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The Marx Brothers: Princes of Practice

April 11, 2015

 

When we think of legends of comedy, the Marx Brothers might come to mind. In the years leading up to World War II, they were the toast of Hollywood. Their zany antics, ribald double entendre, and disregard for authority proved to be a winning formula—not just for their day, but for generations of college students born long after the war.

 

Watching the Marx Brothers’ old black and white movies, it’s tempting to believe that Groucho, Harpo and Chico must have been endowed with the magical comic gene, winners in the cosmic, humor lottery.

 

What about poor Zeppo, the fourth, and largely unheralded brother, sometimes shuffled to the side as the romantic lead? In most movies, this would be a plum role, but in a Marx Brothers film, it was akin to sitting on the bench.

 

Zeppo, bored with his lack of star billing and reportedly never really invested in the whole comedy enterprise, eventually dropped out. His lack of interest is a pretty good indicator of why, when we think of the Marx Brothers, we sometimes struggle to remember his name.

 

But according to Stefan Kanfer in his biography Groucho, the other three brothers showed a dedication to perfecting every nuance of their material, with Groucho perhaps being the most obsessive of all his siblings. Scenes which passed on screen for moments of absolute improvisational genius were in reality painstakingly rehearsed and memorized.

 

The brothers had spent years in Vaudeville honing their craft, accumulating their 10,000 hours, practicing relentlessly to hit the perfect comedy pitch in front of raucous and often unforgiving audiences.

 

When they finally got a chance to bring their wacky style of comedy to the motion picture industry, they weren’t about to take any chances on whether or not they’d be funny. To that end, they broke movie scripts down into smaller sections and went on the road for several months before filming, performing before live audiences in an attempt to work out the unfunny kinks. 

 

A Marx Brothers publicist, Teet Carle, tells a story about rehearsals for a scene in A Day at the Races when Chico is trying to sell Groucho a discounted book:

 

Chico: “One dollar and you remember me all your life.”

Groucho: “That’s the most nauseating proposition I ever had.”

 

Carle reports that Groucho was fixated on finding the perfect punch line. He tried the bit out for weeks with a thesaurus's worth of substitutions, including obnoxious, revolting, disgusting, offensive, repulsive, disagreeable, and distasteful. For some reason, in the end, none of these words proved to be as funny as nauseating.

 

When we think of the Marx Brothers, dedication to practice doesn’t usually come to mind, but the brothers’ quest to garner audience approval even drove them to employ former Vaudeville actors to perform their own material in front of them so they could get a more objective opinion on script quality.

 

The fact that we’re still watching Marx Brothers movies today suggests they were on to something. They demonstrated what the great American writer, Mark Twain, said long before the Marx Brothers hit the stage and screen, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

 

Or as Vince Lombardi once said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.”

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