The Grammarphobia Blog

Movie ad-libs: New and improv

Q: In Pat’s May 11 discussion on WNYC of movie ad-libs, she said the lines “I’m walkin’ here!” and “You talkin’ to me?” were improvised. They may not have been scripted, but they weren’t “improvised.” They’re everyday street talk in WNYC.

A: By “improvised,” Pat meant unscripted—in other words, lines that either deviated from the script or that actors were directed to supply on the spot, impromptu.

This is a legitimate use of the verb “improvise,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says can mean “to utter or perform extempore.”

An improvised or ad-libbed line is one supplied by the actor on the spot. It’s not necessarily original and never-before heard.

An ad-lib CAN be original, though, as with Bill Murray’s line in Ghostbusters (1984): “All right, this chick is toast.”

That line was not only improvised (that is, it deviated from the script), but was the first recorded example of this usage, according to the OED.

As we wrote on the blog last month, what Murray apparently invented was the use of a form of the verb “be” + “toast”—as in “I’m toast,” “you’re toast,” and so on.

This has come to be a common expression when stated in a proleptic way (that is, said of something before the fact), and it apparently originated with Bill Murray’s ad-lib.

Another ad-libbed line that Pat mentioned on the Leonard Lopate Show seems to have been original too. It’s Roy Scheider’s remark in Jaws (1980): “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

As one WNYC listener called in to say, Scheider’s expression has become a popular catch-phrase (sometimes as “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”) for people who find themselves in over their heads.

However, most of the ad-libs that came up during the show were not original material. Two, in fact, were deliberate allusions to earlier sources.

For example, there’s Jack Nicholson’s unscripted line in The Shining (1980): “Heeere’s Johnny!”

Nicholson improvised the line on the spot, but it wasn’t original. It was a deliberate allusion to Ed McMahon’s nightly introductions of Johnny Carson.

Another example is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): “I need a vacation.”

It was a deviation from the script, done on the spot as a joke. It was a line Schwarzenegger had delivered the year before in Kindergarten Cop.

Then there’s the “You talkin’ to me?” speech ad-libbed by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976). As De Niro himself has said, the line, though improvised, wasn’t original with him.

Various sources have said he got it from a stage line delivered by either Bruce Springsteen or a stand-up comic. But, as you say, it was probably popular street talk long before that.

And we agree with you that pedestrians had probably said “I’m walkin’ here!” in self-defense long before Dustin Hoffman used the line in Midnight Cowboy (1969).

We can’t say for sure that it was Hoffman’s ad-lib, however, since Hoffman and the producer, Jerome Hellman, tell different stories.

There’s similar disagreement about a line that brought the house down in When Harry Met Sally (1989): “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Of course, actors have been ad-libbing since talkies were invented.

In the very first feature-length film with synchronized speech, The Jazz Singer (1927), Al Jolson says, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

It’s the first speech in the movie. And while it was impromptu (that is, unscripted), he had used similar lines before on stage.

The term “ad-lib” comes from the Latin phrase ad libitum (at one’s pleasure). Originally used as an adverb, the full phrase first appeared in English in 1610 and the abbreviation in 1811.

Through the 19th century, the term in both long and short forms was often used in music, as the opposite of “obbligato” (that is, obligatory).

But it was used in general ways, too, as in “to marry wives ad libitum,” a line from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1848 novel Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings.

The use of “ad-lib” as a verb, an adjective, and a noun, however, was a 20th-century American show-biz invention.

Here are a couple of early examples, courtesy of the OED:

“ ‘Easy money, friends,’ Miss Hoag would ad lib. to the line-up outside her railing” (from Fannie Hurst’s short-story collection Humoresque, 1919).

“ ‘Can the ad lib!’ which means, politely, ‘Will you be good enough to hush!’ ” (from a 1925 article in the journal American Speech about stage slang.)

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