Marx Brothers

Reflecting on "Duck Soup"

Duck Soup It’s kind of amazing how little physical changes can have such an enormous effect on how we play characters. An average looking man puts on a slightly over-sized tux, slathers some grease paint across his eyebrows and upper lip, and uses exaggerated gestures - including a particularly swaggering walk - and he becomes Groucho Marx. Another similar looking man puts on a giant trench coat, a fright wig, and a top hat, then doesn’t talk at all, and becomes Harpo Marx. And, in the Marx Brothers’ classic film Duck Soup (1933), the two end up dressing alike and mirror each other, giving birth to one of the most iconic and copied scenes in cinematic history.

These days, the Marx Brothers are one of those things we know about, but tragically few people have actually seen their movies. Such is the march of time. But, today’s comedic performers specifically can learn a lot from these old movies. Particularly, how great they were at space work.

The basic plot of Duck Soup is smart enough. A commentary on nationalism, and specifically prescient in light of what would soon happen in Europe, Duck Soup finds the country of Freedonia deep in debt and desperate. Wealthy citizen Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) says she won’t loan the country any more money unless she appoints Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) as the new leader. Meanwhile Trentino (Louis Calhern), leader of neighboring Sylvania, is trying to annex Freedonia. He engages in espionage by hiring Pinky (Harpo) and Chicolini (Chico Marx) to spy on Firefly. Eventually, war happens, and Freedonia haphazardly fights its way to victory. It’s smart, but the plot is really more of a vehicle for Marx brother comedy bits.

The Marx Brothers got their start in vaudeville, another early 20th century art that is sadly not paid enough attention these days. To extremely oversimplify things, the general Vaudeville show was a variety show. There was dancing, acrobatics, clowns, singing, acting, comedy, etc. The Marx’s did comedy shows, obviously. So, even though we’re talking about a film here, this is a film that has its roots on stage. In fact, before the Marx Brothers would shoot a movie, they would road test all the bits, honing them until they were as strong as possible for the movie.

So, that’s kind of the opposite of improv, right? Well, yeah. But, that’s not really the point I’m making, so can it.

It’s true that the Marx Brothers, and Groucho specifically, were known for their quips. Their movies were rife with witty great, punny one liners. But, perhaps less remembered is just how great their space work was. And, that’s something that modern comic performers can take a valuable lesson from. Quips are still very much en vogue, but outside of the occasional screwball stage play, our idea of stage comedy is very word driven.

Part of that has to do with our changing sense of humor. Many people say we live in an Age of Irony. With that comes satire. And, those two things, and most other forms of humor that branch off that tree, are based in literature.

Because the Marx Brothers came from the vaudeville stage, their comedy was much more physical. For instance, in his first scene, Groucho barely ever stands still. Even while other people talk to him, he moves and gestures, sometimes with no connection to what is being said. So, in one little bit of exposition, he starts hopscotching for no reason at all. At first glance, this might seem random, but in reality he’s communicating the boredom of setting a scene.

In improv, performers have to get out the who/what/where pretty early. It’s often a little awkward. But, imagine shaking that up by just going with the first gesture that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t necessarily flow with the words. Groucho no doubt tested out several bits there, but the same would work in an improvisational environment.

And, due to physical bits like this, the words then mold to fit the action of the scene, rather than the other way around.

Harpo and Chico are particularly good at this. In both their first scene with Trentino and the famous “hat scene,” the duo constantly torment their foil with little visual gags. Many of these involve props (as Harpo was famous for), but the general motivation was to, again, take a routine scene and introduce a little physical anarchy by constantly subverting the forward momentum of the plot.

This puts a lot on the shoulders of the other person in the scene, the classic straight man role, but the Marx’s always had good people like Dumont who were adept at keeping a straight face and staying in character while dealing with the insanity around them. Or in other words, they “yes and”-ed the hell out of every scene. Calhern specifically played right along without skipping a beat, even when Harpo produces a blow torch to light their cigars with.

The main point of this ramble being that Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are always moving. The effect is something that looks natural by the fact that it’s an id-like stream of consciousness.

Everything they feel, they act out. And that often ends up being funny, even if it wouldn’t seem so in the context. That’s an important thing for improv performers to consider. If it pops in your head, do it. Trust your scene-mates and let the physically manifested emotions flow.

Or, instead of just saying how you feel, try acting it out. It can open up whole new avenues in a scene.

