Marx Brothers as Comedy Modes of Expression

Two years ago, I did a short analysis of something I picked up on in the classic sitcom Seinfeld: how the four lead characters each represented one of the four Dramatica comedic modes of expression. Well, in the spirit of Hollywood, here’s a hastily-written sequel nobody asked for.

A couple of nights ago, I caught The Marx Brothers’s Horse Feathers on TCM and noticed another example of those modes. The first thing to note is that, if there is a scale of ‘comedy’ (from, say, realistic to surrealistic), Seinfeld and the Marx Brothers could not be more different. I’ve put some example videos in the headings to illustrate that, but they truly are on opposite sides of the scale. These guys were insane.

Physical Comedy — (Comedy/Physics) — Harpo

pratfalls, slapstick, and other forms of humor drawn from physical activities gone awry (for example The Three Stooges and much of Charlie Chaplin’s work)

The simplest to explain: Harpo does not speak. His comic persona is defined entirely by his utterly chaotic physical presence. He lifts his leg into someone else’s arm at random intervals, he runs wild across a football field in a horse and carriage during a game, and he sets his finger on fire in order to eat a candle.

Comedy of Manners — (Comedy/Mind) — Groucho

humor derived from divergent attitudes, biases, or fixations - often noted as drawing room comedies (for example Jack Benny or Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest).

Groucho’s persona is built on his blatantly disrespectful and inappropriate attitude toward… everyone, really.

Not only is he rude and insulting, he doesn’t really have any respect for any institution of any kind – in fact, most of the Marxes films see Groucho getting into a lofty position of some sort (whether that is the leader of a country or head of a university) only to completely steamroll and make a mockery of it with his bad attitudes. In addition, his razor-sharp wit creates comedy through his insults and backhanded compliments:

“Married. I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can’t see the stove.”

“I can see it now: you and the moon - wear a necktie so I’ll know you.”

“You’re a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you’re out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are.”

Comedy of Errors — (Comedy/Psychology) — Chico

humor derived from misinterpretation or, in psychological terms, attribution error (for example Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First and several Shakespeare comedies including Twelfth Night).

Chico’s role is that of the con man, always trying to fleece others into whatever scheme he’s cooked up (in fact, he usually plays a crook of some sort). But he also has an extra comedy-of-errors flair: as an ‘Italian’ (an identification that even he is dubious about), his questionable grasp of language results in a lot of misinterpretation and pun-based comedy. Rather than pick out a collection of clips, this one is best summed up with two of Chico’s greatest scenes:

The Sanity Clause
The Password is Swordfish

Situation Comedy — (Comedy/Universe) — Zeppo and Margaret Dumont

humor drawn from the difficulties created by placing characters in some predicament (for example TV Sitcoms).

This is the most interesting area of analysis for me. Zeppo was the fourth Marx brother for a time, before leaving to pursue a career as a talent manager. However, he’s rarely remembered as a Marx by anyone other than film buffs or Marx fans. Many critics of the time highlighted Zeppo as the ‘odd Marx out’ because of his lack of a comic persona:

“One of the handicaps to the thorough enjoyment of the Marx Brothers in their merry escapades is the plight of poor Zeppo Marx. While Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are hogging the show, as the phrase has it, their brother hides in an insignificant role, peeping out now and then to listen to plaudits in which he has no share.”

It makes sense, given that the other three Marx Brothers are so wild and unhinged, that the very subdued Zeppo would be all but dismissed by the audience. It feels as if he has no purpose or presence compared to the insanity of the other three, that the Situational Comedy that completes the four modes is missing. But, over time, people have come to appreciate that Zeppo does, in fact, represent that Situational Comedy:

“[Zeppo was] the Marx Brothers’ interpreter in the worlds they invaded. He was neither totally a straight man nor totally a comedian, but combined elements of both, as did Margaret Dumont. Zeppo’s importance to the Marx Brothers’ initial success was as a Marx Brother who could ‘pass’ as a normal person.”

Zeppo (along with the ever-clueless wealthy socialite Margaret Dumont, and occasionally some other foils if the gag called for it) don’t respond to situations in the way Jerry does in Seinfeld. In the Marx Brothers movies, neither Zeppo nor Dumont have any overriding memorable sequence without having at least one of the other brothers driving the scene.

Whereas Jerry is confronted with a series of uncomfortable and awkward situations that require him to take action to resolve them, Zeppo and Dumont are confronted with only one situation: they are rational people in a world of utter lunacy. They don’t pursue resolution, because they can’t – this world is too zany for them to even get close to resolving it. They’re basically just trying to get on with their lives (Zeppo typically getting the grounded romantic storylines) until one or more of the Brothers disrupt everything.

Jerry reacts to situations, but for Zeppo and Dumont, they are the situation.

Again, like Seinfeld, the Marx Brothers movies are not grand argument stories – these are movies built for laughs and the stories are weak to non-existent. In fact, Groucho complained in numerous interviews about the efforts to force a love story (or really any kind of strict narrative) into the movies, believing the laughs to be more important. But the team at the core of the movies is cemented in comedy history, as is the Seinfeld cast, and it seems to all come back to these modes of expression.