Harpo Marx’s Birthday

To celebrate Harpo Marx’s birthday, enjoy this excerpt from David Misch’s Funny: The Book.

The Marxes grew up in a Jewish tenement on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and began performing as young kids – first as a music act, gradually becoming comedians, with each boy doing one of the ethnic parodies popular at the time; Chico’s ludicrous Italian accent was a remnant of those days. (In The Coconuts, Chico spots a disreputable old associate with a new identity and says, skeptically, “How did you get to be Roscoe W. Chandler?”; the guy answers, “How did you get to be Italian?”)

Marx Brothers stage shows were legendary for their energy, goofiness and ad-libs, some of which later appeared in their movies. In the middle of a performance, Groucho suddenly turned to the audience and said urgently, “Is there a doctor in the house?” A man stood up: “I’m a doctor.” Groucho: “Howya like the show, doc?”

During another performance, Groucho was doing a scene when Harpo tried to rattle his brother by chasing a chorus girl across the stage, honking his horn. Not missing a beat, Groucho said, “First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger.”

One night a Marx writer, George S. Kaufman, was talking to a friend at the back of the theater, when he stopped, listened, then said, “Sorry – I thought I heard one of the original lines.”

By the time Paramount signed them for pictures, the Marxes were all around forty years old and would be movie stars for less than ten years.

Their first films were essentially photographed stage plays. Coconuts was made in 1929, the year sound came to movies, and was shot in Astoria, Queens, during the day while the Marxes performed on Broadway at night in Animal Crackers. (At one point in Coconuts, Groucho gets his name confused with his character in Animal Crackers.)

Later, their movies were written directly for the screen by the best comedy writers around, like Kaufman, S.J. Perelman, and Ben Hecht, probably the top screenwriter in American history.

The Marx pictures of the early ’30s – Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup – mark their purely anarchic period. From beginning to end, these films are constantly crazy and practically plotless, their supposed settings (college, ship, mythical kingdom) the thinnest excuses for sketches and songs.

Funny: The Book

Funny: The Book is an entertaining look at the art of comedy, from its historical roots to the latest scientific findings, with diversions into the worlds of movies (Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers), television (The Office), prose (Woody Allen, Robert Benchley), theater (The Front Page), jokes and stand-up comedy (Richard Pryor, Steve Martin), as well as personal reminiscences from the author’s experiences on such TV programs as Mork and Mindy.

With allusions to the not-always-funny Carl Jung, George Orwell, and Arthur Koestler, Funny: The Book explores the evolution, theories, principles, and practice of comedy, as well as the psychological, philosophical, and even theological underpinnings of humor, coming to the conclusion that (Spoiler Alert!) Comedy is God.

Heard Any Good Jokes?

misch

David Misch at Book Expo America 2012

The following is an excerpt of Funny: The Book by David Misch (Applause Books).

In 2002, Richard Wiseman, intriguingly named, of the University of Hertfordshire, set up a website called LaughLab, where people from all over the world could submit and rate jokes, the idea being to find the one that worked for the most people in the most countries. He received forty thousand entries (of which two-thirds were too racist, violent, or dirty to print).

The winner—later discovered to be based on a 1951 sketch written by Spike Milligan for the famed British radio series The Goon Show—was submitted by a psychiatrist named Gurpal Gosall, whose name may be funnier than the joke.

Two guys are hunting in the woods when one suddenly falls to the ground, and it looks like he’s not breathing. The other guy takes out his cell and calls 911: “My friend is dead. What should I do?”

Operator: “Okay, I can help. First we have to make sure he’s dead . . .”

There’s silence, a gunshot, then the guy comes back on the line: “Okay, now what?”

In second place was this:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go camping. They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. In the middle of the night, Holmes wakes his friend and says: “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

Watson: “I see millions and millions of stars.”

Holmes: “And what do you deduce from that?”

Watson: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those stars have planets, then it’s quite likely there are planets like Earth out there. And if there are planets like Earth, there could also be life.”

Holmes: “No, you idiot, it means someone stole our tent.”

Both of these demonstrate the importance of “precise ambiguity.” Take the hunters: It looks like he’s not breathing—kinda vague, right? But it has to be; the punchline depends on our not knowing if the guy’s dead. You have to say it looks like he’s not breathing because it’s what’s not said that sets up the punchline.

Holmes and Watson also rely on an equivocal phrase: Look up at the sky and tell me what you see. For the joke to work, the listener has to either have forgotten the beginning, which had Holmes and Watson pitching their tent under the stars; or when Watson says I see millions of stars, the listener thinks instantly, subconsciously, “Wait, aren’t they in a tent? Oh, David probably just said it wrong, not important, wait, David’s still talking, I better listen . . .”

