The Essential Groucho
by Groucho Marx and Stefan Kanfer
published by Vintage
254 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Reviewing The Essential Groucho is much like reviewing Groucho Marx himself. If, like me, you are fascinated and amused by Groucho, then these excerpts from the many aspects of his career will be both welcome and delightful. But if, somehow, Groucho's brand of double entendre non sequiturs and deadpan irreverence leaves your funny bone untickled, then not only is there no hope for you but you will fail -- absolutely fail, with no chance to appeal your grade -- to enjoy this Groucho primer, a book of such deadly humor that its author and subject has been dead since 1977.
The Essential Groucho opens with an introduction by its compiler, Stefan Kanfer (also the author of the biography, Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx), who opines that Groucho's influence on humor and culture is so pervasive that "We are all Marxists now." A sentiment I wish were true, but the world's sad lack of wit makes me question such a utopian statement. Nevertheless, Groucho's iconoclastic wit has certainly left a stamp on Western humor and certainly his style and image have passed into 20th-century mythology as much as Elvis Presley (who died the same week Groucho did), Marilyn Monroe, or Albert Einstein.
The Essential Groucho showcases Groucho's presence and success as a stage performer, film actor, comic writer, media personality, radio star and television host. In that spirit, it is divided in the following sections: dialogue excerpts from stage productions, feature films and radio serials; correspondence taken from The Groucho Letters; reprints of feature articles on Groucho and his brothers from Time Magazine and The New York Times; a selection of his comic prose for various periodicals; and, finally, snippets of banter from Groucho's long-running radio and television game show, You Bet Your Life.
The opening and closing sections -- the excerpts from stage, film, radio and TV -- display Groucho's most famous incarnation: the wielder of merciless non sequiturs and irreverently unsentimental quips. In this era of videotapes, laserdiscs and DVDs, the Marx Brothers films may be easy to see, but it is still nigh impossible to directly experience You Bet Your Life or the radio serial Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, so excerpts from these non-filmic sources are especially welcome. (For readers wanting more than the snippets of the serial offered here, the complete scripts were made available in the gorgeously produced 1988 book Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel: The Marx Brothers' Lost Radio Show.)
My favorite section of The Essential Groucho is "Freelancing," which reprints Groucho's comic prose. I had read most of theses pieces in Robert S. Bader's definitive collection of Groucho prose, Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales, but it was a delight to reread them in the context of Groucho's other incarnations. It was an added bonus to encounter a few pieces not found in the Bader. Groucho isn't as well-known as a prose humorist as he is as a comic performer and it's a shame. Perhaps this selection, presented in the context of Groucho's lifetime of achievements, will help redress the balance a bit.
If there is one aspect of Groucho missing in The Essential Groucho, it is his life as a fictional character. Ron Goulart has been writing a series of humorous detective novels starring a sleuthing Groucho. Dave Sim, for many years now, has been featuring in his long-running comics series Cerebus a character called Lord Julius (Julius being Groucho's real name) who not only looks like Groucho but acts and talks exactly like him and, in truest Groucho manner, leaves all other characters helplessly befuddled. A few choice excerpts from these two sources would have further cemented the editor's assertion of Groucho's lasting cultural influence.
I'd like to quote another profoundly funny man, a 20th-century mythic icon in his own right and the man whose work led me to Groucho in the first place, Woody Allen: "[Groucho] is simply unique in the same way Picasso and Stravinsky are, and I believe his outrageous, unsentimental disregard for order will be equally funny a thousand years from now. In addition to all this, he makes me laugh." The last word, however, should be Groucho's. So, when reading The Essential Groucho, remember this: "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." | June 2000
Claude Lalumière -- a January Magazine contributing editor -- is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.