I’m glad to publish here a paper by my colleague—esteemed filmmaker Ken Kimmelman—on one of America’s most loved comedians. It was presented as part of a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
I’m very glad to tell what I learned about a man’s public self and private thoughts in relation to two things: power and humor. I’ll speak about my own life and aspects of the life and work of the great comedian Groucho Marx.
From a very early age, I liked to make people laugh and was seen as a funny person. For example, I remember a time when my mother was complaining about the cost of food. I said, “Don’t worry Ma, I’ll just eat every other day.” She laughed and I was proud because I wanted her to feel lighter, and she did.
But I didn’t know the difference between true humor and the false power of contemptuous derision, and it made for a great deal of trouble in my life. Aesthetic Realism takes humor very seriously; it is, as Mr. Siegel defined it, “the ugly seen as beautiful while still being seen as ugly first.” My whole life took a new direction when I was able to learn this.
I. HIS PUBLIC SELF—& THE POWER OF ART
With his brothers Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, Groucho Marx at his best had true humor, and people loved it. Much has been written about the Marx Brothers by critics and film theoreticians, and I believe the essence of their humor was described exactly and beautifully by Eli Siegel, in his 1951 lecture, Opposites in the Cinema, when he said:
That is true; the Marx Brothers put together opposites every person wants to do a good job with: wildness and accuracy, surprise and symmetry, freedom and order, the zany and sane, and all with speed and precision, which has made millions of people all around the world laugh respectfully.
Groucho Marx began his life in show business at age fourteen, working the vaudeville circuits with his brothers. In 1924 the Marx Brothers became overnight sensations on Broadway in a show called, “I’ll Say She Is.” Beginning in 1931, they made fifteen films, including A Day at the Races, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera, which was Groucho’s favorite.
Seeing that film was a big experience for me. I love the famous stateroom scene where Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho), is given a closet-sized cabin, which seems even tinier after his trunk is put in. Groucho has planned a secret rendezvous with Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), but before she arrives, a parade of others do; Chico and Harpo come out of the trunk; then a steward followed by two maids and a vacuum cleaner; a manicurist; an engineer to turn on the heat; a girl looking for her Aunt; an assistant engineer to turn off the heat, and four stewards with trays of food. The cabin is ready to burst, and when Mrs. Claypool arrives and opens the door, everyone comes pouring out like a torrent from a broken dam. This scene, a classic in film, is funny and beautiful because it puts opposites together. Do we feel the oneness of freedom and order as we see all that chaos, all that bursting out from one neat, tight little space? And when the manicurist asks if he wants his nails long or short, is it the mingling of the irrelevant with the accurate we feel, as Groucho replies, “Better make ’em short—it’s getting a little congested in here.”
And Groucho Marx also cared for other arts notably literature and music. He spent many hours every day reading. He said he read the Bible because of its beauty as literature. And he loved the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, who showed humor as art through their operettas.
Yet, Groucho Marx also had a private self that got importance from mocking the world and people in a way that weakened him. At the height of his career, when he was one of the most celebrated of all comedians, he worried that audiences wouldn’t want to see him. He said: “It happens to everyone…There comes a time in show business when they just don’t want you any more.”
Aesthetic Realism taught that any time we go after power and importance based on contempt, we will inevitably despise ourselves, be deeply unsure.
II. SARCASM IS FALSE POWER
Every child, Aesthetic Realism shows, comes to have an attitude to the world, beginning with how he sees the first people he meets usually his parents.
Born Julius Henry Marx in 1890, the third of the five Marx Brothers, to Sam and Minnie Marx, Groucho grew up poor in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. In his book, Son of Groucho, Arthur Marx writes of his father:
The result of such poverty was that Minnie, inspired by the success of her older brother in vaudeville, and driven by the understandable desire to eat regularly, decided to put her own boys in show business.
Very early, largely because of their poverty, young Groucho came to feel the world was against him. While in some ways he admired his mother and saw her as the strength of the family, I also believe he felt she both managed his life, and was indifferent, and he used this to be suspicious of women in general. He said, “She put us out in the street to play. That’s all.” In his book, Groucho, The Authorized Biography, Hector Arce writes:
I once had the temerity to suggest to Groucho that he apparently wasn’t Minnie’s favorite. “That’s not true,” he exploded. “My mother treated us all equally…with contempt!”
