What Writers Can Learn From Marx

by James Scott Bell

Marx is a man who stands astride history, whose influence is so widespread and undeniable that he demands our awe and admiration, and who has made the world a better place because he was in it.

I speak, of course, of Julius Marx, better known as Groucho, born on the East Side of New York on October 2, 1890.

Create and Refine

Though a comedy icon, Julius’s initial ambition was to be a singer. At age 15 he began appearing on the vaudeville stage with an act called The Three Nightingales. He was later joined by his brothers Arthur (better known as Harpo) and Milton (Gummo). They traveled the circuit all over the land.

One night in Nagadocious, Texas, a donkey ran loose outside the theater during the act. Several audience members got up and left to see what was going on. Julius, aghast, quipped out loud, “Nagadocious is full of roaches!” He added, “The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass!”

To his surprise and delight, the audience laughed. And thus comedy entered the act.

Harpo, Chico, Groucho, Gummo, c. 1913

For the next several years the boys, now joined by Leonard (Chico), developed an act built around music and a comedy sketch about a classroom. Fun in Hi Skool, like all vaudeville acts, ran under ten minutes and featured the rapid-fire dialogue and hijinx that would develop into the Marxian style. They worked it, refined it. It took over a decade before the brothers made it to Broadway with a revue called I’ll Say She Is. It was a hit, but still only a vaudeville-style show.

So the boys took the next step and developed a comedy with an actual plot—The Coconuts (1925). This was the first iteration of the Marx Brothers as we know them today. Herbert (Zeppo) had joined the troupe after Gummo dropped out.

They kept on refining and had another Broadway hit, Animal Crackers (1928), that came at the same time the movies were moving into the sound era. Perfect timing! The talkative Groucho, the language-mangling Chico, and the horn-tooting Harpo never would have made an impact in the silents.

The film version of The Coconuts came out in 1929. More refining as they learned the art of the motion picture. Two more movies followed (Animal Crackers and Monkey Business), leading finally to their greatest achievements: Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).

Lesson: Never stop working, learning, correcting, refining, polishing. This is especially important in your early years. But it should also continue as long as you call yourself a writer. Never rest on your laurels (or your Hardys, either).

The Rebel

Groucho was the ultimate rebel, always sticking it to pretentions. That’s why the quintessential Groucho song is “I’m Against It” from Horse Feathers.

Margaret Dumont, a real socialite, was his favorite foil. She was upper crust and formal. Groucho romanced her, primarily for her money, while his rat-a-tat and oddly connected dialogue flummoxed her. There were other targets, too. In Duck Soup, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is trying to woo Mrs. Teasdale (Dumont) in the presence of the officious Trentino (Louis Calhern):

 Lesson: “The writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops.” – William Saroyan. “You have to evolve a permanent set of values to serve as motivation.” – Leon Uris.

Know what you believe, and be bold with it in your fiction.

Always Playing

Groucho’s comedic mind was always at play, even in “real life.” You can see it at work on his TV show You Bet Your Life, which was built upon spontaneous riffing off his guests.

This ability stayed with him as he aged. Just watch his astonishing appearance on Dick Cavett at age 81.

Even after he was slowed by a stroke, Groucho’s wit remained rapier-like. Case in point: Milton Berle was an attention grabber, always trying to take over a room. One night he showed up at a birthday party for George Burns, where the enfeebled Groucho was also a guest. After Berle loudly told a few jokes, Groucho snapped, “I don’t think you’re funny.”

“But Groucho,” Berle said, trying to save the moment. “Everything I know I stole from you.”

“Then you weren’t listening,” said Groucho.

Lesson: As writers, we should always be writing…even when we’re not writing. We must keep our minds active in looking for material. Train yourself to ask “What if?” all the time.

You’re sitting at a traffic stop. An elderly woman pushes a shopping cart of clothes in the crosswalk. You think: What if she is the missing heiress of a huge fortune? What if she is an undercover agent in disguise? What if she is an alien in a host? What if she has gold bricks hidden in that cart? You let the ideas park in your mind so the Boys in the Basement can play with them.

Also, this is good for your health. My theory on dementia is that the always-active imagination is a preventative. I point to all those great comedians who lived long and stayed sharp: George Burns, Carl Reiner, Bob Hope. And right now, Mel Brooks. By “thinking funny” every day, even in private conversation, they kept their brains active and alert. (Burns was on The Tonight Show once, aged 96, smoking his ever-present cigar. He told Johnny he smoked 15-20 cigars a day, and had a martini in the evening. “What does your doctor say about that?” Johnny asked. “My doctor’s dead,” said Burns.)

The Marketer

In 1945 the brothers were developing a spoof of the Warner Bros. classic Casablanca. Purportedly, one of the characters in the parody was to be named “Humphrey Bogus.” Wanting to protect its property, the legal team at Warner Bros. sent an inquiry about the Marx project, with the subtle threat of possible legal action.

Groucho immediately saw a way to generate publicity. He wrote a letter to Warner Bros., making more of the kerfuffle than there really was, and leaked it to the press. It became the talk of the town. Groucho was in his element, with paragraphs like these:

I just don’t understand your attitude. Even if they plan on re-releasing the picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.

You claim you own “Casablanca” and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about Warner Brothers — do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were.

