From Karl Whitney‘s 4.20 Guardian review of Lee Siegel‘s “Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence“: “I have been a fan of the Marx Brothers since I was a child, in the early 1980s, when television stations used to fill blank spaces in the schedule with Duck Soup or Animal Crackers or A Night at the Opera, and I am as guilty of idealizing their act as anyone.
“But even I can see the plausibility of Siegel’s version of Groucho as not a nice, avuncular figure but rather an asshole telling everyone what he really thinks of them.
“Groucho’s comedy, Siegel insists, is actually radical, nihilistic truth-telling that masks the great comedian’s insecurity; its origins lie in his childhood, with his domineering mother and weak father, and his thwarted intellectual ambitions. A quiet middle child born as Julius Marx to European Jewish emigrants, who lived on the upper east side of Manhattan, Groucho wanted to be a doctor, but instead had to leave school young to join his brothers in show business.
There is a joke that dates back to the Marx Brothers’ Broadway play I’ll Say She Is!. Chico says: ‘The garbage man is here’, and Groucho replies: ‘Well, tell him we don’t want any.’ Siegel writes that it’s ‘not funny’, but when, during his Firing Line interview with Groucho, Buckley repeats the gag, the previously silent audience laughs. Surely the joke is bombproof if even the staid Buckley can raise a chuckle with it?
“Groucho began the show by admitting that he is a ‘sad man’, but as the discussion progressed, he started to arch his back, wave the cigar, joke with the chairman and play to the audience. It is as if a switch has been flipped, and the old Groucho character has come to life again.”
“Comedians are the dreariest people in the world,” Groucho says at the beginning of Buckley’s interview. “You should talk to my wife. Which is more than I do.”