So, with that in mind, let’s talk about “the mirror scene.” If you don’t immediately know what that is based on the totally important quotation marks I put around it, it’s the scene where Groucho and Harpo, both dressed as Groucho’s character, mirror each other in an opening between two rooms that could possible pass for a mirror.

In the scene, Harpo is doing his espionage and gets caught by Groucho, so to try and throw him off, Harpo - again, dressed as Groucho - mimics the Freedonian leader in an attempt to convince him that he’s looking into a mirror.

Both characters in this scene have a motivation. Harpo wants Freedonia’s war plans and to not get caught getting them, and Groucho wants to prevent that. And Groucho is on to the ruse, so he tests his “reflection” with a series of exaggerated gestures, which Harpo copies to near perfection.

It’s a scene with literally no sound. It’s purely physical, and yet it’s perfectly clear what is happening in the scene, how each character feels, and what they want. It was all about the physicality and the space work.

If you haven’t seen Duck Soup, do yourself a favor and seek it out. It’s only an hour long, after all. If you have seen it, watch it again. Sure, there’s a lot to glean from the great quips - or buttons - that so often serve as great punctuations to scenes. But pay attention to the overt physicality of the Marx Brothers and how they use gestures, posture, and movement to drive a scene forward. It’s a skill that has a lot of application to modern improv.

Also, Dallas gets a mention in one of the super pun-tastic lines. So, that’s fun.

My Top 5 Classic Physical Comedies:

  1. Dr. Strangelove - I mean, seriously. Peter Sellers. Master.
  2. Duck Soup
  3. Sullivan’s Travels
  4. The Freshman
  5. Young Frankenstein

Kris Noteboom is a Level 2 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.

Web of Laughs: Absurdist Comedy

Monty Python There are very few movies that I can remember the exact moment I watched them for the first time, or exactly how I felt when I watched it for the first time. One of the very few, if not the most engrained in my memory, is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I don’t remember how old I was exactly, somewhere south of 11, I think, and I was at my dad’s house and he specifically wanted to show me his favorite movie. I settled in to watch it, and while I’m sure my 11-year-old brain did not really comprehend the jokes (I’m not even sure if my 25-year-old brain can catch them all to this day), I remember laughing the hardest I have probably ever laughed before. The next few months of my life were spent re-watching and over-quoting “It’s just a flesh wound.” Its thick, heavy-handed absurdity was really the first of its kind that I had seen.

Absurdist comedy, while rooted in the same reality as dark comedy, has no qualms in abandoning that same reality after only briefly establishing it. Absurdist comedy takes casual situations and then relies on zero logic, which is what makes it so fun to watch. It’s not bound to one specific style, and as seen in The Holy Grail, can switch between subtitled footnotes, a typical medieval comedy, and then a cartoon. Because of the frequent stylistic choices and changes, the general plot line throughout these comedies tends to remain simple. Essentially, The Holy Grail is just the story of King Arthur and his knights in search for the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail was certainly an original for its time, but going back to the silent era, you can see its influences from films such as The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. The Holy Grail also had a lot of contemporaries around its time, in the midst of what seemed like the golden age of absurdist comedy. Five years after The Holy Grail, Airplane! came around and brought the same level of absurdity, as well as an alarming amount of jokes packed into one movie. While re-watching Airplane!, that’s always what stands out to me the most, the sheer amount of jokes per minute that are packed in. Side note: there was even a study conducted by a movie subscription service back in 2012 that found that Airplane! had the most laughs per minute of the top 10 comedies they selected, clocking in at 3 lpm (laughs per minute). The fast-paced jokes in Airplane! make it endlessly re-watchable, because there’s always a new joke to unpack or something you may have missed.

While there have been some notable, modern absurdist comedy films in recent years, the style has really found its home right now on TV. Maybe it’s harder to apply the absurdist formula to longer forms of entertainment successfully, but when applying it in 30-minute increments, it may be more accessible and easier to sustain over a longer period of time. The rapid-fire style of Airplane! has lent itself to similar modern mainstream TV comedies such as Arrested Development and 30 Rock. While less mainstream and accessible, the TV show version of Comedy Bang! Bang! also successfully blurs the realism line with its post-modern/absurd talk show format.