But he doesn’t show an awareness that his mother herself endured things. I think he came to feel the way to take care of himself was to be hidden, clever, and outfox a world he saw as cold, uncaring, and a place one has to struggle in. He was called Groucho because of his tendency to complain. It seemed that very early, he got power through being sarcastic, keeping people at a distance, making them look ridiculous. The screen-writer Norman Krasna quotes him as saying:
My way of talking—it’s how I defend myself….There are people who will knock you down if they can.
He felt, as many people do, that nothing was really worth his complete respect, so he could make fun of anything. Sometimes, however, his mockery had useful criticism in it. His son Arthur writes:
In the House of Parliament, in the middle of a heated debate…Father stood up in the visitor’s gallery and at the top of his voice started singing, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” We were thrown out, and requested never to return.
But very often he used his humor to be cruel. “Like most comics,” said the novelist Sidney Sheldon (one of his friends),
Groucho has two sides to him: he can be very cruel and he can be very sweet. Once, a man came up to him and said, ‘Groucho, do you remember me?’…Groucho’s answer was, ‘What have you ever done in your life that I should remember you?’
This diminishing of another person’s existence came from a different place in him than the wild, imaginative, rollicking humor he had on stage and in film, and is, I believe, the reason Groucho Marx suffered from loneliness, and had various fears throughout his life. In recounting his vaudeville days in the book, Hello, I Must Be Going, by Charlotte Chandler, Groucho is quoted as saying:
I was always afraid of jumping out the window. So I used to put a big trunk up against the window. I was afraid that some night, I might go to the window and open it and jump out.
He was also afraid of going to sleep, and suffered from insomnia. I’ve learned that when a person makes fun of things to enhance his ego, the self loathing and fear this makes for is enormous. I wish Groucho Marx had been able to hear the powerful criticism of contempt that is in Aesthetic Realism. Had he read these words of Eli Siegel in Self and World, he would have felt deeply understood.
Aesthetic Realism sees sleeplessness as arising from an injustice to self and all its surroundings…the self is always criticizing what it is, and does definitely do so in sleep. Nightmares, sweats, talking in sleep, and events of even more severe import, can take place because the organism of man is affected by his ethics.
Was Groucho Marx afraid of going into that private mocking, sarcastic self, of thoughts that made people look ugly?
I too, once used sarcasm to have revenge people I didn’t like. I often said things that would embarrass people and sometimes even make them cry. If I could put somebody down with a joke, I felt powerful. Once when my parents were going away for a weekend, my mother said she would only be gone for two days. I said I was sorry I wished it would be for two months. She was hurt and I felt very ashamed. Sometimes I would even slap myself in the face after a sarcastic remark and say, “When will you ever learn to keep your big mouth shut!,” but that didn’t change me.
Mr. Siegel saw how much I loathed myself for my contempt. He taught me the difference between criticizing people with respectful, humorous form, including in my work as a film animator, and the contempt that was so attractive to me. I had never seen any relation between my desire for power through mockery and my fears.
In an early lesson I told Mr. Siegel about a fear I had almost every night as I went to bed. I imagined people coming through my apartment window trying to get me. He explained: “Fear is a way the psyche has of punishing one for having contempt.” He asked: “When you talk to people, do you try to have them think well of themselves or do you try to make them uneasy?”
KK: I try to make them uneasy.
ES: What are the returns?
KK: It causes me pain.
ES: Are you convinced they’re not good for you? Aesthetic Realism says if you don’t do all you can honestly to make a person pleased with himself, the returns for you are not good; it’s not wise….Many people feel…when they can talk back and be sassy, they have a way of taking care of themselves and showing they’re somebody.
And then he said if I had more justice in my heart for people during the day, fewer people would come through my windows at night. Through this explanation I began to think about people differently—with respect not contempt–and this nightly terror ended!
III. POWER IS NOT JUST THE ABILITY TO AFFECT
In Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes:
Power is not just the ability to affect or change others; it is likewise the ability to be affected or changed by others. If a person’s power is of the first kind, his unconscious will be in distress.
