Steve Stoliar is the author of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House, a bittersweet memoir of the last years in the life of Groucho Marx. He has also written material for Dick Cavett as well as penning episodes of such television series as Murder, She Wrote, Simon & Simon, The New WKRP in Cincinnati and Sliders.
Listen to Episode #75 here
Raising Eyebrows with Steve Stoliar
Steve Stoliar is the author of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House, a bittersweet memoir of the last years in the life of Groucho Marx. He’s also written material for Dick Cavett as well as penning episodes for such television series as Murder, She Wrote, Simon & Simon, The New WKRP in Cincinnati, and Sliders. Welcome, Steve.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Thank you for your patience setting this up. I rescheduled on you three times and you kept a sense of humor throughout it.
That’s what you think. You’re sitting on an ejector seat.
That’s lovely. Wait 45 minutes before you hit that. Steve, if you didn’t work or weren’t working as a writer, what would you be doing?
I’ve always had an interest in Archeology and Paleontology and I was a History major at UCLA for the first couple of years I was there. I don’t think I gave a lot of thought to exactly what I would do, probably teach but I’m lucky I fell into the entertainment and literary world because I honestly don’t know what else I would do nor what else I’d be skilled at.
Were you meant to be a writer?
I like to think that writers have transferrable skill sets.
It was never a compulsion. I never thought of as a kid, “I’d sure love to write and get up every day and have to write and all that.” I don’t think of writing that way. It’s not something that I absolutely have to do. I have all these stories to tell. I have a lot of emails to send and a lot of angry comments on Facebook but honestly, I’m not one of those writers. I’m not disciplined that way, although somehow I have managed to stagger from project to project and keep my nostrils above the waterline on rent and other frivolities like that.
That’s interesting because this has come up a number of times in previous podcast episodes of this notion that writers write, they get up every day, they write. You’re saying you’re a writer and you’ve obviously been a successful writer, but that’s not your MO. How do you pull it off then?
I don’t know, but somehow I’ve managed to do it. I also have done voiceover work and I’ve edited other people’s work but there always seems to be something either literary or entertainment-angled about it. I’m not fabulously wealthy so I don’t think it can be said that I’ve succeeded and now live very comfortably and don’t have to worry.
I’ll put as a point of contrast. I received an email from a friend who’s a writer, who is thinking of moving to an even cheaper place than he already lives. He’s thinking about moving to like Montana or Ohio just because it’s become so difficult to make his way as a writer and he’s a good writer too.
It’s a very a difficult path to navigate in between kidding yourself and throwing in the towel. There is no right way to do it. There’s no magic litmus test. It’s very difficult when people ask for my advice. My advice usually starts out with don’t take anyone’s advice because their circumstances are unique and you can’t really transfer that over to, “I met this writer and he said the thing to do is this.” If he has to keep moving to more obscure, cheaper places and still trying to make it as a writer and it just becomes this point of diminishing returns, this occupational decrescendo., he may have to look at whether or not that’s wise if only from a survival standpoint. I’m very hesitant to want to take someone’s dream and say, “You’re kidding yourself,” or, “Give yourself six months and if nothing happens by then,” because you never know when something might break but I salute his stick-to-itiveness.
I think some of this is looking for the right break to take things to the next level. That idea right there is part of what brings me to speak to you. I’m going to foreshadow that and we’re going to return to it.
Our smarter students will recognize the foreshadowing and Peter’s early remarks that come into play at 37 minutes and twelve seconds.
You authored Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House. You were, correct me if I’m wrong, Groucho Marx’s assistant.
I’ll correct you and you know why I’ll correct you? Because I was his secretary and there was nothing derogatory or second class about that. I know that people are called assistants now the same way that stewardesses have become flight attendants and all that stuff. I hate, loathe and despise political correctness, I will stick up for secretary. When someone says assistant, I picture it as someone in a lab coat handing Groucho a beaker of phenolphthalein solution or something like that. Offhand although it was years ago, I don’t think there were that many times when Groucho said, “Would you hand me a beaker of phenolphthalein solution, Steve?” I was, in fact, his secretary. I handled the fan mail. I took dictation. I organized his memorabilia for donation to the Smithsonian. I helped out in those secretarial jobs. That’s the short answer to your question.
We have time so I want to get into the longer answer if I may. How old were you and how old was Groucho?
I was all of nineteen and Groucho was 83, almost 84 when I got the job.
You had it for how long?
I had it for the last three years of his life from July of 1974 to August of ‘77.
You had mentioned being in college. Did you forego college for that time or you did it while you were a college student?
I did it while I was a college student. As a matter of fact, the way I came into Groucho’s world was, I and all of my friends, it was a prerequisite for being a friend of mine that they be Marx Brothers fanatics. Even though the Marx Brothers only made thirteen films, one of them, Animal Crackers, had fallen into obscurity over the years. It’s because of an oversight where the copyright wasn’t renewed by Paramount. The rights reverted back to the people who wrote and composed the book and music for the play Animal Crackers. It was George S. Kauffman, Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. I started a petition drive on Bruinwalk at UCLA while I was a student there to put pressure on Universal Studios. It had acquired Paramount’s pre-1949 library, but didn’t feel it was worth spending any money to clear the rights to an old black and white movie. It was while I was at UCLA that I was also the head of the committee for the rerelease of Animal Crackers or Crack before it had any narcotic significance. That is what led directly to my employment.
