How Steve Martin Came Up With One Of The Jerk's Best Quotes

Over the years, there have been countless ways through clever sayings to let someone know that they're stupid. "If dumb was dirt, you would be an acre" is a personal favorite. The origins of these sayings usually date back to frontier humor or military jokes to keep morale up among the troops. Reference books like "Heavens to Betsy!" by Charles Earle Funk have been written to track down the history of so many strange expressions, from "bat out of hell" to "hold your horses." Where did the phrase "kit and caboodle" come from, and who in their right mind would ever use it in public?

A lot of these sayings are vulgar put-downs, but they are admittedly quite funny. So-and-so "doesn't know whether to scratch his watch or wind his ass," is a solid diss for example, which most likely comes from English conductor Sir Henry Wood's expression, "he doesn't know his brass from his woodwind". Another such saying, "You don't know s*** from Shinola," originated during WWII when soldiers would berate a country bumpkin fresh off the boat.

Those soldiers had no idea that their shoe shine joke would wind up being one of the funniest moments in Steve Martin's breakout comedy "The Jerk," the comedy classic that launched Martin's massive movie career. In a 2019 oral history of "The Jerk" published by Consequence, director and legendary comedian Carl Reiner remembered using the old 1940s saying to craft a hilarious scene. "Steve was a genius waiting to be recognized as a performer," Reiner remembers. "He and I used to travel together, to go to the set every day, and, one day, we found a piece of gold."

Finding the joke on the way to work together

Before Navin R. Johnson, Martin's character in "The Jerk," leaves his childhood home, his father (Richard Ward) teaches him the difference between "s***" and "Shinola." It's a weirdly heartwarming scene that also establishes the fact that Navin is completely clueless. Reiner describes the scene as such:

"It was the day his father was going to send him out into the world to find his fortune, but he wasn't sure he was ready. And this is what we found on the way to work that day. He's walking and he says to his son, 'You stepped in sh*t.' 'What'd I do?' 'You stepped in s***. You see that on your heel?' 'Yeah.' 'That's s***.' And there was a phrase in those days, 'You don't know s*** from Shinola.'"

Even audiences back in 1979 when "The Jerk" came out probably weren't too familiar with the Shinola shoe polish company, so the scene shows Ward prominently displaying the product to make the gag work a little better. As a result, the scene almost plays like a bizarre example of product placement. 

Reiner continued:

"So, [Richard] takes a little box out of his pocket and says, 'And this, my son, is Shinola. What's that on the floor?' 'That's s***.' 'And what's this?' 'Shinola.' 'That's right. You now know s*** from Shinola. You're ready to go out into the world.'"

Realistically, his father and his entire family don't exactly have a lot of faith that Navin is going to light the world on fire. The Shinola scene gives Navin just enough confidence to think that maybe he actually is ready to venture out. If you've seen "The Jerk," he's really not. 

Shinola was the start of a beautiful relationship

The flurry of jokes in "The Jerk" is almost overwhelming to an audience that isn't used to that level of speed and regularity. Together, Martin and Reiner were secretly using a sophisticated level of comedy to tell a story about a lovable fool who recalled some of the magic of Charlie Chaplin's The Tramp. The combination was so successful, Martin and Reiner continued to collaborate together. 

Reiner explained the chemistry the two had together in Consequence's Oral History, saying "Once we did this film together, we did three after that, so you realize we were on the same page every day and we understood each other and it just flew out of us." An argument could be made that the Reiner era of Steve Martin's career produced the funniest movies the comedian ever made. After "The Jerk," they did "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," "The Man With Two Brains," and "All of Me" together. That's a pretty legendary run. 

Martin was enjoying a rock-star level of fame by the time "The Jerk" arrived in theaters. Perhaps his working relationship with Reiner became another kind of father-and-son connection that allowed him to leave the insanity of stand-up behind. In Martin's book "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life," the battered comedian seemed ready to jump into movies full-time once the 1980s came around. "The comedian's slang for a successful show is 'I murdered them,' which I'm sure came about because you finally realize that the audience is capable of murdering you."