GUEST BLOG: Who is a Modern-Day Marx Brother?

Humorist Roy Bount Jr. and Prof. Lance Duerfahrd of Purdue University joined us Monday to chat about the Marx Brothers’ classic film “Duck Soup” (listen back to the show.) 

At one point, we pondered who are the rightful heirs to their comedic legacy — who might be a modern-day Marx Brother?

Prof. Duerfahrd had a few more thoughts on the issue, and he sent them along in an email after the show:

“All the examples that were mentioned (Colbert, Borat/Sacha Baron Cohen) seem not to fit the mold. One reason why we cannot recreate the Marx Brother effect today might have something to do with the place of the immigrant in our culture.

It’s not clear where the immigrant experience belongs either in our culture or on the screen today (and I’m not talking about the extreme cultural embassadorship of Borat, though it evokes this situation.) The Marxes tap deeply into that experience: they get fabulous mileage out of their real and performed ethnicities (Jewish, Italian, and whatever Zeppo might be). Their comedic struggle is curious: within their films, they both want to integrate into the society around them and also distintegrate that society. Their humor explores accents, misunderstandings, twistings of the English language into new shapes. They are also in a mode of perpetual scramble. Hunger seems to be a real condition to them. Single frames of their films show more joy in eating than there is in all of Babette’s Feast. Chaplin may have put the tramp on screen, but the Brothers put the immigrant there.

About the other possibilities for the Groucho trophy: Colbert definitely gives Groucho-like commentary on the news, but it’s always about a world he’s trying to keep up with, rather than a world he is creating.

Woody Allen’s technique in his earliest films is the closest thing to a Groucho sensibility. Both he and Groucho seem at times to speak in asides, neither entirely to the person on screen nor entirely to the camera. Both are comedians we overhear rather than simply hear.”

Prof. Lance Duerfahrd, Purdue University

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