“I don’t know what you have to say,
It makes no diff’rence anyway;
Whatever it is, I’m against it!” — Groucho Marx in Horse Feathers
To fans of classic comedy, the idea that Groucho Marx is all but forgotten is startling. One of the most popular comedians of the 20th century, he was the quick-witted and sharp-tongued ringleader of the golden age comedy team The Marx Brothers. The siblings conquered every medium, from stage and radio to movies, television, and books. Kids today still recognize his trademark glasses, fake eyebrows and mustache, and cigar, and “Groucho masks” remain popular party items.
Groucho’s stage, film, and television character specialized in insulting the pompous and self-important and embracing the absurdity of life. But beneath the wisecracks was a sharp self-taught intellectual. His public persona was only slightly more heightened than his real-life personality, and his thought processes were governed by a keen assessment of what people expected of him and how he could either fulfill those expectations or subvert them.
His family’s poverty forced him to leave school and go to work at the age of 12, but he had a lifelong thirst for knowledge. Thanks to his fame, he befriended some of the greatest minds of his era (including Nobel Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot). His papers were even collected by the Library of Congress. Despite his humble beginnings, he wrote six books himself and was a frequent contributor to many magazines, including The New Yorker. His compiled letters have been published in multiple books, and his quotes still make the rounds of social media, this time as memes.
While you might not think a comedian born in 1890 would have much to offer today, consider this: Groucho made your great-great grandparents laugh, and what he had to say is still relevant in the 21st century. He’s more remembered than his once-equally famous brothers. Why? He was better able to adapt to changes in society and technology. And his life and thoughts offered guideposts to anyone savvy enough to apply them.
What mentorship means
When Groucho went into vaudeville at 15, making $20 a week, his mother Minnie realized that if having one son in show business could make that kind of money, having his brothers join him could net a small fortune. She pushed them all into the act — whether or not they wanted it or not — and when she was done, The Four Marx Brothers were one of the biggest acts in show business.
Greatness rarely comes without a struggle, and she willed her boys to success. As one of the few female show business managers in the first decades of the 20th century, she had to be stubborn, somewhat outrageous, and fast-talking to get her boys ahead. She made instant decisions, and never let her errors stop her forward progress. Her tough approach to organizing her five out-of-control sons, stretching money, and staying one step ahead of unscrupulous theatre owners marked Groucho for life. Her legacy lived on in Groucho, who, though he was prone to bouts of depression, kept Minnie’s determination close to his heart. Her mentorship made him what he was.
Groucho’s other mentor (in the words of talk show host Dick Cavett, “his god”) was playwright and director George S Kaufman, who wrote or directed scores of plays, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes. He loved nothing more than spending time with men like Kaufman or S.J. Perelman, who were brilliant writers with life experiences and points of view that added bite to their writing.
We all need mentors, role models, and people who believe in us. Who are those people in your own life? What can you learn from them? What would you discover if you made lists of the traits they have that you want to cultivate? Groucho was never intimidated by people he knew were smarter and more skilled than he was. Instead, he befriended them, learned from them, and ultimately became someone who was equally sought-out for opinions and advice. Certainly, we could learn to do the same, even if the inspiration comes from a man with a painted-on mustache.
“I find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go into the library and read a book.” -Groucho Marx
A century of not accepting the conventional
Associating with writers like Kaufman helped Groucho develop the trait he was best known for: tweaking authority. Whether it was high society, the government, or big business, he was sure to let anyone who thought they were better than him know that he wasn’t going to stand for it. Audiences loved him as much for what he said as to whom he was saying it. Who wouldn’t want to tell a stuffy socialite, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it”? Groucho’s humor worked because it struck that chord in everyone who wants to be bold and to not fear being unconventional but to embrace their own individuality with gusto.
His anti-establishment streak was as powerful in the Great Depression as it was in the 1970s when comedy broke from tired one-size-fits-all jokes to personal observations. Some of that era’s most important comedians — George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and (especially) Woody Allen — were influenced by Groucho’s confrontationally personal wit. Stand-ups today perform material based on their own observations. They make notes about what they see and turn it into jokes that we can identify with and laugh at. Before Groucho, almost no “monologists,” as they were called more than 100 years ago, relied on this technique. Mark Twain may have been among the first.
Groucho didn’t accept the status quo or conventional wisdom, and the good news is, you don’t have to, either. You don’t have to be needlessly confrontational, but when you see things that don’t make sense, say something. The only way anyone is going to hear (or implement) your ideas is if you voice them.
What made Groucho and his brothers stars was their irreverence and spontaneity. By keeping their eyes open to the absurdities around them, they could call attention to them. You may not have the nerve to say after a particularly boring presentation, “I thought my razor was dull until I heard his speech’” But Groucho would — and did.
Those qualities of Groucho’s — staying open and aware of what was going on around him, calling attention to things that are supposed to make sense but don’t, an eager willingness to gather information and experience from others — are qualities that anyone can develop. It may not be easy to do it. Our own inhibitions and social convention can get in the way. But the rewards of personal growth and value as a collaborator are immense.
The more you know, the more valuable you become
Groucho had an immense personal library. Whenever he and his brothers were performing on the road, he brought along a huge trunk filled with books that expanded his point of view and gave him expertise in any number of areas. After all, you can’t properly insult someone whose background you don’t fully understand.
Books and bookstores may not have the cultural impact they once did, but you have an advantage over Groucho. You’re reading this on some kind of a screen, and a world of information is just a click away. There are more e-books, reports, texts, essays, and other media available than you could possibly consume in one lifetime. That tidal wave might seem overwhelming, but dive in. Make and share lists and collections of books, authors, articles, or photos that inspire you. Evernote is a perfect place to store lists like this, so when you’re in need of a little inspiration, it’s always at your fingertips. Plus, you don’t have to carry around all your reading material in a heavy trunk, like Groucho did.
Comedy is based on taking serious topics to extremes. Without a firm basis in reality or facts, humor’s just a series of jokes without context. Beneath his makeup, Groucho was a deeply serious man, capable of debating National Review editor William F. Buckley as to whether the world is, in fact, funny.
Groucho was rigorous in his comedy. Before filming most of their movies, the brothers would do live tours trying out material. As the brothers performed scenes from upcoming movies on the stage, stenographers sat backstage timing laughs, measuring the intensity of audience responses, and tracking whether delivering a line or a physical “bit” of comedy one way got a better response than another. All that data came back to Hollywood, so by the time the brothers committed the scenes to film, they already knew how the movies would perform on screens around the world. Without this meticulous note-taking, their best films may have ended up as slightly incoherent as their early ones in which the laughs came too quickly together and audiences missed some of the best jokes. Because they took the time to record metrics in front of multiple live audiences, the Marx Brothers legend endures to this day.
The timelessness of individuality
When the brothers’ film career faded in the 1940s, Groucho reinvented himself by hosting a television quiz show, You Bet Your Life. (It’s where the phrase “Say the secret word and win $100” comes from.) The show, which still enjoys a healthy following on YouTube, allowed him to interact with “civilian” guests, winning him a whole new generation of fans who expected him to do the unexpected.
Reinventing ourselves and embracing the unexpected are things we can cultivate in ourselves. Groucho was blasé about aging, but a person doesn’t last 70 years in showbiz without finding ways to stay relevant and productive. By using some of Groucho’s tips, you might find yourself having his staying power.
But don’t just take our word for it. See for yourself how Groucho Marx might inspire you to raise a few eyebrows in your own work and life.
And now, the one, the only, Groucho.