Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

This slender biography is an entry in the Yale University Press's Jewish Lives series, but is less a standard life story than an exploration of Groucho's comedy through the lens of his personality. Mr. Siegel makes the case that Groucho was generally not funny and conducted his comedy in a spirit of nihilism, in large part because he was the forgotten middle child of a failed father and a spiteful mother. It is this nihilism, though the author does not nail it down, that provides the reason why we find the Brothers off-putting.

In his book, On Humour (which we reviewed here), the philosopher Simon Critchley sets forth the three accepted theories of comedy. The one that the Marx Brothers periodically conformed to was incongruity. Thus: 'One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know." This brings a smile as it plays on the ambiguities inherent in our languages and our ability to communicate clearly at all times. But often their banter just descended into nonsense, becoming an attack on the very possibility of communication, which is bad enough. But consider that they are, in fact, communicating the idea and the "joke" is obviously on them.

Mr. Critchley offers the following phenomenology of the joke:
[J]oking is a specific and meaningful practice that the audience and the joke-teller recognize as such. There is a tacit social contract at work here, namely some agreement about the social world in which we find ourselves as the implicit background to the joke. [...] So, in listening to a joke, I am presupposing a social world that is shared, the forms of which the practice of joke-telling is going to play with. Joking is a game that players only play successfully when they both understand and follow the rules.
Groucho and his siblings are nihilist, and unsuccessful jokers, precisely because they attack the social contract and tear up the rules. This is mere self-indulgence and, therefore, annoying, not funny.

Groucho's nihilism is also captured in another famous line: "Whatever it is, I'm against it." The explicit failure to discern between worthwhile and worthless or even between good and evil ends up being portrayed on screen and is repellent. Where Charlie Chaplin made a career of playing a quintessential little guy, the Brothers would have been his attackers had their films crossed. As Mr. Siegel shows, they abuse a lemonade vendor who is just trying to make a living in Duck Soup and The Cocoanuts opens with Groucho as a hotelier cheating his bellboys out of their hard-earned wages. And while Margaret Dumont always played a woman of wealth, who in certain circumstances we might want to see taken down a peg, she is never anything but decent in the films, so Groucho torturing her is simply sadistic. Mr. Siegel makes a convincing case that their treatment of women is always misogynistic and veers over into embracing violence against women. The Marx Brothers essentially whip the underdogs in their films. Not much comedy there.

Finally, Mr. Siegel devotes considerable time to deconstructing Groucho's famous line : “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” Taken on its face, this has often been cast as self-deprecating humor. In fact, it actually manages to convey a sense of superiority. Groucho is too good to associate with the members. Indeed, Mr. Siegel recounts the circumstances of Groucho's actual resignation from the Friar's Club, with a debt to Richard Raskin, whose essay we'll quote here:
Groucho begins by telling of his general aversion for clubs, and this is consistent with the earlier description in his son's book, though here the aversion is concretized to a fuller extent:

I'm not a particularly gregarious fellow. If anything, I suppose I'm a bit on the misanthropic side. I've tried being a jolly good club member, but after a month or so my mouth always aches from baring my teeth in a false smile. The pseudo-friendliness, the limp handshake and the extra firm handshake (both of which should be abolished by the Health Department), are not for me. This also goes for the hearty slap-on-the-back and the all-around, general clap-trap that you are subjected to from the All-American bores which you would instantly flee from if you weren't trapped in a clubhouse. (G. Marx, 1959: 320)

In the remainder of his account, specific grievances Groucho had against the Friar's Club (alias "Delaney Club") come to light:

Some years ago, after considerable urging, I consented to join a prominent theatrical organization. By an odd coincidence, it was called the Delaney Club. Here, I thought, within these hallowed walls of Thespis, we would sit of an evening with our Napoleon brandies and long-stemmed pipes and discuss Chaucer, Charles Lamb, Ruskin, Voltaire, Booth, the Barrymores, Duse, Shakespeare, Bernhardt and all the other legendary figures of the theatre and literature. The first night I went there, I found thirty-two fellows playing gin rummy with marked cards, five members shooting loaded dice on a suspiciously bumpy carpet and four members in separate phone booths calling women who were other members' wives.

A few nights later the club had a banquet. I don't clearly remember what the occasion was. I think it was to honor one of the members who had successfully managed to evade the police for over a year. The dining tables were long and narrow, and unless you arrived around three in the afternoon you had no control over who your dinner companion was going to be. That particular night I was sitting next to a barber who had cut me many times, both socially and with a razor. At one point he looked slowly around the room, then turned to me and said, "Groucho, we're certainly getting a lousy batch of new members!"
We can certainly agree with Groucho about disdaining the club, but in so doing we must jettison any notion that self-deprecation is involved.

