by E. John Winner
When I was 17, I fell in love with three older men. Indeed, they were so much older that two of them were dead at the time. They were everything I wasn’t. They were short and thin, and though not athletes, they moved swift and agile. One couldn’t say that they were good looking (except that one was admittedly so beautiful that it was hard not to fall in love with him). But this didn’t stop them from making an impression on others. They were extroverted and quick-witted. Unlike the tall, fat, awkward, and self-conscious young man that I was, they moved easily among people; knew what others wanted; and interesting ways of providing it, which they practiced without hesitancy or doubt. One of the interesting things about them was that they were able to enter a room full of people and immediately dominate the social environment, not by drawing attention to their wealth or higher social status, but by loping in and out of the margins attracting attention only when doing so would get them something they wanted or simply was fun. And because it was fun, it was not about all the serious things going on in the world, but about the joy of debunking them.
What in the world would need debunking? Of course, I’m talking about the social world; the world that we inhabit solely by virtue of our status as articulate, community-engaged social beings. I’m talking about an interwoven web of customs, beliefs, even ideological commitments shared with others, from humble practices of “good manners” to grand rituals and celebratory rites. We live these beliefs and practices; they permeate everything we think, say, or do. They only function because we believe in them; or if we cannot believe, we observe them with respect, perhaps with fear (there are repercussions for not doing so, some quite grave), perhaps sometimes with compassion. But for believer and non-believer alike, they are all to some extent restrictive of our capacity for joy and enjoyment. Sermons in church and lectures at school are dull, often repetitious, and waste time that could be spent otherwise. Passing the salt (when asked “please”) to a doughty old aunt at the dinner table is an imposition, and then one has to listen to her gossip about neighbors about whom one could care less. And then there’s the retailer who drones on and on about political issues that he doesn’t understand. If he’s not shown deference, will he refuse to wrap up the shirt you just bought? The restaurateur wants us to wear shoes? Let the Health Department provide them. I mean, it’s their bloody rule after all.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
Who indeed? There’s the rub. It is not the fear of some unknown country that we endure, but the words, practices, and beliefs that bind us into community; however unhappily that might be.
Wouldn’t it be fun to fart loudly during the sermon? To lie down on the teacher’s desk and fall asleep? Throw the salt at the aunt? Pull the shirt over the shopkeeper’s head after poking him in the eye? The social world only exists because we agree that it does. This is not a bad thing and certainly not a reason in itself to tear everything down. (Since there is no “starting over,” what would we be left with?) But we sometimes need to remind ourselves of this; to poke the world and puncture its inflated importance, even if only just a little.
It is not that the Marx Brothers respected nothing. They respected children and the working poor. They respected young lovers and the pleasures of life. They certainly respected good food and a good cigar. They also respected music, with no restrictions with regard to genre or popularity. When in Night at the Opera, they seem to savage Il Trovatore, it is obvious that it is not Verdi’s opera itself that has called down their scorn, but the institution of the operatic theater, which had drawn a curtain of wealth and social status around the pleasure of listening to the music itself.  When the young lovers are at last allowed to sing their duet, and the forces of social control have been conned and crushed by an aggressive “Marxist” assault, the opera is liberated and opened to the audience, who can then enjoy the music as music, and appreciate the talent of the singers without the imposition of ego or moneyed influence.
What the Marx Brothers did not respect were social institutions that endeavor to determine in advance what could be enjoyed; what should be considered talent; what direction our lives should take in any walk of life. The trouble is that the normal and the normative doesn’t merely socialize, but stultifies. One of the reasons that I’ve never thought of the academic world as truly determinative of knowledge or value is because I took the lesson of Horse Feathers to heart.  I don’t understand how one can watch that film and continue to think that stuffy professors with an overweening sense of self-importance have anything to tell us that we couldn’t learn for ourselves. At best they may provide us with facts of which we might have been unaware, or challenge ideas and help us to see the world in a different way than we had previously. At worst, they yammer on and on about themselves and what they and their colleagues have decided is interesting.
Horse Feathers makes clear that what holds the Academy together is largely acquiescence; a willingness to agree with the status quo without serious question. Well that and … college football. Why football? Two reasons: First, American football is one of the silliest sports one can imagine, and we also know, now, that it is one the most dangerous (which makes it even stupider). Twenty-two guys running across a field to knock each other down over a piece of pigskin? The absurdity is self-evident. And yet, hundreds of millions of dollars pour into college coffers so as to provide the opportunity for college students to do this (and get serious concussions), despite it having nothing to do with what is done in the classroom, which is the raison d’etre for colleges and universities in the first place. Meanwhile, the professors, who should know better, agree that the football show must keep going despite the fact that a lot of their colleagues are doing shoddy research and publishing shoddy books, and their students are all falling asleep in their classes. Who can take any of this seriously? Well, most of us do, especially if we’ve been to college. But it’s good for us, occasionally, to hear Groucho sing “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” in his reply to questions from his faculty concerning his plans for Huxley College.
