In honor of Groucho Marx’s birthday we have posted an excerpt from the recent book, Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales, written by Groucho Marx and edited by Robert S. Bader. Please enjoy!
“How to Build a Secret Weapon” was written as Groucho again made writing his second career. In the spring of 1943, Groucho returned to a starring role in radio after an extended layoff. He was the host and star of Pabst Blue Ribbon Town on CBS from March 27, 1943, until June 17, 1944. He was replaced on the show by Danny Kaye when his contract wasn’t renewed, apparently because he had insulted the sponsor. (Legend has it that Groucho got an elder member of the Pabst family drunk on a competitor’s beer.)
It has recently come to these shifty old eyes that the U.S. Army has announced the Bazooka as an official weapon in World War II. That pleases me moderately because the inventor of this lethal instrument is my friend Bob Burns.* It seems that this Bazooka shoots rockets at enemy soldiers, and if that doesn’t do the trick, it plays a few choruses of the “Arkansas Traveler” for the coup de grâce—that’s French for those who care for French.
Now, I’m not one to belittle such a great achievement. But truth compels me to announce that Bob Burns’s Bazooka is already obsolete! It’s as out of date as a porterhouse steak. You hear it from my own lips—I who have invented the Super-Bazooka. This amazing new weapon operates on exactly the opposite principle from the old one. Briefly, where Bob Burns’s Bazooka shoots rockets at Nazis, my Super-Bazooka will shoot Nazis at Bob Burns. This doesn’t have much to do with winning the war, but it seems like a good idea in general.
But then, the Super-Bazooka is merely one among countless other inventions of mine. For example, Marx’s Military Dice. These cubes are equipped with cleats on each face and are especially adapted for use in rocky terrain. Pull up a bayonet and sit down and I’ll tell you the whole gripping story of my rise to obscurity as a secret-weapon genius.
In 1937, by popular demand, I decided to retire from public life and seek what had always been my true goal—Contentment. “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine . . . ” that’s how Omar Khayyam put it. As far as I’m concerned you can switch the wine for a bottle of beer (you know what kind!). And while you’re about it you can switch the bread for a fat blonde.
But soon the bugles of war aroused me from my lethargy. In rapid succession, I was rejected by the Army, the Navy, Marines, Wacs and Waves. I even tried to enlist in the Spars as a Sparring partner, but they said I was too feminine.
In desperation I offered myself to the Wags. However, at the induction test, I proved gun-shy and also bit a technical sergeant as he was examining my dewlaps.
For weeks I was utterly crestfallen, but one day I looked myself straight in the eye—not an easy trick with bifocals. “Am I a man or a mouse?” I demanded. (Readers are invited to send in their votes. All ballots marked Rat will be discarded unless there is cheese attached.) Anyway, I boarded a train and after three days on the road I arrived in Washington and went straight to the War Department.
“Lafayette, I am here!” I announced. They threw me out. I then buttonholed Secretary Stimson or General Marshall—I forget which one it was, but whoever it was, he told me that they were pretty well filled up at present. “Who are you anyway?” he asked.
“Who am I?” I parried. “Why, I’m America’s greatest inventor. God, sir, have you never heard of Marx’s Dropped Living Rooms for Fallen Arches?” “Why, naturally!” he cried. “And the fact is, Mr. Marx, we have an opening for an inventor.” The opening proved to be a window on the twelfth floor. In less time than it takes to tell, I was dusting off my pants on the sidewalk.
Let me skip the next three months and also the next three paragraphs. Let us take up the story again as I enter my private laboratory one dark evening in March. The reason it’s dark is that I neglected to pay my light bills during those three months we skipped. I am now gainfully employed as a secret-weapon designer on a piecework basis—$22.50 per dozen secret weapons—10 per cent off to wholesalers. This particular night I have been assigned to an especially difficult problem: how to fit three lieutenants and a light Howitzer into an upper berth. Howitzer like to try that?
