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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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  • Dominic Masella

    Jerry Seinfeld

  • Irene Moore

    It has to be the Coen Brothers and company. The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Ladykillers, Burn After Reading, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty …

    For a reflection of human behaviour in a comic tinted mirror, for wit, for a refusal to wear a literary straighjacket in language, for love of the form – film, these brothers have put together a collection that springs from, continues, and honours the madness of the brothers Marx.

  • ian pink

    Blount touched on one of the defining features of Marx Bros comedy–what I’d call a commitment to “deep silliness.” That is, an absurdist approach to reality which is political only in that it undermines any kind of seriousness, and exposes the falsity of constrained, constructed behavior.

    It’s not hard at all to find the Marx’s influence in modern comedy, and indeed all the examples mentioned contain strains of it. Watch any Jon Stewart interview and you’ll see him channeling Groucho–perforating the seriousness of his guest’s point with some snappy absurdist turn. Colbert evokes Groucho in his relentless refusal to break character, and his recent performance testifying before congress could have easily occurred in Freedonia. The relentless commitment to silliness in an effort to expose the falsity of people who purport to be serious must have its roots in the Marx Bros work. It’s the sense that “I may not be smarter than you, but I can sure make you look like an idiot.”

    I see their influence in Borat and the Coen Bros work as well. But the obvious contemporary parallels for me would be Monty Python, Mr Show (esp Bob Odenkirk’s character work) and The Tim and Eric Awesome Show (esp their collaborations with Zach Galifianakis). It’s a world which refuses entry to the serious–no sentimentality, no forgiveness–and never lets anyone off the hook.

  • Pavlov Darro

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned Robin Williams. Anyone who witnessed Groucho’s extemporaneous ribaldry will find very much in common with Williams.

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