I first saw Horse Feathers at age 17. I had already fallen in love with the Marx Brothers by attending a screening of Duck Soup, their anarchic blast against government, war, fascism and greedy peanut vendors.  However, the revival of their films was not yet in full swing. When I chanced upon a TV Guide listing showing that Horse Feathers would be broadcast on a local station in a neighboring city (Syracuse), I pulled together what cash I had in hand, hopped a bus to that city and rented a room in a cheap hotel just to watch it. The print was in rough condition (and still is, as the television print is all we have of it), but the film was everything I hoped it would be: part Bugs Bunny; part Midsummer Night’s Dream; and part Godzilla stomping Tokyo. A weird blend of the comically chaotic with expertly executed satire. A blend the Marxes perfected in vaudeville and on Broadway, and which they managed to maintain through all of the first seven of their feature films. That night in Syracuse remains one of my happiest memories.
Horse Feathers is an interesting film for Marx Brothers fans, because it includes remnants of their first successful vaudeville sketch, Fun in Hi Skule, one of which is the scene where Groucho gives a lecture on the cardio-vascular system, and Harpo and Chico pelt him with spitballs. (“The blood rushes to the feet, gets a look at those feet, and rushes back to the head again.”) Having started out in musical specialty acts, this skit would not only establish them as comedians, but would define their comedy, not in the skit as written, but in its development. It may have been the skit they were performing in Nacogdoches, Texas, when the whole audience ran out to watch a local farmer deal with a mule that had broken its leg on Main Street. When the audience returned, the Marxes abandoned the script to assault the town with a battery of ad-libbed insults. For whatever reason, the audience loved it and Marxist anarchy was born.
The skit also helped to define the characters they would develop over the years. For one thing, the characters were all ethnic stereotypes. Everyone knows that Chico was not really an Italian, but many people do not know that Harpo had red hair (via a wig) because his character was supposed to be Irish, an identification that never really developed as Harpo was given fewer and fewer lines to speak over the years, transforming into an almost entirely physical comedian. Groucho, meanwhile, in Fun in Hi Skule, was supposed to play a stuffy German immigrant teacher, but during WWI, sensitivities were such that he began playing the part with a Yiddish, rather than a strictly German, accent.
The Marx Brothers were, of course, Jewish. They were not practicing Jews, and neither Groucho nor Chico were believers. Only Harpo occasionally voiced a faith, however vague, in a divine something-out-there. But Judaism is not just a religion, it is also a community, a culture, a tradition. Although their father was a largely unsuccessful tailor in New York City, their mother, Minnie, born the daughter of a magician back in Germany, and with a brother – Al Shean – already on his way to vaudeville stardom, always had theatrical aspirations which she strove to instill in her sons. I’ve seen no evidence that Minnie ever urged her sons into the Yiddish theater scene, which was thriving at the time, although it’s impossible to believe that living on East 92nd Street, they didn’t wander down to the Yiddish theater district running along 2nd Avenue into the East Village. But Minnie clearly tried to direct her sons into mainstream Vaudeville (at least those sons who could be directed, initially Gummo and Groucho; Chico and Harpo spent their late teens playing piano in bordellos, since these frequently also served alcohol in an adjacent barroom). This tells us that her aspirations were truly national in character, since the Yiddish theater circuit only reached into major cities and not very many of them. Unsurprisingly, the Marxes, in their various evolving acts in Vaudeville, traveled throughout the Midwest and as far into the South as was safe for Jews to go. (Groucho would later sometimes reject a writer’s offered joke with a disdainful “Will it play in Peoria?”) The strategy worked, and the Marxes finally broke out of Vaudeville into “legitimate theater” – i.e. Broadway – and then into cinema, just as synchronized sound filmmaking was being perfected and becoming all the rage.
Nonetheless, in their best work the Marxes retained a real sense of their experience as children of Jewish immigrants. Notably, stowaway immigration to America figures as an important plot device in two of their major films, Monkey Business and Night at the Opera.  One important function of Chico’s ersatz characterization of an Italian immigrant was that it allowed jokes about immigrants to be made throughout their careers. The characterization is commonly noted to be so transparently, obviously fake as to make it easy to deliver these jokes with tongue firmly in cheek. On some level, they really weren’t about Chico qua immigrant so much as about Chico as a fake immigrant. When in Animal Crackers, Chico’s Ravelli reveals that he knows art collector Roscoe Chandler is really former fish peddler Abie from Czechoslovakia, Chandler complains “Say, how did you get to be Italian?”  “Abie the Fishman” was apparently a standard stereotypical Jewish trope in American humor at the time. 
