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Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, and the Importance of Comedy

I'm of the opinion, as Marx once said, that comedians "are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world."

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 7:08 PM EST

The Marx brothers.

This essay will appear in "Comedy," the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version story first appeared on the TomDispatch website with the kind permission of that magazine.

Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. —Mark Twain

Twain for as long as I've known him has been true to his word, and so I'm careful never to find myself too far out of his reach. The Library of America volumes of his Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1852-1910) stand behind my desk on a shelf with the dictionaries and the atlas. On days when the news both foreign and domestic is moving briskly from bad to worse, I look to one or another of Twain's jests to spring the trap or lower a rope, to summon, as he is in the habit of doing, a blast of laughter to blow away the "peacock shams" of the world's "colossal humbug."

Laughter was Twain's stock in trade, and for 30 years as bestselling author and star attraction on America's late-nineteenth-century lecture stage, he produced it in sufficient quantity to make bearable the acquaintance with grief that he knew to be generously distributed among all present in the Boston Lyceum or a Tennessee saloon, in a Newport drawing room as in a Nevada brothel. Whether the audience was sober or drunk, topped with top hats or snared in snakebitten boots, Twain understood it likely in need of a remedy to cover its losses.

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No other writer of his generation had seen as much of the young nation's early sorrow, or become as familiar with its commonplace scenes of human depravity and squalor. As a boy on the Missouri frontier in the 1830s he attended the flogging and lynching of fugitive slaves; in the California gold fields in the 1860s he kept company with underage murderers and overage whores; in New York City in the 1870s he supped at the Gilded Age banquets of financial swindle and political fraud, learning from his travels that "the hard and sordid things of life are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence." Twain bottled the influence under whatever label drummed up a crowd—as comedy, burlesque, satire, parody, sarcasm, ridicule, wit—any or all of it presented as "the solid nonpareil," guaranteed to fortify the blood and restore the spirit. Humor for Twain was the hero with a thousand faces.

With Groucho Marx I share the opinion that comedians "are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world," but the assaying of that commodity—of what does it consist in its coats of many colors, among them cocksure pink, shithouse brown, and dead-end black—is a question that I gladly leave to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Twain's contemporary who in 1900 took note of its primary components: "The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human…Laughter has no greater foe than emotion…Its appeal is to the intelligence, pure and simple…Our laughter is always the laughter of a group."

Which is to say that all jokes are inside jokes and the butts of them are us, the only animal that laughs, but also the only one that is laughed at. The weather isn't amusing, neither is the sea. Wombats don't do metaphor or stand-up. What is funny is man's situation as a scrap of mortal flesh entertaining intimations of immortality, President Richard Nixon believing himself the avatar of William the Conqueror, President George W. Bush in the persona of a medieval pope preaching holy crusade against all the world's evil.

Venting One's Spleen

The confusion of realms is the substance of Shakespeare's comedies—as a romantic exchange of mistaken identities in As You Like It, in Measure for Measure as an argument for the forgiveness of sin:

But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Spleens in the Elizabethan anatomy give rise to mirth because they also produce the melancholy springing from the bowels to remind us that although unaccountably invested with the power to conceive of ourselves as vessels of pure and everlasting light, we were made, as were toads, of foul and perishable stuff. Apes play games in zoos and baobab trees, but, not knowing that they're bound to die, they don't discover ludicrous incongruities between the physical and the metaphysical, don't invent, as does François Rabelais' Gargantua, "the most lordly, the most excellent" way to remove the smell and fear of death from the palace of his "jolly asshole," by wiping it first with silk and velvet, lastly and most gloriously, with the neck of a "well-downed goose."

All humor is situational, but the forms of it that survive the traveling in time—Shakespeare's romance and Rabelais' bawdy as well as Juvenal's satire and Molière's ridicule—speak to the fundamental truth of the human predicament, which is that men die from time to time and worms do eat them. The jokes dependent upon a specific historical setting don't have much of a shelf life; the voice between the lines gets lost, and with it the sharing of the knowledge of what is in or out of place.

To look at the early-seventeenth-century painting Interior with Merry Company or at a mosaic of strolling masked musicians from a wall in second-century-B.C. Pompeii is to understand that a good time is being had by all, to infer that for as long as humans have walked the earth, they have found in the joy of laughter a companion more faithful than the dog. But exactly what prompts the lace-trimmed Dutch girls to their lovely smiling, or whether the Roman drum is tapping out a cadence or a song, I cannot say. I wasn't in the loop; four or twenty-one centuries out of touch, I don't know who first said what to whom, or why the merriment is merry.

Unintended Humor

Even in one's own day and age it's never a simple matter to catch the drift in the wind or judge the lay of the land. Lenny Bruce remarks on the collapse of his off-color nightclub act in front of a milk-white audience in Milwaukee—"They don't laugh, they don't heckle, they just stare at me in disbelief"—and I'm reminded of my own first encounter, at the age of 13, with a silence casting me into an outer darkness in a galaxy far, far away.

In the autumn of 1948 on my first Sunday at a Connecticut boarding school, the headmaster (a pious and confiding man, as grave as he was good) welcomed the returning and newly arriving students with an edifying sermon. Protestant but nondenominational, the chapel had been built to the design of an early-eighteenth-century New England spiritual simplicity—white wood, unstained glass, straight-backed pews set in two sternly disciplined rows before an unobtrusive pulpit. The students were arranged alphabetically by class, seniors to the fore, preps, myself among them, fitted into the choir loft above the doors at the rear. My family having moved east from California only a few weeks prior to my being sent off to school, I'd never before seen a Connecticut landscape.

More to the point, I'd only twice been inside a church, for an uncle's wedding and a police chief's funeral. The latter ceremony I'd attended with my grandfather during his tenure as mayor of San Francisco during the Second World War, one of the many occasions on which, between the ages of seven and 11, I listened to him deliver an uplifting political speech.

Out of the loop within the walls of the chapel, I assumed that the headmaster's sermon was a canvassing for votes, whether for or from God I didn't know, but either way a call to arms, and as I had been taught to do when an admiral or a parks commissioner completed his remarks, I stood to attention with the tribute of firm and supportive applause. The appalled silence in the chapel was as cold as a winter in Milwaukee. The entire school turned to stare in disbelief, the headmaster nearly missed his step down from the pulpit, the boys to my left and right edged away, as if from a long-dead rat.

Never mind that my intention was civil, my response meant to show respect. During the next four years at school, I never gained admission to the company of the elect. I'd blotted my copybook, been marked down as an offensive humorist from the wrong side of the Hudson River.

In the troubled sea of the world's ambition, men rise by gravity, sink by levity, and on my first Sunday in Connecticut I had placed myself too far below the salt to indulge the hope of an ascent to the high-minded end of the table—not to be trusted with the singing of the school song, or with the laughing at people who didn't belong to beach clubs on Long Island. The sense of being off the team accompanied me to Yale College (I never saw the Harvard game) and shaped my perspective as a young newspaper reporter in the 1950s.

A potentially free agent, not under contract to go along with the program—able to find fault with an official press release, put an awkward question to a department-store mogul—I was looked upon with suspicion by the wisdoms in office. The attitude I took for granted on the part of real-estate kingpins and ladies enshrined in boxes at the opera, but I didn't recognize it as one adjustable to any and all occasions until the winter night in 1958 when the San Francisco chapter of Mensa International (a society composed of persons blessed with IQ test scores above the 98th percentile) staged a symposium meant to plumb to its utmost depths (intellectual, psychological, and physiological) the mystery of human gender.

Wine and cheese to be served, everybody to remove his or her clothes before being admitted to the discussion. Dispatched by the San Francisco Examiner to report on the event, I didn't make it past the coatracks on which the seekers of the naked truth draped their fig leaves. But even with the embodiments of genius, Mensa wasn't taking any chances. Confronted with a display of for the most part unlovely and decomposing flesh, the doorkeepers distributed identifying wrist bracelets, blue silk for boys, pink velvet for girls, one of each for gays, lesbians, and transsexuals. What was wonderful was the utter seriousness of the proceeding. Nobody laughed or risked the semblance of a smile; the company of the elect looked with proud disdain upon the fully clothed reporters standing around in unpolished shoes.

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