Apropos of nothing, as I sat down to work this morning, a song popped into my head: Groucho Marx singing “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It” in the movie “Horse Feathers“. That song inspires me especially in these here times. How can it not? In fact, Groucho Marx inspires me. He always has.
I wonder what Groucho would have made of the times we’re living in. An avowed liberal democrat his whole life, Groucho said politics: “is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”
He (also) famously said “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member“. Most of us, when we’re young, find a singer or band that speaks to us. It’s like they know our soul. For me, that was Groucho and Groucho was that.
Though he came from a completely different time and place from me, Groucho Marx spoke to and for me.
My cousin Steven hipped me to Groucho – to the Marx Brothers period. We both grew up in the seventies in Baltimore. The TV landscape was very different. In Baltimore, the local ABC affiliate then was WJZ. In the late afternoons, before their local news began at 5 pm, WJZ ran old black and white comedies. WC Fields, Laurel & Hardy’s feature films, Joe E. Brown and Jack Oakie comedies (so, we’re talking deep into the film vaults here!). And the Marx Brothers’ canon.
I was 14 when I first met Groucho. From the moment I saw him and heard him, I wanted to be him.
Groucho v Authority
I dropped from the womb questioning authority. Groucho did too. That’s another way Groucho Marx inspires me. He could beat anyone – and he could do it with nothing but words. Wow. For a short, attention-seeking Jewish kid from northwest Baltimore, that became a goal. Beat anyone – with nothing but words.
In “Horse Feathers“, Groucho (and Harpo and Chico and to a lesser degree Zeppo) attack a subject that’s surprisingly relevant today: college football’s over-sized influence over American higher education. Groucho takes over as president of Huxley College. Since it’s all about the school’s football team succeeding, he heads to a nearby speakeasy to try and buy a couple of “student athletes” to play in the upcoming big game.
Plus ca change, ey?
Groucho’s monolog to Huxley’s student and faculty at the film’s beginning is comedy parkour. Groucho propels himself from one joke to the next, from one comedy idea to the next, with stunning dexterity. Bobbing and weaving like Muhammed Ali, Groucho takes repeated shots at the outgoing president –
Members of the faculty, faculty members, students of Huxley and Huxley students – I guess that covers everything. Well, I thought my razor was dull until I heard this speech. And that reminds me of a story that’s so dirty I’m ashamed to think of it myself. As I look over your eager faces, I can readily understand why this college is flat on its back. The last college I presided over, things were slightly different. I was flat on my back. Things kept going from bad to worse but we all put our shoulders to the wheel and it wasn’t long before I was flat on my back again. Any questions? Any answers? Any rags? Any bones? Any bottles today? Any rags? Let’s have some action around here. Who’ll say 76? Who’ll say 17 76? That’s the spirit! 1776!
The look of befuddlement on the faces of the college faculty – the authority in the room – that sold me! Not only did Groucho insult them all to their faces, he got away with it! Hell, he got authority to do what he wanted!
Despite the fact that Groucho didn’t get past the sixth grade (his mom Minnie Marx put the whole family on stage), he was incredibly literate and well read. Knowing a whole lot of things made Groucho’s brilliance exponentially more brilliant. Have I mentioned that Groucho Marx inspires me?
Like many comedians, in his private life, Groucho was very different. He was Julius – much more understated. He was private and very polite. While he didn’t have writers like S. J. Perlman and Bert Kalmer and Harry Ruby crafting his words, Julius did more than just okay.
Groucho could never have sold what he did if it wasn’t part of who he really was.
Groucho opened my eyes not only to what was or could be funny to an audience, he opened them to what a comedian or writer could do with comedy. Yeah, sure, comedy must make its audience laugh. But, what if it could make its audience think, too? That became my obsession.
A Tsunami Of Punchlines
“Horse Feathers” (no one knows what that title means) contains a ton of great scenes. Groucho v Chico at the speakeasy’s front door – the “Swordfish” scene – it’s a tsunami of references and punch lines.
Chico and Harpo are equally brilliant in “Horse Feathers”. I loved them both, too. But not like I loved Groucho.
As I said, before the movie was even over, I was hooked. The next Marx Brothers movie I saw was “Monkey Business” (where the authority figure is a luxury liner’s captain and crew). Then I saw “The Coconuts” (the viaduct scene between Groucho and Chico is mind-bending!) and, finally, “Duck Soup”.
Whatever It Is, I’m Against It!
I could rhapsodize about the genius of “Duck Soup“. There, the authority is government itself, diplomacy, war. None of it survives skewering. Well, it all survives of course. Government, diplomacy, war – and ship captains and college presidents and opera companies and mental health – they all survived the Marx Brothers but not without getting dinged.
From a young rebel’s POV, that was more than enough reward. That rebel still lives inside me. He still regards the world skeptically (never cynically). And he still sings that little song to himself most days about how he’ll never, ever go along with authority: “Whatever it is, I’m against it”.
The more I think of him, the more… you know what I’m going to say: “Groucho Marx inspires me”.