Funny: The Book is an entertaining look at the art of comedy, from its historical roots to the latest scientific findings, with diversions into the worlds of movies (Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers), television (The Office), prose (Woody Allen, Robert Benchley), theater (The Front Page), jokes and stand-up comedy (Richard Pryor, Steve Martin), as well as personal reminiscences from the author’s experiences on such TV programs as Mork and Mindy.

Hal Leonard at BEA

Thank you to everyone who stopped by the Hal Leonard booth at Book Expo America this week. We love meeting with old friends and making new ones. We had great authors come by and talk with librarians, book sellers, and teachers about their books and do book signings. We gave away a copy of Treasures of the Who (congrats to Keaton Babb!). And we even hosted a panel discussion with Actors’ Equity at the Downtown Stage. What a week!

David Misch, author of FUNNY: THE BOOK, handed out rubber-nose-and-glasses to everyone who walked by on Tuesday.

Sirius Radio talked with many of our authors. Here, Dave Thompson talks about his book HEARTS OF DARKNESS.

Estelle Parsons, Robert Simonson, David Henry Hwang, Andre DeShields, and Nick Wyman discuss the forthcoming PERFORMANCE OF THE CENTURY on the Downtown Author Stage

Our drawing for Treasures of the Who, available this fall

The Hal Leonard booth is a popular place to be!

Click here for more photos of Hal Leonard at BEA.

Funny: The Keatons

David Misch is the author of Funny: The Book.

“FUNNY: THE KEATONS”

– One of the most amazing, dangerous, and copied stunts in comedy history: 3 inches clearance on each side.  The camera operator was sure Keaton would be killed and left the set; Keaton turned on the camera himself.

– Jackie Chan does it with paper.

– “Weird Al” Yankovic does it Amish-style.

– Johnny Knoxville does it off-key.

– “The Simpsons” do it together.

Funny: The Book

Funny: The Book is an entertaining look at the art of comedy, from its historical roots to the latest scientific findings, with diversions into the worlds of movies (Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers), television (The Office), prose (Woody Allen, Robert Benchley), theater (The Front Page), jokes and stand-up comedy (Richard Pryor, Steve Martin), as well as personal reminiscences from the author’s experiences on such TV programs as Mork and Mindy.

Funny: The Sitcoms

David Misch is the author of Funny: The Book.

“FUNNY: THE SITCOMS”

 — Art Carney takes his time; Jackie Gleason is not amused.

– Dick Van Dyke searches for a hidden birthday gift and gets back in time for chicken.

– Archie Bunker’s foreign policy.

– Hawkeye Pierce’s gun control.

– Mary Tyler Moore’s Chuckles control.

– Micheal Scott’s bladder control.

Funny: The Book

Funny: The Book is an entertaining look at the art of comedy, from its historical roots to the latest scientific findings, with diversions into the worlds of movies (Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers), television (The Office), prose (Woody Allen, Robert Benchley), theater (The Front Page), jokes and stand-up comedy (Richard Pryor, Steve Martin), as well as personal reminiscences from the author’s experiences on such TV programs as Mork and Mindy.

Funny: The Talkers

David Misch is the author of Funny: The Book.

“FUNNY: THE TALKERS”

– Groucho: The inspiration for everyone from Woody Allen to Bugs Bunny.

– Danny Kaye: chalice/palace, flagon/dragon, vessel/pessel from The Court Jester.

– Sid Caesar could speak any language without speaking the language.

– Vince Vaughn is not entirely sure about dating.

– Steve Carrell newscasting in tongues.

Funny: The Book

Funny: The Book is an entertaining look at the art of comedy, from its historical roots to the latest scientific findings, with diversions into the worlds of movies (Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers), television (The Office), prose (Woody Allen, Robert Benchley), theater (The Front Page), jokes and stand-up comedy (Richard Pryor, Steve Martin), as well as personal reminiscences from the author’s experiences on such TV programs as Mork and Mindy.

Funny: The Body 3

David Misch is the author of Funny:The Book.

FUNNY: THE BODY 3”

– Steve Martin vs. Steve Martin.

– Buster exits horizontally.

– Jerry Lewis: Arms and the Man.

– People pestered Cleese to do it for decades, until a hip replacement gave him an out.

– Will Ferrell is willing to do nudity, but only if it’s not tasteful.

Funny: The Book

Funny: The Book is an entertaining look at the art of comedy, from its historical roots to the latest scientific findings, with diversions into the worlds of movies (Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers), television (The Office), prose (Woody Allen, Robert Benchley), theater (The Front Page), jokes and stand-up comedy (Richard Pryor, Steve Martin), as well as personal reminiscences from the author’s experiences on such TV programs as Mork and Mindy.