I worked into the wee small hours, drinking Scotch and a certain brand of beer. Beads of perspiration started on my forehead and trickled down my face to my neck, forming a rather unbecoming bead necklace. I knew I was getting close but I attributed this to the Scotch. The first 15 attempts brought nothing at all. The sixteenth produced a formula by which high-octane gasoline could be manufactured from old shoelaces. I tossed it aside with an impatient frown. My seventeenth attempt was also a failure. But finally—finally on the eighteenth try, I captured the magic formula! Mad with excitement I flung up my hands. One hit the ceiling and the other landed in a wastebasket. I could scarcely believe my great good luck. Rushing out of my laboratory, I ran through the house in a frenzy of joy.
“Eureka!” I shouted. “Eureka!” Eureka is my wife. She came tripping down the stairs in her nightdress and almost broke her fool neck. After she regained consciousness, I whispered the secret to her.
Here it is in a nutshell, the famous Marx Upper Berth Theory:
—— ——— —— — ——— ———— ——— ——— ——
———— ——— ——— ——
I’m sorry, the censor from the War Department has just arrived. (Here, keep your fingers out of that humidor, Hawknose!) However, I’ll try to give you an idea of some of my other recent secret weapons, in spite of him:
No. 387KL44Y—A double-pistoned —————for ——and —————which facilitates ————in emergencies such as ———but on the other hand ———.
No. 58396X2D—A turbine-driven ———————for the pur- pose of ——————and in the same operation to ——regardless of ———.
Well, what’s the use of going on further? I’m sure this gives you a pretty fair idea of my work. It also gives you a pretty fair idea of the censor.
My greatest invention of all, though—my chef d’oeuvre—if you don’t mind a little restaurant French—is as follows:
1 jigger of ———
Dash of ————
Ice well and ———
Serve with ——in tall glass
I call it the Marxotov Cocktail, and my plan is to lob it over into enemy trenches in individual thermos bottles. If this secret weapon affects Nazis the way it affects my friends, all our boys will have to do is march over their prostrate bodies.
I’ve only known one person who was strong enough to down a Marxotov Cocktail without batting an eye: it was the champion steamfitter of Los Angeles County, a Miss Diana Tiffin. It’s interesting to see women emerging as the tough sex after all these centuries. It sounds incredible, but I know a man who recently married a furniture mover.
On second thought, that isn’t so incredible. All women are furniture movers. A friend of mine married the most violent furniture mover I ever saw. Once I visited their home and on the third day became so confused I sat down in a potted begonia and put my feet up on the French maid.
After demonstrating the Marxotov Cocktail to a Secret Military Commission, I was deluged with honors from the government: I received the Order of the Purple Heart, the Order of Distinguished Service, and an order from the Collector of Internal Revenue to pay up my income tax or else.
Shortly after this, I received a commission to solve the vital question that is uppermost in every American’s mind today, briefly: When the war is won, what shall we do with that dirty so-and-so in Berlin by the name of Adolph ———?
(Aw, shucks, I thought that censor had dozed off. I’m sure everyone else has. And why can’t I mention ———— anyway? Oh, well, censors are all a little queer. I’ll just call ———————something else—for instance, Willard M. Schickelgruber.
I’ll tell you what we’ll do with Willard M. Schickelgruber. We’ll say, “Now, look here, Willard M. Schickelgruber, we’re going to let you go back to your old job. For the next 50 years you’re going to paper the new Pentagon Building in Washington. You can start on the first floor and paper it with paper from “Mein Kampf” and old German communiques. When those run out you can paper it with paid-off United States War Bonds. And then, Willard M. Louse, if you get through with the first floor before 50 years have elapsed, you can start the second floor!”
How’s that for a peace plan? My motto is “Buy a Bond and Keep Willard M. Hitler Hanging!” (Let’s see you censor that, Hawknose!)
November 7, 1943
Groucho Marx was a comic genius who starred on stage and in film, radio, and television. But he was also a gifted writer – the author of a play, two screenplays, seven books, and over 100 articles and essays. This newly expanded collection presents the best of Groucho’s short comic pieces, written over a period of more than fifty years between 1919 and 1973 for the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, and other newspapers and magazines.