As is tradition in our house, New Year’s Eve was an occasion for Chinese takeout in paper cartons and classic comedy on TV, including a marathon of Marx Brothers movies on the TCM cable network.
Check out all the new and notable fiction for January.
The essence of comedy is misunderstanding, and a couple of hours of watching the Brothers in action brings home how brilliantly conceived and executed was their crooked, triangular group dynamic. Chico’s shaky mastery of language leaves him easily misled by the hyperverbal Groucho, but he shares a rapport with Harpo. In turn, Harpo—mute but expressive—is locked in a tango of mutual incomprehension with Groucho, to the latter's exasperation and his own delight.
Of them all, Groucho had the most demanding role. Chico and Harpo functioned largely as a closed unit, but Groucho, while serving as intermediary for the two of them, also interacted with supporting casts of dowagers, patsies, steamship stewards, military brass and straight men of all stripes.
This ability to communicate with the larger world made Groucho the only Marx to have a viable career outside the context of the Brothers’ act, and—as demonstrated in Groucho Marx And Other Short Stories And Tall Tales, a newly revised and updated collection of selected essays and letters from throughout his six-decade career, expanded with previously unpublished material—the only one whose comic persona survives translation to the printed page.
That comic persona called for Groucho to be the smartest guy in the room—he had to be a step ahead of the other characters, but not so far that the audience couldn’t keep up. His relentless patter was packed with veiled insults and innuendo for viewers to catch, but that his onscreen foils might conceivably miss.
And it all had to sound impromptu, like the overflowing id of a wiseguy who simply cannot keep his yap shut. That’s a tall order. The illusion of spontaneity requires a hell of a lot of work, and to carry it off on Groucho Marx’s level demands a level of control and precision nothing short of ferocious. On film, Groucho had plenty of help—the roster of credited writers on the Marx Brothers movies comprise a shortlist of American film comedy, including such talents as S.J. Perelman, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind—but most of the comic riffs still came from him; the role of his collaborators was mainly editorial and supervisory.
So it’s curious that the book isn’t funnier than it is. The main issue is focus. Editor Robert S. Bader weights the selection toward pieces referencing Groucho’s stage and film careers. It’s an understandable move, and autobiographical essays like the tender “Our Father and Us” or the vaudeville memories of “Why Harpo Doesn’t Talk” more than warrant their inclusion.
But Groucho also published, in magazines like Collier’s or Liberty, comic essays everyday matters—married life, the automobile, modern manners, fatherhood—that compare favorably to the work of humorist Robert Benchley. Bader gives us very little of Groucho’s work in this vein, though. Instead, many pages are given over to his letters to the editors of Variety, in which he rebuts bad reviews, or touts his latest project, or adds his two cents to the discussion of various contemporary insider squabbles in the industry.
There are certainly some gems here, pieces that present Groucho in a new context. The previously unpublished “Humor from the Silent Screen to TV,” originally presented as a commencement speech at the University of Oregon, even finds the old smart aleck making a forceful argument against what we would now call the dumbing-down of popular culture.
But such revelations are surrounded by too many articles that amount to mere press releases—very witty press releases, no doubt, but nothing more. And so this collection reinforces the conventional—and reductive—impression of Groucho Marx as a movie star who wrote some, rather than reassess him as a great American humorist, full stop.
Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend; inside of a dog, it's too dark to read—except on a computer screen, which is where you'll find Jack Feerick's work as editor-at-large for Popdose.