Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence (Preview)
by Lee Siegel. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. 162 pp. Hardcover: $25.00.

Reviewed by Michael Sandlin

In this so-called “biocommentary” on comedy legend Julius “Groucho” Marx, brainy culture critic Lee Siegel describes the best-known Marx brother’s scabrous sense of humor as prototypical of the ugly confrontational language that often characterizes twenty-first-century Internet discourse. At first, this sounds like some daredevil jump in comparative logic over a treacherously wide historical chasm; however, if you’re familiar with Siegel’s own embattled history with cyber-hooliganism as a former blogger for The New Republic, then you know he has privileged insight into the Web’s characteristic modes of spleen venting. In 2006, Siegel was suspended after being caught using an alias to trade insults with his own besieged blog’s opposing army of antagonist trolls. Sadly, Siegel learned a hard lesson about how Web culture’s magnetic toxicity can reduce even the most high-end literary mandarin to the online equivalent of a dunking-booth clown. 

You can easily guess what happened next: a book condemning the Web’s untamed excesses burst from Siegel’s overheated frontal lobe into warehouses everywhere. In Against the Machine Siegel presented himself as a twenty-first-century Matthew Arnold, delivering an impassioned techno-sceptic diatribe against the “electronic mob.” 

These days, Siegel operates at a safer distance from the slings and arrows of outrageous online abuse, having retreated to the more gentlemanly climes of the academic hardcover market and Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series. Hence, you have this long-overdue study of how Groucho (and, unavoidably, the rest of the Marx Brothers) brought about a radical redefinition—or perhaps, if Siegel has his way, the utter destruction—of traditional comedic form. Siegel’s brief book does undoubtedly mark a scholarly milestone in the history of professional writing on Groucho Marx, most of which, until now, has avoided serious critique: “Every feature of his personality, every incident in his life, is nearly always treated as something isolated from his character,” says Siegel. 

Perhaps most crucial to the book’s scholarly legitimacy is Siegel’s notion of the Marx Brothers being the first performers to seamlessly fuse life with art—in the sense that you couldn’t separate their onscreen “act” from their everyday personalities. Indulging in a mode of existence that would later become associated with the Warhol crowd, Groucho and his siblings “refused to stop being their private selves in public.” Siegel goes about building this theory of the inseparability of Groucho’s public and private selves through Groucho’s personal letters, interviews, and anecdotes from the Marx Brothers’ early-twentieth-century upbringing on the melting pot streets of New York’s Yorkville neighborhood. Of course, one would assume that the Marx Brothers were forced to submit to some degree of directorial control and adherence to scripts, a concession that would have presumably smoothed their real-life comedic rough edges to fit the era’s popular entertainment standards. But Siegel slowly chips away at any such assumptions, to the point that you wonder whether anyone had control over a Marx Brothers production; the zany siblings’ penchant for manic ad-lib spontaneity seemed to overpower any presence of a firm directorial guiding hand. Siegel gathers plenty of behind-the-scenes evidence, along with conversational snippets from interviews and biographies to make for convincing continuities between Groucho’s life and his art.

One of Siegel’s most effective comparative measures in linking Groucho’s real-life personality with his screen persona is through the presentation of the lengthy (and prickly) correspondence between upper-class Anglophile poet/doomsayer (and sometime anti-Semite) T. S. Eliot and Groucho, the classic chip-on-the-shoulder outsider with serious artistic aspirations but little formal education. Although there was obvious mutual admiration between the two icons, there’s clearly some mutual envy simmering just below the surface as well. Quotes from Groucho’s missives to Eliot could easily pass for immortal lines from his movies: “My best to your lovely wife, whoever she may be,” and, in another letter, adds what could be a not-so-subtle dig at Eliot’s reputation for being rather unpoetic in the bedroom: “Why you haven’t been offered the lead in some sexy movies I can only attribute to the stupidity of casting directors.” 

But Siegel finds himself venturing into murkier analytical depths when decoding the nature of the Marx Brothers’ misanthropic, amoral, and often misogynist sense of humor, and attempting to unpack just what makes it so brilliantly “unfunny.” Siegel flogs the theory that Groucho’s sense of humor is rooted in “a nihilism constructed out of countless fragments of mutually contradicting truths that amount to no stable meaning” and is sometimes “so dark that it is not funny at all.” This slightly killjoy angle is convincing to a point, if only by sheer force of relentless reiteration…

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