[bctt tweet=”It’s easier now more than ever for people to have opinions and express them broadly.” via=”no”]
Groucho heard about you, found out about you.
There was a woman named Erin Fleming who was a struggling Canadian actress. She was looking for any kind of work and there was a producer and writer named Jerry Davis, who used to be at MGM and then worked on That Girl and The Odd Couple and a lot of other classy shows. He had recommended to her that she ask Groucho for a job because he was looking for a temporary secretary. Jerry thought, “This’ll help them both out.” What happened though was as more time went by, Erin became much more in control of Groucho’s life personally and professionally, becoming his manager. Because he was in his 80s and eventually would suffer strokes and was slowing down, he became more reliant on her for making many decisions, big and small, in his life.
She was the one who had heard about the committee and arranged to bring Groucho to Bruinwalk one day. I said, “Groucho, I’m very happy to be meeting you after all this time.” He said, “You should be.” Erin said, “This is Steve Stoliar. He’s the one who started the committee to get Animal Crackers rereleased.” Groucho said, “Did you get it?” I said, “Not yet, but we’re working on it.” He said, “You better or I’ll fire you.” I said, “I didn’t realize I was working for you. How much are you paying me?” He said, “A little less than nothing.” That was a remarkable path crossing because all I had ever wanted to do was shake his hand and thank him for all the laughs. I thought that would never happen. He’s in his 80s and fading out.
I had seen his One-Man Show in December of ‘72 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion from way in the back of the auditorium. I thought that is as close as I’m ever going to get to this man. Yet here we were shaking hands and chatting with each other in front of reporters and news people and a throng of hippies, Marx’s fans and students who kept pushing in to try to hear. His voice was so thin and papery by then and they didn’t want to miss anything. We were concerned for his safety because there were hundreds of people there. The film was released. I had two summer jobs that fell through for which I will forever remain grateful. My dad was pushing me, “Get off your fanny. I don’t want you lying around the house, find a job.”
I thought I had nothing to lose. I called Erin and I said, “Is there anything at all that you think I might, maybe?” She said, “I used to be Groucho’s secretary but I’m so busy with other business matters. We need someone to handle his fan mail which has just gotten voluminous in years and also to organize all of his memorabilia which is going to be donated at Smithsonian. It has to be someone who really knows a lot about the Marx Brothers.” In my mind’s eye, like a a Tex Avery cartoon, she’s still on the phone while I’m on the doorstep ringing the bell. I know there was a gap of time there and I wouldn’t have known where to go. I thought that I would be working in an office, maybe in an office building on Wilshire Boulevard handling forwarded fan mail. Maybe I’d get to see him twice a month if he came in to pick stuff up or signed.
She says, “You’ll be working directly in Groucho’s house. There’s a room that his last wife used as an artist studio that you could use for your office and you can make your own hours.” I thought, “They’re going to pay me money to do this?” My mom used to talk about wanting to just bathe in chocolate sauce. It’s just this indulgence and you can’t get enough of it. In fact, I was like ankle-deep in the most amazing gold Groucho letters, scrapbooks with reviews of their vaudeville and Broadway shows, photos of the brothers out of makeup and scripts with Groucho’s handwritten notations, all this stuff. There was a lot of fan mail coming in because this was right when the Marx Brothers hit that resurgence in the late ‘60s and ‘70s when the iconoclastic Baby Boomers embraced the anarchy of the Marx Brothers and WC Fields and Mae West.
They had begun re-syndicating Groucho’s TV show, You Bet Your Life. That was reaching a whole new audience as well. When I came to work for him, I was writing a crest of rediscovery, even though he never officially was retired or forgotten. He didn’t have the same problems, for instance Stan Laurel or Buster Keaton did taking any job to keep money coming in and only a handful of devoted people really keeping in touch with him and saluting him. Groucho, in the mid-‘60s, late ‘60s was doing guest appearances, he would be on The Dick Cavett Show, even did the Hollywood Squares. He was never really retired and then came this wave of recognition. I was delighted to be part of that. Part of that was Animal Crackers playing in theaters in 35-millimeter for the first time in decades. I think it broke the house record at the UA Westwood that had been set by The French Connection. That was personally gratifying because I knew there would be people that wanted to see this more than just my friends.
I’m speaking to someone who is a huge Groucho Marx Fan. Previously, I talked to Mike Reiss, who’s a writer for the Simpsons and he adores the Marx Brothers and talked about having watched Duck Soup more than 50 times in his life. He had an interesting line, if I remember correctly. He argued that Groucho was the best verbal humorist ever and was paired with Harpo, the best nonverbal humorist ever or among the best. He said Zeppo just helped hold things together.
Chico, of course. I wouldn’t wrestle him to the ground saying that’s preposterous. In addition to being verbally skilled, it was Groucho’s facial expressions plus he was quite live. If you watch him dancing in Hooray for Captain Spaulding and the way he walked and the wiggling eyebrows and all that, there was a physicality to him that was more than just the lines. I’m sure Chaplin and Keaton fans might argue with the Harpo thing but given the fact that they were brothers, that is a pretty rare, completely capricious happenstance.
