Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence by Lee Siegel
Yale University Press, 2016; 176 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli

 

Nearly 40 years after his death, Groucho Marx remains a comedy icon. His trademark greasepaint mustache and eyebrows remain instantly recognizable, as do his most famous witticisms that he delivered with a biting playfulness all his own. Groucho is the subject of Lee Siegel’s new biography Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence and, rather than trace the comedian’s life through the traditional biographical route, Siegel takes a more analytical approach to understand what informed Groucho’s style.

Siegel’s philosophical approach doesn’t leave room for the reader to see Groucho outside of his comedy. The man and his humor are eternally entwined, with so much of Groucho’s own improvised wit spilling out at every creative venture. Even famed collaborators like playwright George S. Kaufman couldn’t tame the freeform comedy of Groucho when he starred in the play The Coconuts. Siegel writes, “So numerous were Groucho’s spontaneous additions to Kaufman’s script that watching the play one night from the wings, Kaufman was heard to say with wry disgust, “I may be wrong, but I think I heard one of the original lines.” Siegel probes Groucho’s acerbic humor through several critical perspectives, including the star’s Jewish heritage, his philosophical interests, class consciousness, and upbringing.

At times Siegel’s train of thought moves as quickly as Groucho and it’s hard to understand where he wants to direct his readers. But for the brisk length of the book, the author opens up some enlightening new windows in which to view Groucho. For instance, Siegel suggests star and his brothers were raised by a weak and ineffectual father, breeding offbeat depictions of fatherhood, manhood, and humiliation into Groucho’s work. Traditional biographies pay little mind to Frenchie Marx, but Siegel doesn’t hold back from probing these unexplored avenues. Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence offers many fresh takes on a familiar figure.