Lesson: Be alert for creative marketing opportunities. For example, an event or anniversary that relates to your book might arise, giving you occasion to mention it to your email subscribers or on a blog. You can also use a deal price promotion whenever you like, as I am about to do now! (This is called the art of the segue.)

My next Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rage, is up for pre-order at the deal price of just $2.99. Yes indeed, it can be ordered now and will be auto-delivered to your Kindle on Oct. 16. Click the above link. Outside the U.S. you can go to your Amazon store and search for: B0BFRP7SQV

There will be a print version, too.

Well, this post has gone on long enough. And so, as Groucho once sang, “Hello, I must be going…”

Commence comments.

34 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn From Marx

  1. “Never rest on your laurels (or your Hardys, either).”

    Having been raised by a pun-ishing pop, I can not only Stan this kind of wordplay, I enjoy participating – though I must say that of Oliver puns you’ve offered over the years, this has proven the toughest to offer a comeback to…

    May you continue to think funny and outlive your doctor…

  2. My father, despite his dementia, never lost his sense of humor. He also loved Groucho (who popped in to wish a friend a happy Sweet Sixteen at her party at the country club they belonged to, so I “almost” met him.) Thanks for the memories. Oh, and for the writing tips.

  3. George Burns will always have a special place in my heart. No one better, IMO, but Groucho comes close. 😉

    It’s funny how writers differ. When you first mentioned the elderly lady crossing the road, I immediately thought kidnapping victim. Heiress works, too! LOL

  4. The all-time favourite Groucho line in this house – used when facing a knotty problem or when technology is proving intractable – is, ‘Why, a child of five could read this report. Send out for a child of five.’
    I’ve no idea which film it is from, so if someone could point me to it, I’d be grateful.

    Sadly, your theory on dementia is not one I share. One of the funniest writers who ever lived (and with a sharp wit in real life) was Sir Terry Pratchett, taken from us at the age of 67. RIP.

    • It’s from Duck Soup. Groucho has just taken over as the leader of Fredonia and the treasurer hands him a report and says, “I hope you find it clear.” Groucho says, “Clear! Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report.” He leans over to his secretary (Zeppo) and says, “Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail out of it.”

  5. Wonderful post! I love the Marx Brothers. Duck Soup is my favorite, but Horse Feathers and A Night At the Opera are right behind it for me. Groucho’s rapid-fire delivery, Chico’s convoluted comic dialogue, and Harpo’s mimed hijinks always brighten my day whenever I watch one of their films.

    All these lessons are important. Being a rebel especially resonates with me because it’s too easy as a writer, especially an indie, to say I need to be just like X, Y, and Z because they are “successful” and I want to be successful. Know your genre for sure, and the Marx Brothers knew their comedy, but they also made it their own.

    Thanks for posting about comedy legends near and dear to my heart. Have a wonderful Sunday!

    • So true, Dale. The temptation to write like so-and-so can lead to disaster.

      I think early in a career a writer can strive to learn from those he admires. Some writers have copied favorite passages by hand, getting a feel for the voice. But then you have to turn that into your own voice and vision, always.

  6. Thanks for the chuckles on this rainy Sunday morning, Jim. I loved Groucho’s rendition of “I’m Against it.” I can identify. 🙂

    I agree that laughter is good for the brain (also the heart, liver…) I’m fortunate to be married to a man whose corny puns and plays on words have kept me smiling (and groaning) for oh these many years.

    Already pre-ordered Romeo’s Rage. Prepared to dive in on the 16th.

  7. “I’ll stay the summer through, but I am telling you I must be going.” Words you never want to hear from a house guest.

    My kid brother found a coffee table book on the Marx Brothers and their routines. An 8-year-old doing Marx routines keeps a family on their toes.

    Jay Leno is doing a reboot of YOU BET YOUR LIFE. I have absolutely no desire to see it.

  8. Thanks, Jim! This was great.

    Your setup of the old lady crossing the street and what-iffing it reminded me of the movie we’re watching. (We rarely finish a movie in one night…we fall asleep, then have to back it up the next night. 🙂 )

    It’s called Memory with Liam Neeson. It’s a good action movie, of course (Neeson), but the premise is also interesting. I thought about how you and other mentors teach us to try pairing two concepts together that don’t really fit, then writing a story.

    In this movie, Neeson plays a professional hit man with a conscience, who is developing Alzheimer’s. Let that sink in for a moment. Being the consummate actor he is, I wonder if it’s real for him . . .

    We’ll finish the movie tonight and see where his journey takes him.

    Happy Sunday all!

  9. Excellent advice. We have to keep re-kindling that child-like sense of wonder and play. Nourishing that inner rebel who wants to prod and poke reality keeps us young and imaginative.

  10. Oh, how I wish a Marx Brothers spoof of Casablanca actually existed! The possibilities!

    Anytime someone mentions going on a cruise I think of the Marx Brothers. Every. Single. Time.

  11. Fun post. I came to appreciate the brothers very late in life. Maybe because their comedy, esp Groucho, was word-based. It’s broad, yes, but there’s a wonderfully subtle wit that you sometimes need multiple viewings to catch. But then, I am a sucker for a pun.

  12. My sister was the Marx Brothers fan when we were growing up–I was too busy playing outside to watch anything. One of my favorite things was the time Harpo and Lucille Ball did the pantomime scene on her show. Great post!

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