years for the shtick rather than the song, but this takes time and the cumulative input of many people before it happens.

Next week: Some tips on choosing and doing (or not doing) shtick

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Bill Sutton has been active in performing his own and others' music in public for fun and profit ... well, fun anyway ... for over 25 years. His column appears regularly as part of The Dandelion Report.

Copyright ©2001 Bill Sutton. All rights reserved.