Grouching about a King of One-Liners

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Groucho: The Life And Times Of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer Allen Lane [pounds sterling]18.99 %[pounds sterling]15.99 (0870 165 0870) *****

At the funeral of T. S.

Eliot, Laurence Olivier leant over to Groucho Marx and begged him to say something.

'It was a tough audience for an old vaudeville actor,' Groucho recalled some years later.

'And this came to me while I was standing on the stage: it was a story about a man who was condemned to be hanged. And the priest said to him, "Have you any last words to say before we spring the trap?" And the man says, "Yes, I don't think this damn thing is safe." ' In the car on the way to his brother Chico's funeral, he told another favourite joke about death. In his last moments, a man inhales the aroma of coffee cake being baked in the kitchen and makes a request.

Please could he have a piece? 'Don't be silly, Sam,' snaps his wife, 'that's for after the funeral.' It was Groucho Marx's talent - perhaps also his affliction - to be able to extract the joke from everything. Events which would drive others to outrage or joy or tears would drive Groucho to one-liners (or, more accurately, two-liners - the first a cliche, the second a tripwire, sending the cliche topsy-turvy).

When his first child was born he interrupted a performance to tell the audience: 'I have been informed that Ruth, my wife, has made me the father of a six-pound bouncing baby.

When the baby stops bouncing, I'll let you know whether it's a boy or a girl.' When an anti-Semitic swimming club refused admission to his daughter, he took exception in the only language that came naturally to him: humour.

'She's only half Jewish,' he said. 'How about if she only goes in up to her waist?' But humour is a happy-go-lucky language spoken most fluently by the unhappy and the unlucky, a vocabulary of defence capable of minimising hurt by transforming it into nonsense. 'Groucho never knew how to talk normally,' recalled the actress Maureen O'Sullivan. 'His life was jokes.' Groucho and his fellow Marx Brothers were born into a tough world. Their father, an incompetent tailor originally called Marrix, emigrated to New York from Alsace in 1881. There he met their forceful mother Minnie, the daughter of an extremely unsuccessful vaudeville duo. 'For some curious reason,' recalled Groucho, 'there seemed to be practically no demand for a German ventriloquist and a woman harpist who yodelled in a foreign language.' Of the three most famous Marx Brothers, Harpo was the ladies' man, Chico was the gambler and chancer (Harpo used to remove the hands from his wristwatch to prevent Chico taking it to the pawnshop) and Groucho was the neurotic one, who had once harboured serious ambitions to be a doctor. But Minnie had other plans.

Inspired by her showbiz brother, Al Shean, she forced Groucho to leave school at 15 and start touring as a singer in a trio.

Before long, the Marx Brothers were performing as a unit (along with Zeppo and Gummo) in an exhausting cross-country circuit of 30 shows a week. Yet it took an unexpectedly long time - something like 15 years of slogging around small-town fleapits - before they stopped copying everyone else and found the confidence to be themselves, or at least a skewed version of themselves.

Their act evolved bit by bit, more often than not by accident.

'The effect is spoiled when he speaks,' said a critic of Harpo in 1914, and Harpo never uttered a word in a performance again. Groucho's trademark hand-painted moustache came about when he was late for a performance and had no time to glue his regular stage moustache on. His walk, too, was the result of chance: 'I was just kidding around one day and started to walk funny.

The audience liked it, so I kept it in.

I would try a line and leave it in too if it got a laugh. If it didn't, I'd take it out and put in another. …