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.

24 Karat Goldapps Present The American Songbook

Cameron Goldapp and Lindsay Goldapp Imagine a simpler time, such as the 1950s, when duos dominated the air waves. Sounds refreshing, I do say. If you do say, too, then come out to the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) on Thursday, June 4, to see 24 Karat Goldapps perform a show featuring classic American standards and dancing.

One half of the duo, Lindsay Goldapp, sat down with me at her computer for a Gchat to tell me more about the show. And because it's instant messaging, we talked about other things, as well (edited, though, for grammar, punctuation, and clarity).

Lindsay Goldapp Hey, we're just Gchatting and not video chatting right?

Jason Hensel I'm back...had to make a Smoothie King run. Yeah, just Gchatting.

Lindsay Goldapp Oh good. I look like a total scumbag.

Jason Hensel Don't you know? Scumbag is the look of the year.

Lindsay Goldapp You can't fool me, Jason.

Jason Hensel Speaking of fooling...tell me about this show.

Lindsay Goldapp It's just this dumb thing we're doing, and we're gonna be so stupid. I was chatting with Zach Muhn yesterday, and his exact quote was, "I love stupid shit, and you guys are the dumbest. This is going to be great."

Jason Hensel What makes the show the greatest, dumbest, stupid thing ever?

Lindsay Goldapp I know that doesn't actually tell you anything about the content of the show, but I just think it's high praise. So I started in music. I have this musical family. My dad's a bluegrass musician, and they're all great blah blah blah...I'll tell you that story some other time. But the point is, I started in music, and I've done musicals my whole life and I have this deep, abiding love for campy musicals and trite old-fashioned plots and the idea of there being "a simpler time." Cameron and I both love the American standards and all of the old crooners—Frank, Dean, Ella, Lena, so on and so forth. So we just really wanted to lampoon that time and that style (lampoon/pay tribute/honor/satirize...however you might see it).

Jason Hensel Kind of like a vaudeville show?

Lindsay Goldapp Yeah, I think so, but one that knows how absurd it is. I have this running list of dream shows that I want to write/create and this was one. My husband is the best, so he was on board.

Jason Hensel Meta vaudeville.

Lindsay Goldapp Sure, let's coin in that.

Jason Hensel Done. What are some of the songs you'll be singing?

Lindsay Goldapp “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Mack the Knife,” You Make Me Feel So Young,” “Fever,” that sort of thing.

Jason Hensel I love all of those songs! Will y'all be in costumes?

Lindsay Goldapp How could anyone not!? They're America! We will be. I'm a big stickler for production value, so no matter what kind of project i'm doing—big or small—I like to commit 100 percent.

Jason Hensel I hear ya. I like when a show has put some thought into the overall experience of the show.

Lindsay Goldapp Like it could be a 15-minute improv set in a nursing home, and I'd be like, "No jeans, and we need an entrance." Same here. I guess it's especially true with this stylized show, because we're asking you to be a part of this ridiculous universe.

Jason Hensel Will there be audience singalongs? Also, will there be live music or will you sing to pre-recorded backing tracks

24KGoldappLindsay Goldapp I won't spoil the show by revealing the content. And no, we have a musical director. A good musical director is so important, and Colten [Winburn] is a gem. Also my dad thinks "canned music" (his phrase) is an abomination.

Jason Hensel Anyone else in addition to you, Cameron, and Colten involved in the show?

Lindsay Goldapp Zach Muhn is our director. He's a national fucking treasure.

Jason Hensel We should encase him in the National Gallery.

Lindsay Goldapp Finally someone agrees with me.

Jason Hensel Can we get a show where Cameron and Zach just stand on stage and vape for 30 minutes? Tyler [Simpson] can run side commentary, and they can react to his play-by-play.

Lindsay Goldapp SUBMIT IT NOW.

Jason Hensel I'll submit it, and then everyone will be too busy to practice.

Lindsay Goldapp Cameron and Zach together, onstage, in any capacity is pure gold. Hahahahaha yes. Wait did an emoticon just pop up and laugh? Because I typed hahahaha?

Jason Hensel Little animals pop up.

Lindsay Goldapp Jesus Christ. Gchat has jumped the shark.

Jason Hensel Some unlisted number just called me from North Dakota on this Hangouts program.

Lindsay Goldapp Bizarre.

Jason Hensel Yeah, and it happened right when you typed hahahaha.

Lindsay Goldapp That thing overestimated how hard I laughed, I think. Anyway, this show.

Jason Hensel Hahahaha. Yes, the show. Y'all did this show in Chicago, too, yes?

Lindsay Goldapp We did not. We did a different sketch show together.

Jason Hensel Ah, gotcha.

Lindsay Goldapp That one wasn't stylized like this. That was more of a straight sketch show. We wrote the sketches, but we also wrote original songs. We didn't write the songs in this one. We wanted to do the standards.

