Some of my favorite early memories of “quality time” with my dad and my sister are us watching movies together. This was before my sister and I hit our teen years, so we watched the requisite Disney and children’s movies, but my dad also introduced us to the classics: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and James Bond all made appearances (Jaws and his steel teeth gave me nightmares for weeks, so 007 wasn’t nearly as common). But my favorites were the comedies. Bringing Up Baby, Cat Balou, and The Court Jester were regulars on our Blockbuster trips. And even though Cary Grant in a frilly bathrobe yelling “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” was (and still is) a favorite, nothing compares to our love for the Marx brothers.
Looking back, it seems odd that Groucho was more relevant to me than Billy Madison, especially when I was the only one in my third-grade class who laughed when our teacher called himself Rufus T. Firefly as a joke. But there was, and is, something about the Marx brothers’ brand of comedy that will always make me giggle uncontrollably. I think it’s because they were the masters of the entire comedy spectrum and it was incredibly smart comedy. Each brother (I’m only including Groucho, Harpo, and Chico in this since Zeppo only appeared as the straight man and wasn’t even that good at it) had their own comedic domain, yet still managed to be multi-faceted.
Harpo handled the slap-stick side, intentionally exaggerated since he never spoke. I actually spent a good part of my childhood thinking that he was a mute in real life. But just when you thought “Enough with the horn!” Harpo sat down at his harp. He played with concentration, dexterity, and passion, and made sure to throw in a few goofy facial expressions to show us he was genuinely having fun. And then, inevitably, someone would throw spaghetti on him or something and the scene would erupt into chaos.
Chico fell somewhere in between Harpo’s physicality and Groucho’s vitriolic sarcasm. He usually played Harpo’s partner in crime, but was always quick to throw anyone under the bus if it suited his own purpose: [To Harpo] “I’d kill you for money. Ha ha ha, no. You’re my friend. I’d kill you for nothing.” Chico also had the quips that were simultaneously brilliant and made him the patsy: Groucho: “Don’t worry, that’s in every contract. That’s why they call it the Sanity Claus.” Chico: “Ha ha ha, you can’t fool me! There ain’t no Santy Claus!” Being from Dallas, Texas myself, my favorite Chico quote will always be Chico’s response to the argument about what the cost of war would do to dollars and taxes: “Hey that’s where my uncle lives! Dollahs, Taxes!” Chico was also grouped with Harpo because he played the piano in many of the movies.
And then there was Groucho. Oh, Groucho. The iconic figurehead of the group stood apart not only because he didn’t play an instrument, but also because his brand of humor was to insult people. I think analyzing his great caustic one-liners individually would subvert rather than support their genius, so I’ll just list a few of my favorites:
“When I invite a woman to dinner I expect her to look at my face. That’s the price she has to pay.”
“How would you like to feel the way she looks?”
“I never forget a face, but in your case I’d be glad to make an exception.”
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”
“You’re a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you’re out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are.”
“Maybe you can suggest something. As a matter of fact, you do suggest something. To me you suggest a baboon.”
And my all-time favorite:
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with [my husband] until the very end.
Groucho: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Groucho: Oh I see. Then it was murder!
I think the credit to the Marx brothers being a) so freakin’ funny, and b) still funny over 80 years after their first movie was made should be attributed to their dimensionality and intelligence (if you doubt this, go read Groucho’s quotes again). They embody the adage Woody Allen wrote (spoken by Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors): “If it bends it’s funny, if it breaks, it isn’t.” They take ordinary situations, like going to the opera (A Night at the Opera), or serious situations, like starting a war (Duck Soup), and undermine them just enough that they become distorted, but not grotesque or offensive.
The straight-playing men (and women) do their job and bolster the humor. Groucho can literally accuse a woman of murder, but she is so oblivious and stuffy that it goes completely over her head. But we hear it and see it, so it becomes an inside joke between the brothers and the audience.
Unlike other well-known and recent Jewish figures in comedy, the Marx brothers did not use their religion as fodder for their routines. Case in point: Would Adam Sandler or Mel Brooks be as well known without The Hanukkah Song, or the Schwartz? Probably, but that’s not the point. Maybe it’s a question of the tone of the times: the Marx brothers’ movies ranged from 1929 through World War II. But to me that just makes them more admirable, that they didn’t have to rely on the Jewish shtick to be hysterical, not mention ridiculously successful. All in all, Adam Sandler can use his baby-voice, Lewis Black can yell at you, and Mel Brooks can make fart jokes, but to me the Marx brothers are the pinnacle of Jews in comedy.
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