Today is the birthday of Groucho Marx. I’ve done over a hundred blogposts on the Marx Brothers as a team; but very rarely focusing solely on my favorite comedian (okay, he vies for the top spot with a short list of others). This one was prompted by a query I got from a young comedian named Darius Emadi a few months ago. His question was quite simple, but so revolutionary and new and unprecedented, I was taken quite aback and thought about it for days. I have been planning this post ever since then.
The question was this: “Groucho Marx: Clown or Bouffon”? The answer is immediately apparent. No rumination required. Groucho is a bouffon. And that realization came as such a delightful thunderbolt. The idea of bouffon is the perfect frame for thinking and talking about Groucho. And yet this conceptual tool is so new that it’s only recently become available. And the misconception that Groucho is a clown in the conventional sense has driven so much that’s been so misguided, including his casting in films, and criticisms and appreciations by fans and writers.
I’ve written a bit about bouffon here and here. (I urge you to follow the links and explore. It will provide much background and insight and relieve me from having to remake the wheel here). Bouffon certainly grew out of clowning, much as Lucifer fell out of the choirs of heaven. It has much in common with that ancient art on the outside: exaggeration, costume, make-up and the goal of making people laugh. What it does not share with clown however, and this is crucial, is a need for SYMPATHY. In fact, bouffons are profoundly UN-sympathetic. It is what they are there for. They are nasty. They are the nasty parts of us made manifest. Groucho exists to confuse, lacerate, run rings around, fuck with, tweak, rattle, undermine and muss up the people around him. He exists to break things down, not build them up. The essence of his character is not to help people, and neither does he want nor deserve help. On those occasions in his early vehicles where he does assist the perfunctory ingenue or some stuffed shirt of a leading man, it is because it is part of the conventions of the format, which he subverts with every breath he draws. He has no “heart”. The attempts to impose one on his character in his later movies are like trying to graft an elephant’s trunk onto an octopus. This organ does not belong here! It is useless and irrelevant to this character. This is not to rail against goodness and emotion and altruism. My point is that everyone else has those. Some characters do not. Groucho does not. Thus Charlie Chaplin is a clown. Groucho Marx is a bouffon.
Mr. Emadi gave me great hope with his question by even asking it. By even thinking to ask it. By even knowing to ask it. Not for some egghead reason, though you’ll probably think so if you’re a complete philistine, as most people are. But, the fact remains that I myself am not a scholar. I have no degree, I am not affiliated with any institution, I contribute to no scholarly journals, I do not speak at symposia. I consider myself first and foremost a theatrical practitioner. Sometimes I write it, sometimes I direct it, sometimes I perform it, sometimes I produce it, sometimes I review it. And part of living that life, according to my philosophy, is mastering its history. So sometimes I write about it. That’s just part of the gig. I’ve always felt that way. Have you ever met a magician? I know quite a few of them. And one thing I’ve observed ACROSS THE BOARD is that they are absolute geeks about the history of their art form — back to EGYPT! — and they’ve always been that way. And I really feel actors and comedians should aspire to the same level of awareness. They certainly used to. That was the vaudeville way. Sometime around the 1960s, I think many began to cut loose from the moorings.
And contemporary Hollywood has so much to do with that,I think, this severing ties with tradition. And it happened in the same time frame, when “the business” became disconnected from its mother art, the theatre, and when self-respect became secondary to the bottom-line — a bottom line in a culture where everyone is racing to the bottom. The kind of thing that’s always bothered me: brilliant comic geniuses like Steve Martin (a philosopher and art collector) and Robin Williams (a Julliard grad) churning out the worst crappy movies for decade after decade…and then throw the art form a bone when they do Waiting for Godot in private for two weeks at Lincoln Center with Bill Irwin. I feel like you have a responsibility to the public, man. A great quote from the late Edward Albee (thanks Yvonne Roen!): “Don’t GIVE the people what they want. TELL them what they want.” Be a leader — LEAD. Make the culture better. Don’t degrade yourself. Especially when you’re a Hollywood player with wealth, power and fame at your disposal.
So what I love about Emadi is not that he’s an egghead — he’s actually a stand-up comedian. And he’s also studying clown in France. It won’t ruin him. So did Sacha Baron Cohen, whom I also admire. And really ultimately, in their way, so did Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin. Know whereof you speak and speak it. Anything else is to be a worm. You know what Groucho was doing when he wasn’t lampooning academia in Horsefeathers? He was compulsively reading books.