The Marx Brothers and American Comedy

by Daniel A. Kaufman


The Electric Agora’s own E. John Winner spoke with me about the Marx Brothers and their relationship to American Comedy.

1:30 Vaudeville, Burlesque, and Musical Theater 11:20 The Jewish Marx Brothers and “Playing in Peoria” 22:00 Writing for the Marx Brothers / Relationship with George Kaufman 27:40 Becoming the Marx Brothers 34:00 Marxian Themes 55:30 The Marx Brothers and post WWII Jewish Comedy 1:00:00 The Marx Brothers and American Comedy.


Origins of Modern Jewish Humor (Essential Lectures in Jewish History) Dr. Henry Abramson

Professional Jokers: Jewish Jesters from the Golden Age of American Comedy

An Unforgettable Night of Jewish Humor at the 92nd Street Y

Old Yiddish Comedy Catskill Honeymoon Movie 1950

“4 Pals”


12 responses to “The Marx Brothers and American Comedy”

  1. This was an absolute joy to record. Thank you EJ!!!!

  2. Well, thanks for the dialogue! I noticed that I started running out of steam near the hour mark, but you took up the slack, thanks for that. A thought was rattling around in my brain, and it didn’t clarify for a couple days. You raised the point, more so in a pre-show discussion, that Jewish comedy became more acceptable as American views on Jews and Jewish culture changed following World War II, for some evident and not so evident reasons – the impact of the Holocaust for instance, which rightfully horrified many Americans, including those who either never bothered thinking about Jews or who may have been even casually anti-Semitic. Also the Jewish presence in business and politics (both in liberal and conservative causes) was becoming more pronounced and (possibly thanks to a booming economy) less threatening to non-Jewish Americans. But I think that Jewish comedy, rather than being the beneficiary of this development, was in many ways part of the process itself. By the late fifties, it was quite clear that Jews, deploying diverse variants of Jewish humor, had been entertaining generations of Americans, even when they weren’t aware of it. By the late ’50s, early ’60s they were at last aware of it. By the late ’60s Jewish humor – of one kind or another – low-brow, high-brow, written, spoken, musical, slapstick, whatever – was everywhere,

    But there’s so much more to talk about, on this topic; I hope we have a chance for that another time. And I hope the readers visit the suggested links, for more information, but also for a couple of real good laughs as well.

  3. jofrclark

    Cool! The most profound insight for me was that comedy has at it’s heart a slightly cruel poking fun and undressing of something or someone who takes themselves too seriously – either “punching up at the pompous, powerful, and pretentious as a way of not taking ourselves and our social norms to seriously or a “punching down” at the downtrodden in an attempt to not take our own suffering and pain too seriously. Kind of an expressed shared humility.

  4. Good show.

    I like Jewish humour not so much the wisecracks more the misery.
    – How are you?
    – Barely alive.
    When I was coming off the boat in Haifa (from Brindisi) I was approached by a tout asking if I had any whiskey or cigarettes to sell. ‘No’, I said. He went off and called back over his shoulder laughing ‘I know you have cigarettes, they’re for my mother in hospital’.

    There were many funny bits in ‘Ravelstein’ by Bellow about his friend Bloom – the irony of a true biography masquerading as a novel and the authors resentment at ‘Ravelstein’ having all the misery. What about my toxic fish? Let me tell you. You died, I could have died. My young wife, so worried, it was beautiful. It’s touching how loved we are but you have to survive to get it.

    Nice to see Mr. Winner in the flesh talking into a walking stick. Faces like that are usually seen on mountains.

    Two Jews that have written about humour. Henri Bergson (Laughter) and Arthur Koestler (Act of Creation). The latter is brilliant.

  5. Azin

    Gentlemen, what an absolute delight, from explication, insightful questions and a trip down memory lane.

    Considering the focus was on the Marx brothers specifically and the profound Jewish influence on American comedy in general, it also dawned upon me, being Jewish I was acutely aware of the Brother’s Jewish heritage but, as Dan adroitly and perspicaciously pointed out, I too, never considered their shtick to be of a particularly obvious “Jewish” ethnicity, e.g., inflection, timing, sensibility; what one has since come to associate with the Borscht Belt and finding its most recent archetype in Brooks, Allen Larry David and Seinfeld. Rather the Marx’s were truly an American hybridization of merging cultures and I think the same can be said of the white bread Stooges.

