march 2011

The Marx Brothers, Night At the Opera movie poster

Hello, The Marx Brothers Must Be Coming

Priming the Pump for ‘International Day of Laughter’

By Michael Sigman

My passion for the absurd may derive from early childhood exposure to my mom's twisted song parodies. My fave was "I've Got the World on a String,” in which "what a world, what a life" became "what a world, what a string..." Then there were my dad's songwriting collaborations with the certifiably zany Bob Hilliard, one of which began, "I left the one I love on one of the Thousand Islands, but unfortunately I can't remember which one." (The pair also penned the less well-known ditty, "Our Horses Are Falling In Love.")

In any case, I'm told I got my first big laugh when I was barely beyond toddlerhood and reacted to a scene of Jesus on the cross with, "His father must be very proud." Worked for my father...

The power of world-class absurdist humor hit me like a pie in the face when a couple of elementary school friends and I took in a double feature Marx Brothers matinee and laughed till our solar plexuses ached. When Groucho declaimed his overarching philosophy --"I don't know what they have to say/ It makes no difference anyway/Whatever it is, I'm against it!"--I was hooked.

‘I’m Against It,’ The Marx Brothers, Horse Feathers (1932)

The incomparable Groucho was, of course, the most famous Marxist this side of President Obama. But Harpo, the silent one who spoke sweet music through his harp and could crack you up with the faintest inflection of an eyebrow, equally embodied the anarchic spirit. Chico--originally pronounced "Chick-O," as in "chick chaser"--played the piano brilliantly, effortlessly and hilariously when he wasn't busy deadpanning such lines as "I wasn't kissing her, I was whispering in her mouth."

Gummo, who left the act after about ten years, and Zeppo, who then came in and played a romantic straight man in the five Paramount movies before exiting to pursue the business side of show business, rounded out the siblings. After Zeppo's departure, the three core brothers moved to MGM, where studio chief Irving Thalberg demanded a discount, arguing that he was paying for four Marxes, not three. Groucho shot back, "We were worth a million dollars with Zeppo. Without him, it's two million."

Now Harpo's son Bill, the go-to guy for all things Marxian, has joined his Rancho Mirage neighbor and comrade in absurdity Howie Richmond--icon of the music publishing industry--to form the non-profit CGH Society. On the theory that most people under 35 have a passing acquaintance at best with the greatest comedy team in history, this organization--which doesn't seek donations, just participation--is dedicated to spreading the healing power of laughter to people of all ages. To this end, they've designated May 15, 2014, the centennial of the Marx Brothers' first performance under their "O" names, as an "International Day of Laughter."

Between now and 2014, there's plenty of time for serious fun, and the nascent Society has begun with the basics: a website, a mission statement, membership cards, a PR campaign and the formation of an Advisory Board. Future plans include worldwide social networking, cross-promotion with Harpo's autobio Harpo Speaks and Bill's book, Son of Harpo Speaks, an updated second edition and audio version of which are set for Fall 2011 release by Hal Leonard, a "My Favorite Marxian" contest and creation of a "Time Capsule" for planting on May 15, 2014.

Richmond and Marx take inspiration from the story of Norman Cousins, whose 1979 book Anatomy of An Illnessrecounts how the Saturday Review editor--given a one in 500 chance of surviving ankylosing spondylitis--quite literally laughed his way back to health. Cousins--contra Groucho's Dr. Hackenbush, who advises, "When your nerves start to rock, put your faith in your doc"--checked out of his hospital room and into a hotel room and discovered that laughing until his stomach hurt at Marx Brothers films and other comedy classics ameliorated the severe pain from his illness. These side-splitting events helped him get back to work within weeks, after which he enjoyed two decades of good health, productivity and lots o' laughs.

Dr. Hackenbush joins the sanitarium. Groucho with his favorite female foil, Margaret Dumont, in A Day At the Races (1937).

The CGH crew--Bill, Howie and Audley Upton--aka Mrs. Rittenhouse--doesn't claim that laughter can take the place of needed medical care. As Barbara Ehrenreich explains in her 2009 book Bright Sided, too much happy talk can detract from real suffering, treatment and empathy. But as the Old Testament tells us, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine."

CGH's motto--"We're not kidding"--serves as a reminder not to take things too seriously, and it's in that spirit that Mrs. Rittenhouse boasts, "So many volunteers have already come forward"--each, of course, willing to join a club that would have him/her as a member--"we literally have tens of members." Don't be surprised if those numbers swell into the millions by the time the Marx Brothers Centennial rolls around.

Writer/editor, media consultant, music publisher Michael Sigman is a regular Huffington Post blogger. Follow Michael Sigman on Twitter.

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