Last night, Chris Cuomo found himself involved in what we in New York call “jawing.” Cuomo had some guy, who appeared to be a troublemaking jerk, call him “Fredo,” while the CNN host was out with his family. Cuomo took umbrage, got in the guy’s face, and started jawing, offended at having been called the weak brother in “The Godfather.”
Now, before I go on, a few things. First, by the standards of New York City jawing, Cuomo did pretty well. This was well above a passable performance. It hit a lot of the key themes of jawing, and he amped up the Queens accent. It was actually pretty good.
But before we break down the tape, for those who don’t live in New York, here’s a little primer on how New Yorkers typically jaw. Now, I grew up in Philadelphia, where jawing is totally different. In Philly, if two grown men scream curses at each other nose to nose, at least one of them usually throws a punch within 30 seconds. Philly is basically covered in sawdust, and everyone is smoking.
Not so in New York, and this was a steep learning curve for me that resulted in a few injuries on occasion. In New York, jawing can go on almost indefinitely without any pugilism. It’s honestly remarkable.
A Classic New York Dance
This one time, I’m walking to the bodega to get a sandwich in Bay Ridge, and these two guys are jawing over a parking space. “You were a f-ckin’ block away,” says the one guy. “I was right here, signal on, and you know it, you piece of sh-t.” I watch for about two minutes, and by the time I leave, they’ve moved on to criticisms of each other’s mothers’ sexual proclivities.
So I walk like four blocks to the bodega. I order an Italian on a roll, they make it — guy in front of me is paying in nickels — so I get the sandwich and start walking back. I take a bite, and there is mayonnaise on my Italian on a roll, so I storm back into the store. I say, “I told you three freakin’ times, no mayonnaise. I hate mayonnaise. It’s disgusting.” Apparently, he hadn’t heard me, though why he thought mayo belonged on an Italian in the first place, I don’t know, but whatever.
When I walked back by, the two guys had moved on to “Go ahead, call the f-ckin’ cops, you @#@$# who @#$#@%’s with @#@$ and your sister! Yeah, I said it! What are you gonna do?” part of the jawing. A little bored and in possession of a tasty Italian, I moved along. I’m sure they worked it out. So, that is typical, average jawing.
This Is How It’s Done
Now, in recent years, the gold standard for public-figure jawing is Michael Grimm’s 2016 verbal assault on a New York One reporter who asked him about his 20 federal indictments in the capitol rotunda. Grimm came right back into frame, into his face, and threatened to throw him off the balcony if he ever did it again. He then threatened to “break him like a boy.” You can see it here:
So what makes this so effective? A few things. First, and this might be Philly bias, but it’s brief. It’s a first-round knock out that leaves the innocent reporter, who totally didn’t deserve it, stunned and barely responsive. Second, the threat of physical violence is implicit in every moment — it’s all offense. And finally, Grimm’s tone has a frightening, reserved quality that suggests things really could get much worse very fast.
Now let’s look at Cuomo’s. The incident comes in at a disappointingly long 1 minute and 47 seconds.
A man in NY yesterday approached CNN's Chris Cuomo and called him "Fredo"
Cuomo: "You're going to have a problem"
Man: "What are you going to do about it?"
Cuomo: "I'll fuckin ruin your shit. I'll fucking throw you down these stairs"
Credit: "THAT'S THE POINT with Brandon" pic.twitter.com/4iWwzaSQpF
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) August 13, 2019
All In The Timing
I don’t think the first 30 seconds are strong for Cuomo or his opponent. Cuomo tries to make an appeal to reason, and this is a big subject of dispute regarding jawing. Cuomo is explaining why “Fredo” is offensive. If you’re explaining, you’re losing. “You f-ckin’ know what you did,” is a stronger choice. But Cuomo did repeatedly use the F-word to great effect.
At about 25 seconds, things get interesting. The troublemaker comments snarkily, and Cuomo unloads the first physical threat. It’s a classic combination. “If you wanna play, then we’ll f-ckin’ play.” This impressed me; some guys would have gone with, “You wanna dance?” but, “You wanna play?” is entirely acceptable.
The guy starts backing down, saying he doesn’t want a problem. You get the sense he maybe bit off more than he could chew. Cuomo fires, “You’re gonna have a big f-ckin’ problem.” Quick, smart, it’s the kind of repartee that appeals to the judges. He’s in total control.
Cuomo’s Solid Debut
Over the next 25 seconds, Cuomo just owns him — tells him to own what he said, puts his hand in his face, to which the guy does nothing. Eventually, the guy takes off his sunglasses, which is essentially surrender. Seeing that weakness, Cuomo goes full Grimm and threatens to throw the guy “down these f-ckin’ stairs.” Had Cuomo walked away right then, it would have been nearly perfect jawing.
Unfortunately, Cuomo didn’t figure this out. He keeps jawing, admits he’s not throwing the guy down the stairs because he doesn’t want to get sued (which is like a million-point penalty). And then the fight gets broken up.
As I said at the top, this was solid, he was in control for the whole jaw, and he didn’t lose it completely like Alec Baldwin does. But sometimes less is more. Next time, look for Cuomo to be more succinct, less accommodating — and maybe, just maybe, be the first to throw hands. All in all, though, solid debut.