    If I may add one bit of information as to another reason Jews and other minorities came to dominate showbiz and the early movies. The dominant American culture of the time, the WASPS. considered such pursuits such as acting, rather tawdry and not fit for polite company. And so entered the immigrants from Ireland, Italy and the European Jews to fill the vacuum.

    Dan said only your friends are allowed to call you E.J. and, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous, so Mr Winner, shame on you on behalf of a devoted Fat and Skinny fan.

  6. A couple corrections: In their 1940 anti-Nazi shorts You Nazty Spy! (title obliquely referencing Warner Bros.’ ground breaking Confessions of a Nazi Spy from 1939) and I’ll never Heil Again, Moe plays the Hitler character (quite memorably), Curly mimics Goering, Larry mimics both Goebbels and Von Ribbentrop. When I said they portrayed Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo (respectively) I was remembering another skit of theirs, the “Rat-tat-toodle-oodle-day-ay” song from Gents Without Cents. You Nazty Spy! was actually completed after the completion of the Great Dictator, but was released before it.

    The Great Dictator was released by United Artists, a distribution company Chaplin had helped found with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith.

    Apparently, it turns out Chaplin was not a Jew. He seems to have contributed to the legend that he was, even telling Einstein he had a Jewish grandfather. But he also occasionally claimed to be a Gypsy. The origin of this mystery seems to be his estranged relationship with his mother, whose background is unclear, and who was once institutionalized for mental illness. But I always did think of Chaplin as a Jew, and Groucho dropped a remark in one of his autobiographical writings to the effect that he believed this as well.

  7. Holy Crap! I totally thought Chaplin was Jewish!

  8. Azin

    I thought you and Winner were saying that Chaplin was so good he achieved honorary Jewish status as an homage to his comedic brilliance.

  9. As Dan and I discussed, the art of American Jewish comedy until after WWII, had to play along a broad spectrum of Jewish stereotypes without actually “playing Jewish,” at least outside of New York. My favorite example of this is actually Jack Benny, who, on reflection, is clearly playing the “stingy Jew” stereotype, complete with efforts to make deals that fail only when his vanity is threatened. But of course it is entirely possible to enjoy his performance of stinginess-in-the-extreme without ever connecting it up to the stereotype from which it derives.

    (That’s one reason I included the link to the bit with Benny, Cantor, Jessel and Burns; if that’s not four old Jews ribbing each other, I don’t know what it is. Do they have to wear yarmulkes for us to hear this?)

    Most people don’t know that Danny Kaye started in the Borscht Belt, and played Yiddish in his first appearance in comic short films. In the transition to mainstream film and radio, he kept the rhythm of Yiddish patter, but adapted it to more general (although still vaguely of immigrant origin) Americanized inflections. That’s important; by the late ’40s he was beloved by everyone everywhere, and by the late ’50s he was considered internationally representative of American entertainment.

    “The dominant American culture of the time, the WASPS. considered such pursuits such as acting, rather tawdry and not fit for polite company.” Yes, that has left an enormous legacy. There are traditions of WASP humor, especially in writing (Mark Twain, for instance), and some great WASP comedians (Fields, Rogers; for instance) but often, talk about :white bread” (which I’ve never considered the Stooges, BTW). When you mention that, I remember all those horrible ‘family-oriented’ situation comedies my mother forced me to watch as a kid – Ozzie and Harriett, Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, and the wretched Leave It To Butthead. Comedy should never be ‘educational’ in the grammar-school, Sunday-school sense.

    And yes, there are other immigrant and ethnic humor traditions that one should consider historically

    Also, I think Jewish humor in literature would be an interesting topic to review; but I don’t think I’m the one to review it. I mostly read non-fiction these days, and my memory is not so good these days.

    As to Fatty and Skinny – I’m not a big L&H fan, but they could do hilarious work – The Music Box elevates a certain kind of comedy to the status of art.

    Dan, I did too. But I thought you didn’t, that’s why I researched. Anyway, here’s a Jewish newspaper from 1931, an Israeli snippet from 2012, and a blog post that sums up my own thoughts on the matter (Wikipedia also concurs.)

