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 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.