My guess is that probably each of them made the other one better as a result of that.
I think so, even as much guff as Zeppo gets for not adding a lot. When he was subtracted and then you tended to see Kenny Baker or John Carroll or some of the bland leading men there. You wished that Zeppo were still among them because there was a certain kindred spirit. They had been through so much together from vaudeville and Broadway. There is the cliché which was true from my own experience that Zeppo had great charisma and was very funny off-camera. I witnessed it. I was the brunt of it to some degree. I was going with a young lady at the time and Zeppo was coming up from Palm Springs. Erin asked if I wanted to stay at dinner and meet him. I said I would, but I have a date. Erin said to bring her. I thought, “I like that,” because this the young lady I was dating was very self-possessed and unflappable. I thought, “This’ll flap her.” I picked her up and she said, “Where are we going?”
As I start to snake my way up Hillcrest Road in Beverly Hills, I said a little out of the way place. She said, “I know where we’re going. I don’t want to do this.” I thought, “Too bad, I’m putting you through this.” It ended up being a delightful evening. Zeppo, big surprise, took a liking to her. She was nineteen, very bright, blonde hair, blue eyes. He was flirtatious. He said, “Steve, you and Linda should visit me in Palm Springs sometime.” I said, “I don’t know. I was there when I was about eight and it was sweltering.” He said, “When were you there, in the summer?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Steve, it’s cold in Alaska during the winter too.” She and I eventually broke up and I wrote him a letter figuring he’d been around the block a few times with relationships, asking for advice. For the love of Lauren, I get a phone call from Palms, “Steve, it’s Zeppo. I got your letter. I hope I’m not stepping on your toes, but do you think Linda would go out with me?”
I thought, “This is really weird. I asked him for help and he’s hitting on her.” I thought, “She got a kick out of him. She was nineteen and he was 74.” I said, “All I can say is I’ll ask her.” He said, “I would never want to do anything that would upset you. Do you understand that? If this is at all awkward?” I asked her and she thought it would be a kick. They went out once. He took her to dinner in San Diego and then a Jai Alai game in Tijuana. He wasn’t playing Jai Alai. I guess that was Zeppo’s first date. We’d go to dinner in San Diego, then a Jai Alai game. I saw him after that and he said, “I want to tell you, Steve. I didn’t even kiss her goodnight. You need to know that. I had a lovely time but all she did was talk about herself.” I saw her on campus and she said, “Zeppo was really nice but all he did was talk about himself.” After that, when I’d be at a party and Zeppo would be up from Palm Springs, he would introduce me to someone and say, “This is Steve. He and I dated the same girl, but he got further with her than I did.”
I want to step back for a second. I was foreshadowing most of that. Groucho is such an iconic, figure. I have a copy of The Humor Code and a copy of the book is a planet with the well-known Groucho eyebrows, glasses, nose, mustache. Few people in comedy have that iconic signature. This is equal to the Michael Jordan leg spread dunk. Even though that’s familiar, there are likely to be readers who only vaguely know about Groucho and the Marx Brothers. If you would indulge me with a brief history lesson, the rise of this comedy troop.
Remind me that that’s your question in case I forget. I first wanted to say that as I get older and I am apparently getting older. It’s interesting, in one sense there are fewer people who can place the name Groucho and the Marx Brothers because you get past Generation X and then into the Millennials. There’s so much content for them to see.
If I may, some comedy generally doesn’t travel as well as drama does. People still read Shakespeare. Casablanca holds up pretty well as a movie. Even elite comedy often can struggle.
The flip side of the people that I have to explain who they were is that I will often hear from people saying, “I ran Monkey Business and my granddaughter who’s four laughed at Harpo,” or, “My son who’s ten thought Groucho was very funny,” or, “I showed it in my class and it went over well.” When I was working at Groucho’s, I would meet all of his contemporaries. The people who wrote and directed his films, fellow humorous and writers and to them I was this young whippersnapper, this kid. It was gratifying to them that someone at that late date knew all about who Nat Paren or Irving Brecker or SJ Perelman or Morrie Ryskind were. Now that I’m in my ‘60s, I find myself having the cockles of my heart warmed by hearing that some of these kids now still appreciate the Marx Brothers. Unfortunately, a negative force working against it is the horrid plague of political correctness.
I’ll have people say the wake Groucho treated those women on You Bet Your Life is so sexist. They feel like he should have been ashamed of himself in retrospect because 60 years later it would fall out of fashion to be flirtatious or for an older man to be flirtatious with a younger woman after the whole #MeToo thing. It’s retroactive political correctness that gets me more het up than regular political correctness because that’s the thing. There was that Lillian Gish auditorium at that college and they renamed it because she was in The Birth of a Nation which glorifies the Klan. That’s not something they want to be associated with. There’s just such as low tolerance for things. As you are talking about the timeliness of comedies versus timelessness of classics, there are lines in Marx Brothers films that cause people to gasp.
Groucho says the Headstrongs married the Armstrongs and that’s why Darkies were born. While there was a song called That’s Why Darkies Were Born that was very popular, it doesn’t mean that Groucho was a racist or thought that black people were second-class citizens. As a matter of fact, he was for a man born in 1890 remarkably progressive and liberal, given the fact that he was literally a Victorian. It was lots of pictures of him with his arm around Nat King Cole and extolling the virtues of Sammy Davis and civil rights and all this stuff. Now there’s such a zero-tolerance that you get that or some of the musical numbers with Harpo from A Day At The Races and At The Circus where all these happy dancing black people are behind him, like following the Pied Piper or something like that. There’s no sense of historical perspective. There’s only reflexive condemnation.
This anticipates the question that I was going to ask. I was going to ask you, how do you think Groucho would react to nowadays outrage culture?
I think he would find it ridiculous because Groucho was a reasonable, fair-minded person who could see both sides of almost any argument. I think he was a very fair evaluator of people. People who he disagreed with, he still respected. There’s a wonderful Firing Line with Groucho and William F. Buckley who were diametrically opposed politically, but he admired Buckley. They have a very intelligent, not going for the laughs conversation. It might be on YouTube, but it’s available. It’s interesting because it agrees to disagree conversation between two very intelligent people who respect each other. Morrie Ryskind who co-wrote Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, A Night At The Opera, adapted Room Service and was a close friend of Groucho in the early years and for the rest of his life. He took a real sharp right turn and became a super conservative Republican writing for the Herald Examiner and decrying everything about the people who were protesting the Vietnam War. He was really a Goldwater Republican and Groucho didn’t cut off from him.
He didn’t say, “He’s not welcome here anymore.” They would either steer clear of politics or have a pleasant disagreement and then go onto something else. Groucho was big enough to say, “I like this man a lot. We’re long-time friends. That’s not a deal-breaker that he’s a super red Republican and I’m a super blue Democrat.” Groucho also didn’t have much tolerance for the intellectualism. For instance, I bristle on his behalf since he isn’t around anymore. When people talk about Duck Soup as a satire on the futility of war, they may see it as that but anyone who tries to give credit to any of the writers, the director or any of the four Marx Brothers for setting out to make a satire on the futility of war is flat out wrong. It’s not a matter of opinion.
They were interviewed over the years and to a man, they said, “We were not making statements on the war. It had nothing to do with Hitler being elected that year and war, trying to have a message or something. We were just trying to be funny.” In Cocoanuts, Groucho was the manager of a hotel and in Horse Feathers. He’s the head of a college. How about making him the head of a mythical country that would give him even more raw material? The year before Paramount had done Million Dollar Legs with WC Fields where he was the president of Klopstokia, another one of those mythical European places. People see things in the films that were not intended. It’s an actual mistake to try to credit them with intentionally satirizing the futility of war and sending a message.
They were just trying to find what setting would lend itself to funny stuff with the Marx Brothers and making him the head of a country would be the ultimate example of that. He wouldn’t get angry about it but he would just click his tongue and shake his head and say, “We were just trying to be funny.” That’s what the writer said. That’s what Leo McCarey said when Joe Adamson interviewed him for Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, a wonderful book. It is a mistake to ascribe these. You’ll read about King Kong and they’ll say that the sliding of the big log through the gate is sexual. It’s meant to represent Kong’s virility. It kept Kong on the other side of the wall. Can I give you another anecdote that isn’t Marx-related? Is it another good example?
[bctt tweet=”Vaudeville is both a place and a type of entertainment. It’s a variety show where you would pay to get an evening’s worth of entertainment.” via=”no”]
If I understand, what you’re saying is while in literature and film and music and so on, some people want to satirize, they want to have these illusions. They want to reference other things, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
John Ford had appeared at UCLA a couple of years before I was there. They had a screening of The Searchers for students and then Q&A afterward. I wasn’t there then, but my teacher told me that Ford was sitting in a chair and they were taking questions from the students. One kid raised his hand and said, “Mr. Ford, I notice in a lot of your films you use a lot of fences. I was wondering if the fences were meant to represent how man separates himself from his fellow man or from nature. What is it that the fences are meant to signify and why you use them in your films?” Ford leaned into the microphone and said, “I make a lot of Westerns and out West there’s a lot of ranches. If you don’t have fences, the cows walk away.”
Critics and academics and so on are very good at reading deeply into things even when they don’t need to. It was given to me, a clip. It was a filmmaker who dissected a scene out of the movie that he made, Shazam!, and explained how so much of filmmaking is just problem-solving.
It was impromptu. It was raining that day, so we shot it indoors.
It could be that or in his case, he explained there was a peculiar set of behaviors that the characters engaged in which is they’d put their jackets on. They came out onto the porch, then they were told to go back inside. It would’ve just made more sense to put them in the window and have them in the window during the scene. He’s like, “The reason that this happened is the wardrobe person said, ‘The kids are now going to be in these subsequent set of scenes in winter and they’re going to be in their jackets. If you could have them in their jackets now, it creates continuity later.’” He’s like, “Shit, how do we do this?” In this case, he makes this what would seem like a peculiar set of directorial decisions because he’s just trying to solve this problem, “How do I get these kids in their coats? How is it that they don’t take them off when they go back into the place?” He’s relying on a little bit of change blindness in the audience.
If they’re focusing on continuity errors, they’re not caught up in the plot and the character.