What we end up with at the end of the day is Groucho's comedy as a strange admixture of self-loathing and superiority. As the author puts it: “The almost pathological force of the Marx Brothers’ humor is that the subverter is brought down along with the subverted, which has the fact of putting the subverter on top.” Given that the targets are so often people we sympathize with and Mr. Siegel's compelling case that Groucho hated himself on some level, it's hardly surprising that we don't enjoy seeing him come out on top. Such is the stuff of tragedy, not comedy.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Lee Siegel Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Lee Siegel (cultural critic)
    -BOOK SITE: Groucho Marx The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel (Yale University Press)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Groucho Marx by Lee Siegel
    -ESSAY: The Fraught Friendship of T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx (Lee Siegel, June 25, 2014, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Why I Defaulted on my Student Loans (Lee Siegel, 6/07/15, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: How Groucho Marx Invented Modern Comedy: Nearly a century ago, the comedian kicked down barriers and paved the way for Amy Schumer and Louis C.K. (Lee Siegel, Jan. 15, 2016, WSJ)
    -ESSAY: When City Elections Were Fun (Lee Siegel, Sept. 1, 2013, NY Times)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Groucho Marx Spared No One — And His Biographer Isn't Pulling Punches, Either (NPR, January 23, 2016, All Things Considered)
The conventional image of Groucho was that he was on the side of the little guy, and he spoke defiantly and insolently to powerful people and wealthy people... But my feeling is that Groucho was out to deflate everybody — that he was a thoroughgoing misanthrope.... His misogyny is relentless and thoroughgoing, and it's very hard to tolerate. His attacks on Margaret Dumont almost always take the form of attacking her status as a woman. And it's very odd that he keeps attacking her, because of course she might be wealthy and she might be somewhat clueless and she might be puffed up with her own virtue — but she's actually fairly kind, and a harmless person who just wants to help out these impostors Groucho is inhabiting. But he keeps insulting her for being a woman. And you don't find the same thing in Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy or W.C. Fields, but with the Marx Brothers, yeah, they took woman hatred to a whole new level. It's difficult to watch.

    -INTERVIEW: Raging against the internet machine: Cultural critic and author Lee Siegel believes the time is ripe for a mature debate about the web's impact on society, personality and culture (David Meyer, May 29, 2008, ZD Net)
    -INTERVIEW: Why one man defaulted on his student loans and suggests you should too (Lauren Lyster, 6/08/15, Yahoo Finance)
    -ESSAY: The New York Photo League's Radical Camera: The esthetic of American social realism, especially when it was fueled by Marxist fires, may have had it right all along. (Lee Siegel, 6/15/12, The Nation)
    -INTERVIEW: Portrait of the Artist on the Make: A Conversation with Lee Siegel (Scott Timberg interviews Lee Siegel, JULY 7, 2017, LA Review of Books)
    -PROFILE: Montclair resident’s new book explores money and familial tension (Ricardo Kaulessar, March 28, 2017 ,
    -INTERVIEW: Open book with Lee Siegel,/a> (Manchester Journal, June 9, 2017)
-ESSAY: Means of Dissent America’s lost culture of opposition (Lee Siegel, October 2015, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: How Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert blazed a trail for Trump (Lee Siegel, December 22, 2016, Columbia Journalism Review)
    -INTERVIEW: J’accuser: Lee Siegel (Boris Kachka, 1/10/08, New York)
-ESSAY: 'We see you, Lee. We see you.': The self-destruction of Lee Siegel, late of The New Republic (James Parker, September 10, 2006 , Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: Student-Loan Deadbeats: Fashionable Theft (Kevin D. Williamson, June 9, 2015, National Review)
    -ARCHIVES: Lee Siegel (Huffington Post)
    -ARCHIVES: "groucho marx" (The New Yorker)
    -ARCHIVES: Lee Siegel (Harper's)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel (Josephine Simple, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Joseph Epstein, Jewish Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Karl Whitney, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Rob King, Studies in American Humor)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Ryan Vlastelica, AV Club)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Victoria Segal, times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Charlie Riccardelli, AMERICAN MICROREVIEWS & INTERVIEWS)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx ()
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (John McMurtrie, SF Gate)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Michael Sandlin, Cineaste)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Christopher Bray, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Carol Poll, Jewish Book Council)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (scott Lerner, The Tablet)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (richard A. Blake, America)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Dominic Green, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Brian Bethune, Maclean's)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Clive Sinclair, Jewish Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Allen Barra, TruthDig)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (Rabbi Rachel Esserman, The Repoter Group)
    -REVIEW: of Groucho Marx (ron Slate, On the Seawall)
    -REVIEW: of The Draw: A Memoir by Lee Siegel (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of The Draw (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Draw,/a> (Christian Lorentzen, New York)
-REVIEW: of The Draw (Times Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of Against the machine: Being human in the age of electronic media by lee Siegel (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Against the machine (First Monday)
    -REVIEW: of against the Machine (Adam Thierer, Technology Liberation Front)
    -REVIEW: of Against the Machine (Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Against the Machine (RONNIE CROCKER, Houston Chronicle)

Book-related and General Links: