Category Archives: Horse Feathers

The Garden of Curses: Down on the Farm with S.J. Perelman and Nathanael West

Joe Gioia

west:perelman

Let me propose that American literary humor, in becoming modern, branched in two during the Great Depression. On one side are absurd, language-driven vignettes, short magazine pieces ranging from whimsical to surreal where the narrator tries to make sense of, or at least describe, a crackpot world. This strand was largely created and mainly defined by S.J. Perelman, whose comic genius engendered two of the Marx Brothers’ best movies, Monkey Business (1931) and Horsefeathers (1932), and a steady stream of brilliant short pieces for (mainly) The New Yorker.

The other branch trades in black comic predicaments of grotesque dysfunction: a ridiculous overabundance of misery, of mental and physical illness and often absurd violence. Laughter here is defensive: relief at seeing something so horrible happen to someone else. This strain was best, and arguably first, articulated by Nathanael West, author of the superb short novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), who was, funny enough, Perelman’s brother-in-law.

In Perelman’s camp we find his older contemporaries, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, neither of whom had the idiomatic snap, that aggrieved brilliance and fine timing, that Perelman gave the form. Woody Allen and David Sedaris are his natural heirs, along with—in the sillier episodes with his oddly-named characters—Thomas Pynchon.

West’s example, heaping outlandish misery upon uncomprehending and helpless characters, has gained more followers: among the most notable being Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22 only gained wide recognition after Perelman praised it), Stanley Elkin, and David Foster Wallace.

And though West’s own work has never quite overcome the cult status given it following his untimely 1940 death, his artistry is now acknowledged, his works collected in a Library of America edition in 1997. The Day of the Locust may still be our best novel about Hollywood, made into a major 1975 film directed by John Schlesinger, starring Donald Sutherland and Karen Black, and creating, in one of its characters, a hopeless dope named Homer Simpson.

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Kent_Brockman

I have a friend who takes Saint Patrick’s Day very seriously. His extended family gathers on the weekend nearest March 17 to trade sarcasms and drink alcohol. They boil meat on the Massachusetts shoreline, and balance small talk with cruel reminders of past grievances until whiskey favors one end of the scales. Still, the older members of the clan can cover up scandal, debating sports while training the next generation in table games using root beer instead of the hopped variety for everyone under age. But what is under age? It’s up to them. Pretty standard for Jews.

Not really. They’re Irish. Of course they’re Irish. I’m Irish too, but not that Irish. None of us are Jewish, but the contradiction in ethnic stereotypes makes it funny, and necessary to present my title here instead of above: The Jewish Comic and the Irish Muse. Anything sooner would’ve altered the chemistry of the anecdote, and like a good bartender, a storyteller must know the order of ingredients to deliver their greatest effect, and repeat when necessary. Make it a double.

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The BCS of American College Football Humor

Chico, Harpo and Zeppo in Formation

College football has always been funny. From the inherent cartoonish comedy of young men dressed in animal costumes roaming the sidelines (to be clear, I mean the mascots) to the more nuanced ironies and absurdities surrounding conference realignments. How many schools can be in the Big 10? It’s all very funny stuff for a wide range of comedic interests. And all very American.

Many categories and characteristics and contexts of comedy could be offered up as the most definitive of American culture and its traditions, but surely one of the easiest arguments to make would be in support of placing college football at the top of the list. American college football is, well, exceptional. Of course, we would need a computer system in conjunction with votes from academics and comedic performers to be absolutely sure. And it wouldn’t hurt to have some prime locations for conferences to draw in folks for post-semester debates and parades. But I digress. Here is the fact: college football is an American cultural phenomenon as well as an economic and political, pop-cultural juggernaut that has few rivals as a forum and catalyst for American humor year after year. Disappointed in the overall quality and quantity of humor based on and derived from college football this year? Wait until next year! And don’t forget the off-season–just ask Bobby Petrino.

In celebration of the BCS championship game this evening (January 7), I thought I would simply cull together a few exceptional links to humor built around the cultural obsession that is college football. This, at the very least, should suggest many more possible choices, and I hope others will build on this modest beginning.

Three Stooges on the Field

Let’s start with two examples of the earliest use of football as fodder for physical humor from masters of the art form: The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.

The Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers (1932) takes on higher education in general as its target of respectability in this film. The plot revolves around corruption of college football via the recruiting of illegal players to win games. Imagine that! Fortunately, such things do not occur anymore, but it was certainly common enough in the 1930s for the Marx Brothers to use it for a running joke (that’s a college football pun).

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Hello, I Must Be Going: The Musicianship of the Marx Brothers

Marx Brothers (A Day at the Races)_01Few artists create something so wholly original that they themselves become their own genre. This is certainly true of the Marx Brothers. The family of Jewish immigrant entertainers came from the vaudeville stage tradition – which included sight gags, one-liners, and musical and dance numbers – yet the brothers remain utterly unique, even among the vast variety inherent in vaudeville. There is a certain serendipity in these geniuses developing their craft at a pivotal moment in emerging media. The Marx Brothers were able to perfectly bridge an old-fashioned stage routine with the relatively newer medium of talking film, bringing an otherwise antiquated form of entertainment into the modern age seamlessly.

Part of their genius lies in their audacity, and it is the manic chaos they created that keeps their work from becoming dated. The films were made mostly in the 1930’s and 1940’s although, other than the occasional plot device, the gags are almost sui generis, entirely detached from any current outside events or influences. By creating these exaggerated characters, and playing them consistently in each film, they create their own world, which can be picked up and dropped into any time and any place. This creates a timelessness to their work and is the reason the films still play just as well today as ever. Part of this success was the fortuitous timing of talking films, but only these four brothers possessed the right kind of mad genius and grounded talent to have seized upon it so well.

The brothers were essentially born into show business, and were each musical from the start. In fact, their original act (including brother Gummo, who soon quit to fight in World War I) was primarily a musical one. Billed, in various incarnations, as The Four Nightingales or The Six Mascots, they played theaters, concert halls and other venues throughout the country as a vocal group. In response to audience behavior and events outside one particular venue Groucho began to incorporate off the cuff one-liners into their act, which immediately became more popular with audiences than the act itself. Eventually, the brothers morphed from a musical act with occasional comedy into a comedy act with occasional music. The Marx Brothers formula as we now know it was born, as was the classic line-up of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.

Musical numbers remained a constant element of the formula. Groucho was an accomplished guitarist, studying the instrument for most of his life. But Groucho’s contribution to the musical numbers in the films was mostly as a comedic vocalist. He did not demonstrate the flashy virtuosity of Chico’s piano or Harpo’s harp, but his numbers became centerpieces of the films and some of the most memorable moments.

Two of his best-known numbers appear as a medley in 1930’s Animal Crackers, where Groucho plays the famed Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding.

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.

“Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray For Captain Spaulding” create a mock grand musical number complete with company chorus that heralds the arrival and celebrates the exploits of the famed African explorer. As always, Groucho’s unique dance moves are as graceful as they are ridiculous.

This fact I emphasize with stress,

I never take a drink unless –

Somebody’s buying…

I hate a dirty joke I do

Unless it’s told by someone who –

Knows how to tell it.

The Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg penned “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” from 1939’s At the Circus became one of Groucho’s signature songs, and one which he continued to sing for the remainder of his life at appearances. (The occasional songwriting team of Arlen and Harburg wrote several songs together, most notably “Over the Rainbow.”) Continue reading →

Happy Birthday, Harry Ruby!

On this day in 1895, songwriter Harry Ruby was born. In 1920, he teamed up with lyricist Bert Kalmar and they collaborated until Kalmar’s death in 1947; writing some of the cleverest and most enduring standards in the history of Vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood.

If you were here, I’d channel “The Drowsy Chaperone” and play Harry Ruby songs until the wee hours of the morning. Today, we’ll share just one– a personal favorite from the many they wrote for the Marx Brothers.

In this clip from the 1934 comedy “Horse Feathers,” eccentric Professor Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) serenades beautiful Connie (Thelma Todd) at a graceful pace now lost to the ravages of time. The song, “Everyone Says I Love You” is reprised in the film as each Marx Brother performs his own rendition. In 1996 it was the title song of a cinematic musical written and directed by Woody Allen.

Thank you, Harry and Bert. . . wherever you are. . .

The complete list of Harry Ruby song titles is available for perusal at your leisure and many more audio and video recordings can be found online.