Indeed. Most people get caught up in the plot and the characters are transported by the narrative. These people are on a ranch and so there’s going to be fences and this is how we know they’re on a ranch versus out in the middle of the American West. I think that’s great. Dealing with outrage culture, political correctness, the fact it’s easier now than ever for people to have opinions and express them broadly via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and beyond. It is interesting for comedy. There are a lot of comics, especially middle-aged comics, who complain about it. I don’t do colleges anymore and so on.
What would happen if Don Rickles were starting now? He wouldn’t get booked.
This is an interesting thing. First of all, the comics who say, “I’m not doing colleges anymore,” for the most part are comics who’ve made their money so they don’t need to do colleges.
Seinfeld would probably be okay.
Seinfeld made $69 million in 2018.
Carefully budgeted you can get by on that.
Here’s my belief is that the best comics adapt. They change based upon the culture. They’re good at seeking out the right audience for them. First of all, Don Rickles would be fine. The reason why I think Don Rickles would be fine because Anthony Jeselnik is fine. That is that you can be a comic like Anthony Jeselnik and not hold back at all. You can find an audience who welcomes it. There was a time where comics, people like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, went bluer. They turned up the volume on the outrage.
They started out wearing a suit with short hair and ended up with either the frizzy afro of prior or the long hair and beard of Carlin and a lot of four-letter words.
They adapted. You can adapt in the other direction if you need to.
I have to think about that because that starts to make me uneasy because it starts to sound like if you’re going to entertain at colleges, you better know that if you use this phrase or if you try to go this route, you’re going to get hissed or booed. Because you’ve trespassed on something that is now taboo and you should think of a different joke or a different way to go unless you don’t mind pissing off the audience. That doesn’t sound like it goes in reverse the same way it goes forward with blue material.
I don’t know why there’s an asymmetry there. I guess my thing is this is, “You can be an artist or you can do commerce. If you expect people to pay for your shows, then the audience does have a say. In that way, you recognize it.
It is show business. It isn’t just sitting in your velvet smock and painting an abstract in the attic that no one has ever gone to see or writing poems in a diary and only you have the key to it. You are doing something intended to make money and if you only alienate people then what you have accomplished?
That’s the point. I also think the other one is that idea of I’m not going to do college campuses anymore sells the comic short in their ability to tackle tough topics.
It makes me want to take the students by the hand, by the shoulders and shake them and say, “Listen and think and understand the context. Stop being like a knee that gets hit with a rubber hammer and you shut down at the first mention of this thing,” especially because college is supposed to expose you to think. It’s like the First Amendment, it protects a safe speech, but it doesn’t need it. I would fight to the death for your right to express it.
That’s fair. I’ll make a counterpoint and I spend time on college campuses. I see this. The issue is that withdrawing and saying, “I’m out,” doesn’t help. Let’s be honest, comics, their first goal was to get the laughs. Their second goal is to change people’s mind. You give them a choice between the laughs and the changing your mind, they’re going to take the laughs 99% of the time. To pull yourself out of that then foregoes both the laughs and the ability to change minds. If you are worried about the youth of the nation, the youth of the world, their fragilities and sensitivities and the fact that their well-meaning but snowplowing parents are setting them up for failure. The question then becomes, “Can you use your superior communication, cognitive comedic abilities to find a gentle way to start to make this happen?”
I don’t know. It’s a rhetorical question.
You can. Do you know who’s going to do it? Not The 50-year-old comics, not the 60-year-old comics. It’s going to be the 20 and 30-year-old comics. That’s the nature of art. Chris Rocks have the luxury of being like, “I’m out.” If you’re 25 and you’re trying to get several years of comic experience to become great and then if you can navigate those crowds, you can navigate any crowd. I have the great luxury of not having to make people laugh, clearly. I’m very good at that. Let’s get back to the primer. I want you to give a primer on the Marx Brothers, their rise from vaudeville to creating among, some people say Duck Soup is the best comedy film ever made. Let’s talk about that.
I always try to avoid those, “What are the hundred funniest, best or worst,” because it’s highly subjective.
[bctt tweet=”Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup was the Golden Trinity and the purest, funniest stuff the Marx brothers ever did.” via=”no”]
There is a consensus that this is a top comedy film and their best.
The Marx Brothers were born in New York in the late 1800s. Zeppo, the last, the youngest was born in 1901. He just made it to the 20th century. They began as singers and eventually started throwing comedy material in. This was in vaudeville in the very early 1900s and they would tour the country playing every manner of live theaters that had vaudeville. They would be on the bill with acrobats and trained dogs.
Vaudeville being both a place and a type of entertainment.
It wasn’t a Broadway show. It was a variety show, assuming anyone knows what variety shows still are. Where you would have a comedian and then a singer and a tap dancer and an animal act. You would pay your money and get an evening’s worth of entertainment. Generally speaking, the star attraction was second to last on the bill. That was considered the most prestigious spot.
I don’t know. Certainly, the first couple of acts, people are still taking their seats. You fritter it away. It’s like, “Now, here’s what you’ve all been waiting for.” Too bad for the person that follows, but that was generally considered second to last was the ultimate billing in vaudeville. By the time they got into comedy, they still weren’t doing shows with a beginning, middle and end. They were doing humorous sketches, like that would take place in a classroom or something like that. Harpo, named because that was his instrument of choice, would get a solo. Chico, because he chased chicks, had an Italian accent, obviously not natural since they were Jewish kids from the Upper East Side, he would play the piano.
I don’t think it was a decision on Harpo’s part not to speak. He was nervous and he didn’t have a very good knack for remembering lines and delivering them convincingly. His verbal participation gradually decrescendo-ed to the point where he said nothing but acted with his body and noises like honking a horn or make whistling. He was a pantomime artist and quite an accomplished harpist, self-taught. He was self-taught on the wrong shoulder because he was looking at photos that were reversed. He played better on the wrong shoulder than most did correctly. In the early ‘20s, they started having more sophisticated material that was enough to build an actual Broadway show around. The first was I’ll Say She Is, which still didn’t really have much of a plot but at least was a prestigious Broadway show rather than a knockabout, having to avoid donkeys and magicians backstage.
At least it was a Broadway show. They really hit their stride with the Cocoanuts in 1925, which was written by George S. Kauffman, who was the most successful playwright at the time. I would compare him to Neil Simon, except I wonder how many people know who Neil Simon is. Having Kauffman write the material really elevated their prestige and the Cocoanuts was a huge hit followed by Animal Crackers on Broadway. Paramount signed them up to do movies. The first two were shot in New York on Long Island. In fact, they were shooting the film version of Cocoanuts during the day and at night would go back into Manhattan to make up for their live performance in Animal Crackers. They were performing two different shows, one for the camera and one for live audiences.
I want to interrupt with a couple of questions. One thing that’s striking about the rise of the Marx Brothers is that it feels familiar in the same way that you find standup comics in particular, maybe improvisers. Mostly you think of standups as taking a bigger stage, moving to more accessible mediums. Steve Martin at one point being the world’s biggest standup and getting into TV and film and then branching out and not only in just performing, but other roles, writing, directing and producing.
Because you earn the clout to call the shots instead of being at the mercy of a producer or something like that.
The Marx Brothers seem like one of the first, if not the first, to really do that, to move from vaudeville to Broadway.
There were contemporaries like Eddie Cantor. Eddie Cantor is another misconception that the record was set straight in a film class at UCLA. That the biggest, most popular money-makers in early sound comedy were not the Marx Brothers, Mae West and WC Fields. It was Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Brown and Will Rogers, who now probably have seventeen fans combined.
Why the change? I’m super interested in Mae West also.
I got to meet her at Groucho’s too.
That must have been neat. What a fascinating woman.
Tastes change. The people who were white-hot in 1930, ’31, ‘32, it didn’t travel well. If you watch Eddie Cantor musical comedies now, they’re pleasant. You can see why he would be a popular and likable entertainer, but nobody can’t catch their breath because of Eddie Cantor’s rapid-fire stuff or the zany antics of Joey Brown. Most people now, if they can place the name Joe E. Brown, remember him as Osgood, the older millionaire in Some Like It Hot that falls for Jack Lemmon in drag. He was super popular decades earlier, but there aren’t Joey Brown fans. Will Rogers has a place as a revered and beloved humorist because of the witty things that he said that is still true about politics and Washington and that sort of thing. Watching a feature-length Will Rogers’s film asks a bit of the audience. It isn’t the movie’s fault. Nobody in 1930 thought, “I wonder if 90 years from now this will still hold up?” It’s only a fluke and a credit to the people whose material still makes people laugh now, even if there are the occasional trespasses into what’s no longer politically acceptable. Still, in general, people will enjoy the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello.
Some of it is the physicality of it all.
Drawing a saw across someone’s head will always be funny unless it’s in real life.
The second thing I wanted to ask about was something that I read because they were doing theater and then they were turning these theater shows into movies. They tested out lots of jokes. They knew what worked, what didn’t work and it helped enhance the funniness of the movies. Unlike most comedies now, you film these scenes. You think they’re funny. You don’t know how funny they are until you test screen it. If you don’t have enough funny scenes, you have to rush and scramble to do reshoots. Is that right that they have that advantage?
Yes and no. Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were Broadway smashes that then traveled across the country as a roadshow. They knew what worked and they knew the stuff. When they went to Hollywood in ‘31 after making for the film versions of Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, the next three films they made, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup are the Golden Trinity, the high point, the purest, funniest stuff they ever did. Unfortunately, audiences in the early ‘30s missed a lot of the dialogue and the gags because they were laughing so hard. The pace is much quicker than in Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Also, part of it was that the boom microphone opened them up. In early sound films in the late ‘20s, they had to have the mic somewhere near where the actors were. They couldn’t really move that much or the sound wouldn’t pick them up.
In Hollywood, they had the boom microphone that could follow them around. With Monkey Business, it was just like the Marx Brothers had been shot out of a cannon compared to Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Duck Soup didn’t perform that well at the box office. Paramount didn’t pick up their option. They were toying with going back to Broadway where they were fully appreciated and had big hits and people didn’t bug them about the things that studios would. Irving Thalberg who was running MGM in the ‘30s was playing bridge with Chico and he said, “I could make a movie with you and your brothers that would have half as many laughs and make twice as much money.” That begat Night At The Opera and the great controversy amongst Marx Brothers fans, because I think that the average fan of classic cinema which does not mean before Star Wars, it means silent comedy, the ‘30s, ‘40s, maybe into the ‘50s, they would think that Night At The Opera is the Marx Brothers’ best film.
It may be their best film in terms of production values and pacing and quality, but in terms of laughs, Thalberg was right. It had half as many laughs and that and Day At The Races were their biggest moneymakers. The purists, and I consider myself one of those, see going to MGM as the beginning of the end for the Marx Brothers as opposed to hitting the big time because MGM was so prestigious. Groucho said it meant the world to them to go to MGM, which was a bigger deal than Paramount because there you were with Clark Gable and Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow.
This was the time where actors had a contract with the studio.
The other thing that Irving Thalberg did was he said, “Because so many laughs got laughed over in your Paramount films, let’s take some of the scenes on the road and try them out live.” They did that with Night At The Opera and Day At The Races. They had the writers sitting in the audience taking notes. This got a big laugh; this didn’t go over well. They would revise the dialogue and they were able to leave room for the laughs such that if you pop the DVD of Night At The Opera in and watch it by yourself, it seems slow because there are moments when Chico and Groucho are looking at each other after saying something and it isn’t because they forgot the next line. It’s because they’re letting room for the laugh there for their audience. If you see it in a theater now with an audience that appreciates the material, it works. It still works, but the Paramount films don’t really require the communal experience. It was a give and take when they went to MGM.
[bctt tweet=”Going to MGM was the beginning of the end for the Marx brothers as opposed to hitting it big time.” via=”no”]
That’s super fascinating. That’s somewhat consistent with my understanding of this. That’s really neat. I want to chat with about you a little bit more, but in terms of this primer, they do their thirteen films.
It seems there’s so much to say.
People can read your book.
I wouldn’t stop them from reading the book available in three formats. It’s available on Amazon. You can get either the paperback or Kindle or the audiobook with me doing all the voices, which I’m used to doing just from telling people that George Burns would come over and say, “Let’s see. Do you want to live to be an old man? Become an actor? Groucho, how are you? I remember when you and Gracie would”, so I’m used to slipping in and out of the voice.
I wanted to ask you about that. That was something that I was going to come up. You said you’ve done voiceover work and very clearly you do voices. Where’d you get that?
No idea. People ask me, “How can you suddenly sound like Raymond Burr while you’re talking? “Tokyo is in ruins as Godzilla,” and the best I can come up with is, “How do you know how to shape your lips to whistle a specific note?” I don’t know. I have had a flair for it since I was a kid and would get in trouble for making fun of teachers and rabbis and so forth.
I’ve enjoyed it. You did the audiobook. I’m working on my book and I asked about reading it, doing it for Audible and the folks I’m working with very politely but sternly said, “Don’t.” They essentially said, “Get a pro. It’s incredibly difficult.” Pros make it look easy. “It’s very difficult. It will be better for your listeners and better for you.”
It’s on a case-by-case basis. If you have a flair for that and you tell it well and you can enunciate and you don’t mind. It took many hours in a sweatbox. The circumstances weren’t the greatest, although it came out very nicely and I’m very pleased with it. I cannot imagine anyone else doing it.
For you, it seems perfect.
You must’ve seen especially local commercials where you can tell the owner of the store said, “No one can put this across the way I can.” They say, “We have every kind of jacket that you could ever look for because you, the customer, are important to us,” and they think, “That’s what I want,” and you don’t. You want some of the, “You, the customer, are important to us and that’s why we want to.” There is no blanket rule about that, but you need to understand you are getting into heavy-duty recording. We had to take breaks for oxygen and Diet Coke because it was so hot and he had to turn the air conditioner off because you’ve got the ambient noise in the background. I can’t advise you, but as far as someone just saying, “No, don’t do it, leave it to the professionals,” I wouldn’t accept that as definitive nor would I say, “No one could do this the way I can,” because if you end up like the clothing salesman, then it’s like, “They should’ve gotten someone that can do this.”
Clearly, you have more skills than I have. I don’t think it’s fair to say. I don’t mind saying when I’m outclassed. Besides writing, you’ve also worked on documentaries like John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shemp Howard.
I got to interview Shemp’s granddaughter.
I think people know John Lennon, Elvis Presley.
We don’t know who Martin Luther King is, but believe me, they know who Shemp is. That’s what’s wrong with America, ladies and gentlemen.
Who is Shemp?
Shemp was one of the original Three Stooges. Even though people think of him as a replacement Stooge because the original Three Stooges were Moe, Larry and Shemp. Shemp went off on his own and Curly was brought in. Those tend to be the classic, Curly being the fat funny guy and Moe being the boss that abuses the others, and Larry being the stooge with the frizzy hair, also played the violin. In the ‘40s, Curly had a stroke and so Shemp was brought back in to be the third Stooge for the short films they were making at Columbia. They cranked out a lot of them. That’s another reason why to me, unfortunately, the Three Stooges tend to be better known than the Marx Brothers is that there’s so much more material as opposed to thirteen movies, some rare TV appearances and Groucho’s quiz show in the 50s. The same thing with Laurel and Hardy, who I love, but they made silent films. They made sound shorts, they made sound features. There’s a whole lot of stuff that they made from the late ‘20s to the early ‘50s consistently.