That was my first sketch show right out of graduating from Second City, and It's something I'm proud of but I'd like to think we've learned a thing or two since then.

Jason Hensel So, this show is a one-time deal, yes?

Lindsay Goldapp Well, stay tuned on that. We want to get it on its feet in front of an audience. We really like to challenge and push ourselves comedically (Gchat says that isn't a word, but I call bullshit), and we're definitely doing that with this show. We've done a lot of sketch, but this vaudeville thing is definitely new territory for us.

Jason Hensel Personally, I'm excited because I love when new, different shows are produced at DCH. And I love the old comedy/vaudeville style.

Lindsay Goldapp Yeah, I'm always jonesing for new stuff.

Jason Hensel For years, I've wanted to do a commedia dell'arte show, but it's never gotten off the ground.

Lindsay Goldapp OMG dude. I used to be in a commedia group. Holler at me.

Jason Hensel HOLLER!

Lindsay Goldapp Fair. I like the idea of exploring where comedy came from.

Jason Hensel Me, too.

Lindsay Goldapp But I also have reservations about how well it would play with a modern audience. So, I don't know if that means you modernize the form or go meta or what.

Jason Hensel I think it would be a fun and challenging problem to work on.

Lindsay Goldapp For sure. I also always worry about doing comedy for comedy people. Like, sure, some comedians know what commedia is and they might appreciate the art but if a regular Joe-off-the-street comes to that show, will he "get it" or find it entertaining? No idea. Again, probably a fun and challenging problem to work with,

But I never want to just do comedy for myself. Like, yes, it should make me tick and be self-expression and what not, but, like, I gotta get dem laughs.

I can't ask an audience to come watch something that isn't funny just to fulfill a comedy dream of mine. They're paying money!

Real money!

Jason Hensel I think it comes down to marketing and promotion. I've been to plenty of plays that are supposed to be funny, for example, that I didn't find funny at all. Still, I didn't mind paying because I knew I was watching a play and not some random show. I invested money, because I knew the troupe/cast/venue invested in the performance, too.

And you have to let audiences know that.

Lindsay Goldapp And I am so glad that you're a person who feels that way and that people like you exist, because I have a hard time sitting through art that I don't thoroughly enjoy. I don't know when I got that way, but I think it was when I had my kid and started thinking, "Ugh, I spent $50 on a babysitter and another $50 on tickets, and I could just be home playing with my kid who will be 18 and move out in the blink of an eye," or "Ugh, I could be asleep."

Jason Hensel I tend more to that second reason, being asleep, more often now, too, just for the record.

Lindsay Goldapp I used to be a "I'll sleep when I die" person, but then I had a kid and didn't sleep for a year, and now I'm a "I'll sleep wherever whenever" person.

Ugh. That kid. He ruined me and saved me all at once.

Jason Hensel I hear that kids are sleep thieves. OK...let's wrap things up with one more question.

Lindsay Goldapp Shoot.

Jason Hensel I just posted a story in the performers Facebook page about comedy's second boom. What kind of second boom do you foresee for the comedy scene in Dallas and the community around DCH?

Lindsay Goldapp OOO, great question.

So, I think Dallas is playing a little bit of catch-up, which makes sense. We're a more conservative community that wasn't full of venues, etc.

I do really think that the comedy here has sort of mirrored the community and its values, and now that DCH has grown and found its weirdos, outcasts, and progressives, we're going to go warp speed. That's also probably a reflection of the city itself. I mean, Dallas went blue in the last election. Liberalism isn't just a political party. It's a forward way of thinking and a culture that invites innovation and exploration and change.

So, I think that DCH, Addison, Four Day, etc., have introduced Dallas to comedy and how to enjoy and explore it. I think the comedy community is going to be further inspired to push themselves comedically (again, "comedically" not a word...psssh).

Anyway, that's waxing philosophical on this topic, but I really do think it relates to the community and I'm so so so so happy that it's all happening. We were so scared to move here, because we were just around so many creative people without any boundaries and we were so relieved to find DCH and its band of weirdos, outcasts, and artists pushing Dallas.

Jason Hensel And we're equally glad y'all moved here to add to the weirdo pot.

Lindsay Goldapp Thanks. We're just stupid idiots who like to get laughs.

Jason Hensel Aren't we all? Last thing: Send us out with a song that could be in your show.

Lindsay Goldapp Man I'm deciding if I want to pooch a joke. No. I don't. So here:

Jason Hensel Excellent choice. Thank you for the interview, and I'll see you at the show!

Lindsay Goldapp Thank YOU, sir! Make me sound pretty and skinny, OK?

Jason Hensel Of course. I'll only quote from the waist up and shoot from above.

Get your tickets now for 24 Karat Goldapps Present The American Songbook on Thursday, June 4, at the Dallas Comedy House.