I love people that can make us laugh. Among other things, they have the ability to make us forget our problems for a while. I figure we could all use a break from all the problems and bad news in the world today. This is the first of a series I will write about famous comedians.
One of my favorite types of comedy is slapstick. Everybody has his or her favorite comedians. One of my favorites is The Marx Brothers. Of particular interest is the derivation and meaning of their nicknames. Read on.
The MB comedy group consisted of five brothers. We all know them as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo. Very few people know their real names – Leonard, Adolph, Julius Henry, Milton and Herbert Manfred, respectively. Chico, Harpo and Groucho are generally considered to have been the core of the group. Harpo and Chico retired in 1949; Groucho went on to a third career in television. He is the best known of the brothers.
The MB were all born in NYC, sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany and France. They came from an artistic family on their mother’s side. Originally, their act was musical, not comedic. Harpo became proficient at six musical instruments. His best was the harp, from which he got his nickname. Chico was an outstanding pianist; Groucho played the guitar and sang; and Zeppo was a vocalist.
Supposedly, their comedy act evolved due to happenstance. One night in a small town in Texas their musical act was interrupted by a commotion outside the theatre. Apparently, there was a runaway mule, and much of the audience rushed outside to see what the commotion was about. (You can’t make this up!) When order was restored , the audience returned and the act continued. Groucho, annoyed at the interruption, made some funny and sarcastic comments about the audience. Rather than being offended, they laughed, and the rest was history. As the act evolved, Groucho added his trademark stooped walking and greasepaint mustache. Harpo began tooting a taxi horn in lieu of speaking and donned a red wig. Chico cultivated a fake Italian accent, while Zeppo, who the brothers considered to be the funniest, became the “straight man.”
The prime years for the MB were 1905 – 1949. From the 1920s on, they were considered one of the country’s favorite comedy acts. They starred first in Vaudeville and then in the movies. They made over a dozen movies, although not all the brothers were in all the movies. The American Film Institute has ranked two of them (Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera) in the top 12 comedy movies of all time. In addition, the AFI included the MB on its list of the Top 25 American male screen legends of Classic Hollywood.
The origin of their nicknames is generally credited to a monologist named Art Fisher who supposed made up the names during a poker game with the brothers. He just blurted them out one by one, and they “stuck.” I already explained about Harpo. Chico is short for “Chick-o,” as he was a ladies man, and “chicken” was a popular slang word for women. Gummo is derived from the fact that he crept around the theatre like a detective or “gumshoe.” The derivation of Groucho’s name is less clear. One version is simply that he was “grouchy.” Another version is that he was named for a character of the same name in a comic strip. Zeppo likely was named for a chimpanzee named Mr. Zippo. Whatever, the nicknames stuck, and the brothers’ given names were no more.
The MB’s comedy has endured through the years. Many television shows and movies have incorporated references to them. For example:
- Animaniacs and Tiny Toons have featured their jokes and skits.
- Alan Alda’s character on M*A*S*H occasionally performed a Groucho imitation to cheer up patients.
- In one episode of All in the Family Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers imitated Groucho and Harpo.
- In Welcome Back Kotter the “sweat-hogs” employed MB imitations.
Finally a few famous quotes from Groucho:
- “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
- “Last night, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”
- “I never forget a face, but, in your case, I’ll be glad to make an exception.”