I can tell you this, I’m much more familiar with the Three Stooges and the reason is I was a kid in the ‘70s and ‘80s. When you got sick and you stayed home, there were only six stations, the VHS or VHF and the UHF. On weekends, you could see a lot of Three Stooges in syndication.
Television was a huge boost to the Three Stooges popularity. They had only just stopped making shorts when they started syndicating the stuff on television. Those weren’t made for children. Short films were part of going to see a movie and you would see the feature and then they would have a newsreel because it wasn’t television and it would show you things that happened in the news within the past week or so, politically, sports, fashion, entertainment. There might be a cartoon and maybe a Three Stooges short, but it was not just a kiddy thing, but the kids really embraced them in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. In fact, the Three Stooges were the first celebrities I ever saw in person because I was a kid in St Louis.
We lived there till I was seven and the Three Stooges were promoting one of either it wasn’t Have Rocket, Will Travel but it was one of those late ‘50s early ‘60s things with Curly Joe taking over for the original Curly. They appeared somewhere and I got to see them, which was really exciting, but I couldn’t understand why they looked so much older in person than they did on my television set. I’m watching films from the early ‘30s and looking at them and saying, “Curly doesn’t look right. He doesn’t look the same,” and then Larry had what he had left of his hair slicked back. I remember Moe saying, “This is Larry, he combs his hair with an egg beater.” Even at seven, I thought, “That joke doesn’t work because combing your hair with an egg beater only works with the frizzy hair to layer it up.” Anyway, this is the kind of child I was.
Let me ask you two more questions and then I will free you. This maybe sounds like a strange question, but was Groucho a good businessman?
I am not sure. He lost his first fortune in the stock market crash of ‘29. I was going to say that it is not unique to him. He took the advice of Eddie Cantor and invested in Goldman Sachs. The day that the stock market crashed, they were still doing Animal Crackers on Broadway. Groucho was really thrown by that. His stockbroker called him up and said, “Marx, the jig is up.” That was how he phrased it to him. That night when he came out, there was a moment in the show where Groucho just turned to the audience and said, “Don’t ever get financial advice from Eddie Cantor.”
It meant nothing to anyone there, but he just had to get that out. He spent the rest of his life more frugally. To think about the hardscrabble years of vaudeville, sleeping in bunk beds, and all that stuff and horrible stuff and being mistreated and people were throwing stuff at the state and all that. Making it to Broadway and being big Broadway stars and about to make your first movie. They had moved from their apartment living to have big expensive houses in Great Neck, Long Island where all the famous literati had their estates there and bought big cars. It was like, “We’ve made it,” and then bang, it’s all gone and that must have been terrifying. Once Groucho came to California, he was more frugal and I think he’d stayed with the same investment broker for decades.
A guy named Salwyn Shoofro, a very strange name, but he pops up in The Groucho Letters: Letters to and from Groucho. They were friends in addition to just being a client. When Erin Fleming came in, she started causing Groucho to spend his money more freely, redecorating the house and buying more luxurious things that he really didn’t give a shit about but wanted to please her. I think Chico was considered. This is interesting than on the other hand the situation. Chico was the more shrewd businessman and was great with numbers just like an idiot savant with numbers in his head, but he was a compulsive gambler. He would throw away good cards in a card game to make it more exciting. He would bet $100 which of two raindrops would reach the bottom of a taxi window first. Even though he was great with money, he was horrible with money and was always broke. It’s the whole cliché and it always pops up on Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast, Chico needed the money. It was true. Chico always needed the money and his brothers were always bailing him out. He probably had the best business sense if only he had used it for good instead of evil.
I see, or for fun at the very least. The last question, tell me one thing you’re reading, watching or listening to that’s great and that’s really good, not just run-of-the-mill good but you think it is outstanding.
Are you saying something now?
Yeah, something that you’ve been reading, that you watch, you listen to that you’re really enjoying.
A thunderous silence. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything. You sideswiped me with that. I’m trying to think of the last movie that had me going so I couldn’t catch my breath. It’s certainly Borat. It isn’t that often. A lot of people think I’m not enjoying something because I’m not laughing. The truth is I’ll get it, I’ll appreciate it, and I’ll enjoy it but it takes an extra thing. Sometimes I’ll smile loudly. I know I’m shortchanging.
That’s alright. I just needed one. Borat is a good answer.
Reasonably, for this millennium at least. When I did Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast the first time, I was purple faced, sweat dripping hysteric. We played very well off each other. We didn’t know we’d get along well. He just thought I was on to talk about my book and then we took off the gloves and got in the mud pit of being nine years old and it just had a blast. I told my sister I want her to play that at my funeral.
I think that’s probably the best place then with that idea of playing that podcast at your funeral rather than this one. That said, this has been a great pleasure and super interesting. I really appreciate your time.
It was my pleasure.
- Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House
- Mike Reiss – past episode
- The Humor Code
- Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo
- The Groucho Letters: Letters to and from Groucho
About Steve Stoliar
Steve Stoliar is the author of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House, a bittersweet memoir of the last years in the life of Groucho Marx. He has also written material for Dick Cavett as well as penning episodes of such television series as Murder, She Wrote, Simon & Simon, The New WKRP in Cincinnati and Sliders.
Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!
Join the I’m Not Joking community today: