“I watch your stick on TV,” a woman said to me as I exited the supermarket.
I’m pretty sure she meant shtick, a Yiddish word that in English means … well it’s a way of saying … hmmm. Yiddish words can’t be translated easily. As a kid I was always dropping things. My mother called me a klutz. That’s not the same as a clumsy person. Big difference.
Leo Rosten, author of the “Joys of Yiddish,” defines shtick this way: “A contrived piece of ‘business’ by an actor or actress … to steal attention and establish a guise.”
Looking back, I modeled my TV persona after the great David Letterman. I loved it when Dave played the straight man in a comedy bit. He knew — and you knew (and he knew you knew) — that it was all a gag. After 35 years and 5,000 TV segments, there were always a few folks who didn’t know it was shtick.
At Hoosier Park in Anderson many years ago, I asked a jockey to stand on a chair and allow me to interview him as ”Otto, the world’s tallest jockey.” The camera only revealed us above the waist. The jockey played it totally straight, even lamenting his poor basketball skills in high school.
The photographer never revealed the chair because it was so obviously a gag. Turns out the horse’s owner was watching and had never met Otto — or seen me on TV. So, she didn’t know I did shtick. She called Hoosier Park in a panic, concerned that her horse would be carrying a 6-foot-3 rider. How good an actor was Otto? He ended up playing the jockey in the movie “Secretariat.”
The Sybaris hotel is a place for lovers, complete with hot tubs, mirrors and some contrivances I don’t know the names of. When I interviewed the owner in one of the rooms, behind us in bed were friends I had asked to be part of the show. There was no hanky-panky going on, but they kept peeking out from under the covers.
Well, the next day, scores of people told me that I had inadvertently gone into an occupied room. Seriously?
“Oh, young man, trust me, you really don’t want to wake up my husband.”
That’s what Dick the Bruiser’s wife said to me when I knocked on their door at 5:30 in the morning almost 25 years ago. Thirty minutes later, Bruiser appeared armed with a baseball bat. After I delivered a few forearm slams to his massive body, he put me in a headlock and slammed my noggin into the Weber grill. Then he picked me up and threw me in the swimming pool.
Prearranged? Naturally. But, the next day my aching body didn’t know the difference. Oy, did it hurt.
Finally, last year on a blustery November morning, I was interviewing people just prior to the beginning of the Monumental Marathon downtown. A man approached me in sweats and a ski mask. “Are you running?” I asked the man.
“No, I’m not,” he said adamantly. “I am not going to run. And you’re the first reporter I’ve told.”
Then he took off his ski mask. It was Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard.