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Book Review: Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: Selected Writings of Groucho Marx, edited by Robert S. Bader

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My dad was a huge Marx Brothers fan, and I grew up watching their movies with him on television. Their crazy antics were (and still are) funny and surprising to watch: Harpo, silent and subversive with his top hat and raincoat that held all sorts of humorous props, including a horn he could honk at inappropriate moments; Chico, constantly chasing girls and cracking wise; Zeppo, always the affable straight man; and Groucho, with his painted-on mustache, glasses, and omnipresent cigar, saying outrageously funny or simply outrageous things, and circling the perimeter with his trademark hunched-over walk.


[The Marx Brothers, L-R: Harpo, Groucho, Zeppo, and Chico]

I bought my father an album one year, An Evening with Groucho, from a performance he did in 1972 at Carnegie Hall. He sang songs and told old jokes and stories about his family. Groucho had a distinctive personality, voice, and delivery, and while I was reading Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: Selected Writings of Groucho Marx I couldn’t help but hear the funnyman’s voice, much as I remembered him on that album.

We all know that Julius “Groucho” Marx made movies with his brothers and hosted the successful quiz show You Bet Your Life for many years, but many may not realize that he was also a prolific writer. It makes sense, as many comedians write their own material. Groucho and his brothers wrote many of their stage shows and movies, but they also had writing collaborators.

Editor Robert S. Bader points out in his introduction that because of the close relationship of Groucho with his writing partners, it was often difficult to determine the extent of some of their contributions. Groucho might have an idea and write something up, and then send it to friend and collaborator Arthur Sheekman for polishing. Whether you are put off by whether Groucho may have collaborated on any of the writings included in this book or not, they are undoubtedly in Groucho’s familiar, comic voice.

Not only is the book full of funny anecdotes and Groucho’s trademark humor, but there are lots of insights into his early days in theater, vaudeville, and movies, detailing how the Marx Brothers got their start in show business, with stories about their life on the stage (and on the road). Their mother got them started in show business and was also their manager, booking them in vaudeville venues and traveling across the country with them while their father stayed at home. From the chapter “Our Father and Us” :

“During our early years in the theater, when my mother was camping in the booking-managers’ offices, informing anyone who would listen that her sons had got a lot of laughs in Aurora, or that they had taken four bows in Freeport, Frenchy was at home preparing a dinner.”

He goes on to tell funny stories about his father Frenchy’s fabulous foodstuffs and his not-so-fabulous attempts to start his own tailoring business.

Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: Selected Writings of Groucho Marx shows that Groucho was a sought-after and accomplished essayist, his pieces appearing in publications like The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Variety, and Hollywood Reporter.

There is also previously unpublished material in the book; letters and other ephemera, including family photographs. One of the more humorous, a letter he wrote to Woody Allen, with whom he struck up a friendship in the ’60s:

“I’ve arrived at the age where I’m beginning to believe it’s more fun to talk about sex than have it. When I say ‘sex,’ I assume you know what I’m referring to.”

Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: Selected Writings of Groucho Marx is a book that is best enjoyed by reading an essay or two at at time, rather than trying to read it all at once, from cover to cover. Groucho was a funny man, and his self-deprecating humor was always observant. Readers may want to savor some of it before going along to his next joke, like this excerpt from “Bad Days Are Good Memories,” a piece Groucho wrote for the Saturday Evening Post:

“For me, a happy experience does not necessarily mean a happy memory. On the contrary, I am sometimes jealous of my past.”

Now who hasn’t felt like that? Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: Selected Writings of Groucho Marx is a great look into one of America’s funniest voices.

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