It appears to derive from mafialike intimidating expressions whose earliest known usages date back at least to the ’20s:
- Gangster-type intimidation repeated often in the movies is: “Nice place you got here. Be a shame if anything happened to it.” (Or, “Nice place you got here. It would be a pity if anything happened to it.”) The message is that the speaker can make life difficult for the listener if the listener doesn’t go along with the program (such as paying extortion money).
- The origin of the phrase is uncertain, but it’s cited at least once in the 1920s and regularly since the 1960s. The phrase is often associated with New York City.
- The phrase became newly popular in 2009 with the presidency of Barack Obama, who some accused of using “Chicago-style” thug tactics to win support for his programs.
Early usage example:
- 9 August 1926, Ludington (MI) Daily News, “Detroit Bandits Use Psychology in Bank Robbery. Pick Cashier Up on Street and Bring Him to Verge of Hysteria by Questions,” pg. 1, col. 7:
- “How are your children now? You think a lot of them, don’t you? You have a nice little family, haven’t you? Wouldn’t it be a pity if anything happened to break it up?”
Shame if something happened from “tvtropes.org”:
- This is a common stock phrase used by thugs (usually The Mafia) in extortion rackets. “You’ve got a nice (noun) here. It’d be a shame if anything were to… happen to it.”
- Often parodied: the Big Bad will threaten the hero with some minor inconvenience, and it will be treated with the same seriousness as a death threat, if not more seriously.
- In linguistics, this sort of threat is known as a Gricean Implicature. Note that another even subtler way to make this kind of threat is to assert hope that some situation will proceed normally as though there were some reason for it not to: “Cute kid you got there. I hope she’ll grow up to have kids of her own and live to see a ripe old age.”
The mob threatens the army: it would be a shame if something happened ..
(Stock film of the amy. Tanks rolling, troops moving forward etc. Stirring military music.)
Voice Over: In 1943, a group of British Army Officers working deep behind enemy lines, carried out one of the most dangerous and heroic raids in the history of warfare. But that’s as maybe. And now . . .
(Superimposed Caption on Screen : ‘AND NOW . . . UNOCCUPIED BRITAIN I970′ Cut to colonel’s office. Colonel is seated at desk.)
Colonel: (Graham Chapman) Come in, what do you want?
(Private Watkins enters and salutes.)
Watkins: (Eric Idle) I’d like to leave the army please, sir.
Colonel: Good heavens man, why?
Watkins: It’s dangerous.
Watkins: There are people with guns out there, sir.
Watkins: Real guns, sir. Not toy ones, sir. Proper ones, sir. They’ve all got ’em. All of ’em, sir. And some of ’em have got tanks.
Colonel: Watkins, they are on our side.
Watkins: And grenades, sir. And machine guns, sir. So I’d like to leave, sir, before I get killed, please.
Colonel: Watkins, you’ve only been in the army a day.
Watkins: I know sir but people get killed, properly dead sir, no barely cross fingers sir. A bloke was telling me, if you’re in the army and there’s a war you have to go and fight.
Colonel: That’s true.
Watkins: Well I mean, blimey, I mean if it was a big war somebody could be hurt.
Colonel: Watkins why did you join the army?
Watkins: For the water-skiing and for the travel, sir. And not for the killing, sir. I asked them to put it on my form, sir – no killing.
Colonel: Watkins are you a pacifist?
Watkins: No sir, I’m not a pacifist, sir. I’m a coward.
Colonel: That’s a very silly line. Sit down.
Watkins: Yes sir. Silly, sir. (sits in corner)
Colonel: Awfully bad.
(Knock at the door, sergeant enters, and salutes.)
Sergeant: (John Cleese) Two civilian gentlemen to see you sir!
Colonel: Show them in please, sergeant.
Sergeant: Mr Dino Vercotti and Mr Luigi Vercotti.
(The Vercotti brothers enter. They wear Mafia suits and dark glasses.)
Dino: (Terry Jones) Good morning, Colonel.
Colonel: Good morning gentlemen. Now what can I do for you.
Luigi: (Michael Palin) (looking round office casually) You’ve… you’ve got a nice army base here, Colonel.
Luigi: We wouldn’t want anything to happen to it.
Dino: No, what my brother means is it would be a shame if… (he knocks something off mantel)
Dino: Oh sorry, Colonel.
Colonel: Well don’t worry about that. But please do sit down.
Luigi: No, we prefer to stand, thank you, Colonel.
Colonel: All right. All right. But what do you want?
Dino: What do we want, ha ha ha.
Luigi: Ha ha ha, very good, Colonel.
Dino: The Colonel’s a joker, Luigi.
Luigi: Explain it to the Colonel, Dino.
Dino: How many tanks you got, Colonel?
Colonel: About five hundred altogether.
Luigi: Five hundred, eh?
Dino: You ought to be careful, Co1onel.
Colonel: We are careful, extremely careful.
Dino: ‘Cos things break, don’t they?
Luigi: Well everything breaks, don’t it Colonel. (he breaks something on desk) Oh dear.
Dino: Oh see my brother’s clumsy Colonel, and when he gets unhappy he breaks things. Like say, he don’t feel the army’s playing fair by him, he may start breaking things, Colonel.
Colonel: What is all this about?
Luigi: How many men you got here, Colonel?
Colonel: Oh, er… seven thousand infantry, six hundred artillery, and er, two divisions of paratroops.
Luigi: Paratroops, Dino.
Dino: Be a shame if someone was to set fire to them.
Colonel: Set fire to them?
Luigi: Fires happen, Colonel.
Dino: Things burn.
Colonel: Look, what is all this about?
Dino: My brother and I have got a little proposition for you Colonel.
Luigi: Could save you a lot of bother.
Dino: I mean you’re doing all right here aren’t you, Colonel?
Luigi: Well suppose some of your tanks was to get broken and troops started getting lost, er, fights started breaking out during general inspection, like.
Dino: It wouldn’t be good for business would it, Colonel?
Colonel: Are you threatening me?
Dino: Oh, no, no, no.
Luigi: Whatever made you think that, Colonel?
Dino: The Colonel doesn’t think we’re nice people, Luigi.
Luigi: We’re your buddies, Colonel.
Dino: We want to look after you.
Colonel: Look after me?
Luigi: We can guarantee you that not a single armoured division will get done over for fifteen bob a week.
Colonel: No, no, no.
Luigi: Twelve and six.
Colonel: No, no, no.
Luigi: Eight and six… five bob.
Colonel: No, no this is silly.
Dino: What’s silly?
Colonel: No, the whole premise is silly and it’s very badly written. I’m the senior officer here and I haven’t had a funny line yet. So I’m stopping it.
Dino: You can’t do that!
Colonel: I’ve done it. The sketch is over.
Watkins: I want to leave the army please sir, it’s dangerous.
Colonel: Look, I stopped your sketch five minutes ago. So get out of shot. Right director! Close up. Zoom in on me. (camera zooms in) That’s better.
Luigi: (off screen) It’s only ‘cos you couldn’t think of a punch line.
Colonel: Not true, not true. It’s time for the cartoon. Cue telecine, ten, nine, eight…
(Cut to telecine countdown.)
Dino: (off screen) The general public’s not going to understand this, are they?
Colonel: (off screen) Shut up you eyeties!