Personally, absurdist comedy is one of my favorite forms. There are no limits to the amount of weird allowable. A lot of comedy (and life?) seems to be bound by rules and constructs that you’re supposed to follow to get the finished product, but with absurdist humor, there are no rules. Sure, you can put that unicorn on a spaceship and make him the president, why not? It creatively opens up any possibilities and allows the audience to enjoy something that, more than likely, they would have never thought of or expected. It leads the audience into a weird universe that can only exist within this piece of entertainment they’re partaking in at that moment, and that’s such a wonderful, inspiring thing. As my life mantra/favorite quote from the ultra-absurd 1990’s kid’s show Eerie, Indiana goes, “Better weird, than dead.”

Jessica Dorrell is a graduate of the DCH improv program, and is currently enrolled in the sketch writing program. Her one wish is that some day she can have a Mogwai as a pet. You can see her perform every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. in the current Ewing show.

Web of Laughs: Steamboat Bill, Jr.

We’re all comedy fans here. We all grew up on comedy. We all have our own personal stories of being a kid, staying up past our bedtimes to watch whichever generation of Saturday Night Live was on at the time. Memories of how you couldn’t wait to get to school on Monday to swap stories at the lunch table about everyone’s favorite sketch that your mother would most certainly not approve of. This is the comedy we all collectively share; the Saturday Night Lives, our millionth re-watch of The Jerk, your favorite uncle showing you Monty Python and the Holy Grail and it changing your world forever. Ever wonder what influenced your influences, though? How did we get to the point in comedy where Jim Carrey can walk into a wall, shake his head back and forth emphatically, and we all laugh hysterically? Comedy had to start somewhere, and its roots are firmly planted in the silent films of the 20th century. Most would consider Charlie Chaplin the pioneer of the silent-era of comedy, but I would argue that you can look to the 1920s and see the most influential man in comedy, especially modern comedy, in Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton

Keaton started making silent, short comedy films in 1917, and it wasn’t until 1923 that he made his first full-length comedy film. He’s usually grouped into the same silent film star category as Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and The Marx Brothers, but Keaton had a different spin on the silent, physical style of comedy that really lends itself to considering him just as relevant in the comedy spectrum today. Full disclosure, I haven’t seen all of his films, since there are well over 100 (who has the time? I still have Friends reruns to watch!), but the one that has always stuck out the most to me is Steamboat Bill, Jr., made in 1928.

Steamboat Bill, Jr., is the story of a down-on-his-luck steamboat operator, aptly named Steamboat Bill, Sr., who receives a telegram letting him know his son, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a kid, has finished school, and is coming to visit him. Steamboat Bill, Sr., is ecstatic and can’t wait to reunite with his son, who he assumes must be as large, manly, and steamboaty as him after all these years. What he gets when his son, as played by Keaton, arrives is a seemingly incompetent, wimpy goof who can’t walk in a straight line without tumbling over, a trait I can painfully identify with. The plot that follows is really the first embarking on what is now a typical father-son comedy journey that can be seen time and time again in comedies since. A father is disappointed because the son is not turning out how he thought he had raised him, until the son does something remarkably surprising to the father, showing the father that his son is just fine the way he is. A great example of a modern comedy that uses this plot so well is Elf. Both films take an over-the-top son and juxtapose them against a buttoned-up father that has a very different lifestyle and uses their relationship to inspire comedic gold.

The most notable influence over modern comedy in general is through Keaton’s comedic performance. As is the case with most of the silent-era comedic actors, Keaton masters the typical slapstick style comedy and runs into walls/trains/doors/desks/small children with ease. One of the key differences between Keaton and his contemporaries, though, is his dead-pan physical delivery. He let his audiences discover that you don’t have to fall into a pie face-first then look up and smile as if you’re asking for a laugh, as several of his peers did, but that you can get tangled up in rope and tumble around without breaking a smile and your audience will never tire of watching it. Keaton’s deadpan style can be seen permeating through the history of comedic culture, I think most notably throughout British comedy, which lends itself to a very Keaton-esque mixture of physicality and dry, deadpan dialogue.

It’s hard to think of a comedy that Keaton’s body of work probably hasn’t influenced in some form. When you have a groundbreaking, new style that’s never been done before, essentially all works after it are going to be derivative. It’s refreshing to go back and watch films such as Steamboat Bill, Jr., and really get a closer look at where your favorite comedies got their inspiration and ideas from.

Jessica Dorrell is a graduate of the DCH improv program, and is currently enrolled in the sketch writing program. Her one wish is that some day she can have a Mogwai as a pet. You can see her perform every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. in the current Ewing show.