I was moved to learn that Groucho Marx was affected by what others in his profession had to endure, and that he worked actively for the formation of the Screen Actor’s Guild in 1933, when he was already a star, and fighting for the rights of fellow actors might jeopardize his career.
But in his personal life, particularly in relation to women, he worked on a different track. Like many men, he felt he would be powerful in affecting and impressing a woman, but that it would be weak to show he was affected by her. When a man doesn’t like the world, he will not want to be wholly affected by a woman representing that world. He had great sorrow in love. His son Arthur writes:
If he showed tenderness and real understanding (he feels) it might be construed as a sign of weakness. So he throws up a screen of wisecracks to hide behind.
Groucho Marx was married three times, and each marriage ended in divorce. While he was hoping to care deeply for someone, he was also mean to the women he was close to. For example, his wife Ruth liked to have things presented well such as a nicely set dinner table, with candle light and flowers. His son Arthur writes:
Father might acquiesce until the company had arrived…at that point he’d usually announce, “Folks, now that you’ve all seen the candles and the flowers, we’ll dispense with them. And then…would whip the decorations off the table….Mother (would) barely be able to fight back the tears as she sat there helplessly and watched.
And many of Goucho Marx’s jokes about women have in them that awful desire to lessen another person. For instance, he said:
The trouble with marriage is that you have to marry a woman the last person in the world you could possibly have anything in common with.
That is something I once felt and I am very grateful feel so differently now. Pride is what I feel in being close to Marcia Rackow, artist and Aesthetic Realism consultant whom I’m so happy to be married to. Where once I felt I never could have a good or useful effect on a woman, I now feel I’m a friend to Marcia, and she a friend to me, encouraging me to be stronger through her kind, often humorous, criticism.
V. THE ART OF HUMOR IS FOR LIFE
When, in an interview, Groucho was asked, “What do you think is funny?,” he responded: “That’s an impossible question to answer.” On occasion, Groucho’s private sarcastic thoughts got mixed up with his satire and he would say something on screen that made one cringe it seemed so out of place and hurt the continuity of the film. How I wish Groucho Marx could have learned the criterion for honest humor.
For example, in Eli Siegel’s essay “Art As Humor,” he writes:
Humor in the long run is the seeing of reality as orderly and free, with the free predominating…with concord and discord, and the discord predominating; with the symmetrical and unsymmetrical, and the unsymmetrical predominating;…and so on.
At his best, Groucho Marx shows the world exists not to mock, but to be humorously accurate about. In the famous Groucho stride we see assertion and yielding, as he thrusts his upper torso forward, yet still appears to be crouching as he walks with bended knees. Often there is a swift juxtaposition of sameness and difference, knowing and not knowing, order and disorder, hiddenness and boldness, the abstract with the tangible, which makes for great humor. And the way Groucho could poke fun of people in high places who were pretentious and snobbish was hilarious and useful. He had a way of speedily changing a commonly used metaphorical phrase to its literal meaning, making nonsense seem perfectly logical. Insults from Groucho come out sweet. A wonderful example is in the film Duck Soup, where Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), Prime Minister of Fredonia, conducts a meeting with his Cabinet Ministers. He says: “All right, meeting’s called to order.”
M1: Your excellency, here’s the Treasury Department’s report. I hope you find it clear.
GM: Clear! Why a four year old child can understand this report. Run out and find me a four year old child, I can’t make head nor tail out of it.
M2: I wish to discuss the tariff.
GM: Sit down, that’s new business. No old business? Very well, we’ll take up new business.
M2: Now, about the tariff?
GM: Too late, that’s old business already. Sit down.
M3: Gentlemen! gentlemen! Enough of this. How about taking up the tax?
GM: How about taking up the carpet?
M3: I still insist we must take up the tax!
GM: He’s right! You gotta take up the tacks before you take up the carpet.
M4: I give all my time and energy to my duties and what do I get?
GM: You get awfully tiresome after awhile.
M4: Sir, you try my patience!
GM: I don’t mind if I do. You must come over and try mine sometime.
The beautiful humor of Groucho Marx has made for laughter in audiences for over half a century. I feel he wants both his life and his art to be a means of people learning from Aesthetic Realism how to have our public self and private thoughts be a means not of pretending, but of being honest and proud.