  10. Azin

    Very enlightening, all of this. I never really considered the acceptance, or at least the general tolerance of overt Jewish characterizations as being not quite kosher before WWII. I was not receptive to that reality having met with virtually no antisemitism in my life. I grew up in a multi racial/ethnic project in the Bronx where such identifiers were just not considered. Even during a stint in the Navy it was never an issue. I was born in 1948. We were both of the first TV generation where not only did we experience the Golden Age of Television but it also for the first time in history opened up via the movies, the era and cultural milieu of our parents. History and the social sciences would never be the same again. The power of the audio/visual media can not be overstated as how it effects perceptions of “others” for good and bad.

    I think you are being unduly harsh about the the early sitcoms of our youth. They were popular and enjoyable if from today’s standards a bit too idealistic and white. I had many young boy fantasies about Donna Reed and those white pumps. But then again it was an halcyon era of post war economic boom if myopic to the festering social ills sequestered out of sight. The pater familias carried an attache to the commuter train and mother baked cookies in pearls.

    Yes, I think Jack Benny played a transitional role as you say in sneaking his Jewish foot into the door of Americana with the subtly camouflaged but obvious trope of Jewish stinginess. He masterfully wove it into a character that otherwise could have been of any well to do denomination, personal chauffeur, butler and valet included. His relationship with Rochester was priceless and afforded the opportunity for both punching up and down, each taking turns as the straight man. I think one can draw a rough parallel between the acceptance of the Jewish “inflection” into mainstream comedy after WWII, as epitomized by the coincidentally, recently deceased Jackie Mason and the portrayal of black men in movies and television before and after the civil rights era. From: eye rollers, stepin fetchits, criminals, Black fist pride, Websters, Urkles and Gary Colemans, comedians, side kicks, law enforcement commanders and macho leading men. Looks like the Asians are starting to get their turn. The power of bringing positive role models of minorities into your living room via the boob tube can not be underestimated.

    I only referred to the Stooges as white bread to mean they appeared ethnically generic white, not that they were run of the mill in their ingenuity and brand. I never found their humor other than the slapstick visuals to be particularly gut busting. Abbot and Costello, on the other hand, their episodic vignettes, (which greatly influenced the Seinfeld formula) were a brilliant transfer of vaudeville shtick to the televised screen. Some shows are just beyond classic that I never get tired of watching – The Honeymooners and Lucy. Something not mentioned was the writing talent behind many of the most popular televised comedy shows the credits of which read like a temple membership.

    One last thought, about Chaplin as a Jew. It’s an interesting phenomenon, the desire to belong, to not be considered the other. The eternal quest to find and point out anyone famous and important that doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of how a Jew doesn’t fit into the American persona and, proclaim, look, so and so is Jewish. Could you believe it, who knew it? So, see, we are really no different than the majority. We belong and fit in as well as any one, we are only a minority in numbers, not kind. We belong. Our good comrade Peter Smith could not wrap his head around this reality in a former thread as he questioned why after 2.000 years, the Jews seemed unwilling to integrate into host societies.

  11. Douglas Thompson

    Thank You Enjoyed this conversation. Marx Bros. were genius. Chaplin greater genius. Laurel @ Hardy mildly humorous.

    Was Chaplin Jewish? Maybe by lineage but I dont think culturally. Borscht belt comedy got stale (think Joey Bishop). I was never a fan of over the top Jewish comedians like Jackie Mason (of course he was good and made me laugh at times). His voice work on the Simpsons was epic however. Maybe difficult to relate to his stand up coming from very different background. Seemed forced to me.

  12. I have a special dislike for “Leave t to Beaver,: because my mother would literally sit me down to watch it, admonishing, “this is how a ‘good boy’ acts!” If it hadn’t been for the subversively irreverent Jay Ward cartoons of Rocky and Bullwinkle, I would have gone mad that year. Fortunately my older sister turned juvenile delinquent (and Beatles fanatic) the nex year, after which my mother abandoned my cultural indoctrination in order to deal with her.

    There was some good in early sitcoms – Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball were exceptional professionals, their timing cannot be criticized. But my point still holds, comedy should not be ‘educational’ in Sunday-school terms. Children raised that way end up vicious or dull-witted.

    BTW, Benny and Rochester had a real friendship, and Benny refused to stay at any hotel that would not rent a room to Rochester due to his color.