The Marx Brothers were the Sun coming up – An excerpt from “Goodbye Crackernight” by Justin Sheedy
Another revelation for me from my very early teens was the Marx Brothers, their black-and-white films regularly being shown on TV on Sunday afternoons. My God, they were from 1935 and they were so funny! But more than that, Harpo’s performances could jump from perfect insanity to perfect solemnity. In A Day at the Races, he plays the piano with such gusto that it self-destructs section by section, then completely. Only then does he take the iron piano-wire frame, arrange it upright and play it like a harp, and in a way I can only describe as holy.
In Go West, he plays the harp on an American Indian fabric loom, his performance hypnotically beautiful. When he finishes, the Indian chief standing behind him places his hand on Harpo’s shoulder in a moment of sacred silence. Even at the time, I could sense that Harpo had just been playing in honour of a people dispossessed.
Whether verbal or on the piano, I didn’t so much take to Chico’s performances, which were more restrained, until I realised the golden secrets of comedy that they were demonstrating: economy and timing. For me the main man was Groucho.
Harpo comes in to see the doctor, played by Groucho, Harpo completely terrified. Groucho takes his pulse (long, silent pause), then: ‘Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped.’
For me, these moments seemed to hover over reality and made me feel like I was too. They were introducing me to something I would much later learn to be called ‘surrealism’.
(Groucho): ‘Don’t point that beard at me. It might go off.’
Lines such as these were, to me, like the sun coming up.
The bedrock of all comedy is the keen observation of life. Whether I was keenly observing the world around me as a result of my immersion in comedy, I can’t say for sure. One thing is certain, however. By this time, I was very definitely in the habit.