October 02, 2016

How Groucho Marx Invented Modern Comedy


Born this day October 2nd - 1890.

The Marx Brothers were a family comedy act that was successful in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in motion pictures from 1905 to 1949. Five of the Marx Brothers' thirteen feature films were selected by the American Film Institute (AFI) as among the top 100 comedy films, with two of them (Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera) in the top twelve. The brothers were included in AFI's 100 Years...100 Stars list of the 25 greatest male stars of Classic Hollywood cinema, the only performers to be inducted collectively.

The group are almost universally known today by their stage names: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo Marx. The core of the act was the three elder brothers: Chico, Harpo, and Groucho. Each developed a highly distinctive stage persona.

Harpo and Chico "more or less retired" after 1949, while Groucho went on to begin a second career in television. The two younger brothers Gummo and Zeppo did not develop their stage characters to the same extent.


 The two eventually left the act to pursue business careers at which they were successful, as well as a large theatrical agency for a time, through which they represented their brothers and others. Gummo was not in any of the movies; Zeppo appeared in the first five films in relatively straight (non-comedic) roles. 

The performing lives of the brothers was brought about by their mother Minnie Marx, who also acted as their manager.Source.


Today's comedians are very fortunate to have such an enormous amount of inspiration from which to draw.

For example, early in the 20th century there was Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy,The Marx Brothers of course, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Bob Hope and later Abbot and Costello.

Since then there have been many, more like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson aka Mr Bean and Blackadder, Michael Crawford aka Frank Spencer and The Phantom of the Opera, Mel Brookes, and some great comediennes like Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and Cloris Leachman as well as Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley aka Patsy and Edina in AbFab.

Of course I haven't mentioned them all - I would need a whole book to do justice to all of them! 

There is one on American Comedy but all cultures have their versions. 

It would be hard to survive without humour!

Although they started as a singing quartet they evolved into a comedy act which was far more successful.In fact many of their early films were based on their comedy routines.

With the Marx Brothers it is a question of how many times you have seen a particular movie, not have you actually seen it yet!

It is wonderful to watch Harpo playing his harp and Chico playing the piano:



We are indeed fortunate to still be able to see them all in action and experience Groucho's incredible one-liners.



In 1929, the Marx Brothers hurtled onto the silver screen in The Cocoanuts and permanently changed popular culture.

For the first time, startled audiences in the US were presented with the spectacle of people conducting themselves in a social situation as if they were not in a social situation at all, but alone, in the privacy of their own homes.

Today, it’s fair to ask a question about how this shift has turned out. When comedy depends so much on the shattering of public taboos by the exposure of private behaviour, where does comedy go when all the taboos have been shattered?

The Marx Brothers’ explosion of private into public was a revelation. We rarely, if ever, say what we are really thinking when we are in public. If everyone did that, society would fall apart in a New York minute.

Imagine that you are an impecunious ne’er-do-well who is courting a wealthy woman. If she said to you, with wounded scepticism, “I don’t think you’d love me if I were poor,” you could well think to yourself, “I might, but I’d keep my mouth shut.” You could well think that. But no. You would never say it.

Yet that is exactly how Groucho, who finds himself in that very situation in The Cocoanuts, responds. At the same time, Harpo chases women around while honking his horn, a long stick with a rubber bulb at the bottom that he squeezes as he tears after them. And Chico mangles the English language in extravagant billows of mendacity to try to get what he wants.

These are not people who merely act on their impulses. These are people who lack a filter between their conscious and unconscious, and who refuse to stop being themselves no matter what social boundaries and prohibitions surround them.

By now the collapse of private into public is an old story. There are few, if any, human experiences that haven’t been represented in movies, on television, in popular fiction or in popular songs, or in a comic’s routines above all.

Louis C.K. has “joked” about hating children and gay people, having sexual intercourse with young girls and the atrocities of 9/11. In other words, he has obliterated the boundaries of vanity and pride that restrain most people from giving public utterance to their most private thoughts.

Amy Schumer occupies the same heedless, ego-imploding space: “What’s wrong with you that you want to be with me?” she asks her boyfriend in Trainwreck. Both comedians owe a debt to Groucho, who wrote in his legendary resignation letter: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”

Never mind that, in actuality, Groucho resigned from the club not in a funk of self-hatred but because he felt superior to the other members. There is a reason that his offhand quip has lived into posterity. It presents the shocking spectacle of a person abolishing the healthy self-respect and self-interest that, in the aggregate, hold a society together.

The Marx Brothers excelled at destroying their integrity as people, and from that point on, comedy began to race past the simple act of making people laugh.


Once supposedly funny movies depicted a bunch of actors burning books, as the Marxes do in Horse Feathers, humiliating and finally cuckolding a harmless lemonade vendor, as they do in Duck Soup, or impersonating a doctor and treating a kind, elderly and trusting dowager with a horse-pill, as Groucho does in A Day at the Races, a Pandora’s box of human darkness sprang open. Comedy got set on a path toward the destination it has reached today, where the simple act of saying the publicly unsayable has become more important than the well-constructed joke or the elaborate comic routine.

Perhaps this dizzying, unobstructed freedom is why so many comedians now strive harder and harder for outlaw status, as if defiantly insisting that they will never belong to any club that would have them as a member.

Having shamed and defeated all the prohibitions that used to justify comedy’s existence, comedians now seem to be yearning for good old-fashioned censure and repression, simply to feel alive as comedians.

Some of this comedy is liberating, skirting a type of seriousness, even tragedy, in its forays into the dark corners of psychology and society. Yet some people understandably long for the simpler art of making people laugh.

How would Groucho respond? Probably by suggesting, in his usual mode, that they should keep their mouths shut. Saying where you draw the line in comedy could well be the only forbidden thing left to say.

Lee Siegel is the author, most recently, of Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence, just published by Yale University Press.

With many thanks to The Australian


Picture credit:AZQuotes

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