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This week, we consider a legend of film comedy in a different light — as an heir to the tradition of literary humorist…

As is traditional in our house, New Year’s Eve was an occasion for Chinese takeout in paper cartons and classic comedy on TV, including a marathon of Marx Brothers movies on the TCM cable network. The essence of comedy is misunderstanding, and a couple of hours of watching the Brothers in action brings home how brilliantly conceived and executed was their crooked, triangular group dynamic. Chico’s shaky mastery of language leaves him easily misled by the hyperverbal Groucho, but he shares a rapport with Harpo; in turn, Harpo — mute but expressive — is locked in a tango of mutual incomprehension with Groucho, to the latter’s exasperation and his own delight.

Of them all, Groucho had the most demanding role. Chico and Harpo functioned largely as a closed unit, but Groucho, while serving as intermediary for the two of them, also interacted with supporting casts of dowagers, patsies, steamship stewards, military brass, and straightmen of all stripes. This ability to communicate with the larger world made Groucho the only Marx to have a viable career outside the context of the Brothers’ act, and — as demonstrated in Groucho Marx And Other Short Stories And Tall Tales, a newly revised and updated collection of selected essays and letters from throughout his six-decade career, edited by Robert S. Bader and expanded with previously-unpublished material — the only one whose comic persona survives translation to the printed page…

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About the Author

Jack Feerick

Critic at Large

Jack Feerick — editor, proofreader, freelance know-it-all, and three-time Jeopardy! champion — lives with his family somewhere in upstate New York, where he plays in a rock 'n' roll band and occasionally runs his mouth on local radio. You can listen to more of his work on Soundcloud, if you like.

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