The End of Variety Speak

The news broke today that Variety will be going behind a pay wall, This will not affect me (and isn’t that the important thing?) since I haven’t been linking to them for a while. It will, however, deal another blow to the tradition of “Variety Speak,” and future generations are unlikely to know what “skein” means.

In a way, the fact that they were unwilling to give up on that lingo was a sign of Variety’s inability to adjust to the changing times. The stylized parody of “insider” language made sense in a time when there was actually such a thing as a trade paper — news for people involved in making and selling entertainment. Now “insider” entertainment news is accessible to people who are not insiders. (For example, box-office returns used to be mostly of interest to insiders. Now it’s something every movie fan knows about.) There are many words that used to be insider slang and are now common knowledge (like “showrunner”). So Variety-Speak, invented in a world where show business really did have its own secret language, doesn’t make a lot of sense any more, even as a joke.

Still, everyone kind of loved the idea that a publication used weird, outdated words and abbreviations for everything. Many songs and comedy routines were built around it. The best song about Variety was written and performed by the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green in the ’30s. I can’t find a recording (they did record it as part of a ’50s nightclub show), but here are some sample lyrics:

You open a picture out of town
The reviews come in, all thumbs down
You open five more but none of them clicks
Variety says: “Hix Nix Six Pix.”

Now you open a show in Buffalo
You give out passes but business is slow
You give out more passes til it’s full enough
Variety says: “Buff On Cuff.”

You open an opera at a popular price
But popular price does not suffice
The opera decides to close up shop
Variety says: “Pop Op Flop.”

In the absence of a recording of that song, here’s the most famous made-for-TV song on the subject:


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