This is noteworthy, because when Chico engages in banter with Groucho (who’s supposedly wittier than him, but whom Chico manages to befuddle every time), what we hear, if we listen carefully, is a Jewish comedian playing an Italian immigrant effectively getting the better of a Jewish comedian playing a character that the Italian recognizes as a Jewish immigrant. It’s not so much a competition to see who’s more Jewish, but rather to see who’s more of an immigrant. Groucho, after all, has, by the time the Brothers reach the cinema, dropped any overt Jewish (Yiddish) accent. In his shabby tuxedo and with his constant wooing of Margret Dumont’s stuffy matriarchal dowager, he’s clearly trying to find some way out of his ethnic identity, and Chico won’t let him get away with it.
We can see this especially in the famous routine from The Cocoanuts, known by its most famous line, “Why a Duck;” and even more specifically in that line itself.  The setup is that Groucho is trying to get Chico to act as shill for him at an auction of some questionable property he has on his hands; that is, to raise the bidding by topping a bid until the desired amount is actually bid by someone willing to pay. Not Chico, who’s penniless, but a monied investor pressured by Chico’s increasing bidding to offer a higher price. (Of course this leads to disaster, since Chico doesn’t know when to quit, and outbids all the legitimate investors.) But first, Groucho has to direct Chico to the site of the auction, which happens to be across a river.
Hammer: Now, all along here, this is the river front. And all along the river…all along the river, those are all levees.
Chico: That’s the Jewish neighborhood?
Hammer: (pause) Well, we’ll pass over that…You’re a peach, boy. Now, here is a little peninsula, and, eh, here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.
Chico: Why a duck?
It is notable that in George Kaufman’s draft of the original play, Groucho’s character was not named Hammer but Schlemmer. It is unclear exactly how the joke about Levies and Passover would have played in Peoria. But “Why a duck?” has enjoyed nearly a hundred years of recitation, even by those unfamiliar with the work of the Marxes or its import.
Because of Chico’s broken imitation Italian accent and because his character often pretends to be slower, mentally, than he actually is, and because the character has scant regard for “proper English” in any event (and possibly because Chico did have a difficulty remembering his lines), Chico often seems to intentionally misunderstand what Groucho has to say to him, not just semantically but syntactically as well. A famous moment of this, in Night at the Opera, is when Groucho tries to explain the sanity clause in a contract, to which Chico laughs derisively “there ain’t no Santy Claus!” So I think most people hear “Why a duck?” in much the same way: Chico acting dumb and misreading Groucho to make a rather tortured pun. And that’s what it is, but it’s source is not Chico’s petulant refusal to hear what is clearly spoken, and ask, “well, what’s a viaduct?” Surely even he can hear the ‘v’ instead of the ‘w’ in ‘viaduct’. He can, but it’s not his mistake he’s remarking upon. It doesn’t take genius here to remember that the ‘w’ is often pronounced ‘v’ in middle and eastern European languages. What Chico is doing is listening to Groucho as a fellow immigrant. Herr Schlemmer appears to be answering a riddle he hasn’t fully expressed: “Oy, it’s a vy a duck leading over to the mainland?” “Why a duck, why no chicken?” Two hapless Rabbis debating an obscure line in the Talmud. The humor of the line really depends on one immigrant refusing another immigrant’s wish to be accepted as not an immigrant, as not speaking in the old language, nor with the old accent. Chico is not letting him get away with it any more than he lets Roscoe Chandler be anyone other than Abie the Fishman in Animal Crackers.
If American music can be said to have been largely determined by Africans who were imported here against their will (and a strong case can be made for that), it might also be said that American humor has been strongly impressed by the humor of Jews who felt pressured to “export” themselves from Europe to America due to the on-going threat of unjust laws, social discrimination and even pogroms in homelands where they were never allowed to fully settle or even feel welcomed. African American music can be said to constitute an effort to define a culture in opposition to an oppressive social order. Jewish American humor constitutes a legacy of immigrant memory and experience in an effort to salvage a culture forced into a nomadic existence by suspicious Christians and their Modernist heirs who barely understood it. I mention these efforts together, because of the enormous impact they have had in shaping the America in which we find ourselves today; an America that has never truly defined an “American Culture” as such and will never be able to do so until it embraces all the many different cultures that have contributed to the rich, diverse opportunities for expression and creativity of which the American people have revealed themselves capable in their brighter hours.
It’s not “the better angels of our nature” we really need to listen to. It’s the Marx Brothers.
 MGM, 1935. Director: Sam Wood. Written by: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, James Kevin McGuiness (story), Al Boasberg.
 Paramount, 1932. Director: Norman Z. McLeod. Written by: S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby.
 Paramount, 1933. Director: Leo McCarey. Written by: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Nat Perrin (additional dialogue), Arthur Sheekman.
 Paramount, 1931. Director: Norman Z. McLeod. Written by: S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone, Arthur Sheekman.
 Paramount, 1930. Director: Victor Heerman. Written by: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind.
 Paramount, 1929. Director: Joseph Santley, Robert Florey. Written by: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind.