10 Questions for Trav S.D. regarding the Marx Brothers Miscellany

marx q&a

10 Questions for Trav S.D. regarding the Marx Brothers Miscellany

Who were the Marx Brothers? – The Marx Brothers were the most critically acclaimed and successful stage and screen comedy team in history. Their period of activity lasted from roughly 1905, when two of the five brothers started out in vaudeville, through 1977, when the most famous of the brothers (Groucho) passed away. The members were Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo (who quit in 1918), and Zeppo (who replaced Gummo and performed with the team through 1933). The brothers starred in movies, radio, television, and on Broadway. Two of them also wrote books. Many stand-up comedians (to the present day) would cite Groucho as the father of the “wisecracking” style of American comedy, particularly emulated among Jewish comics. The other influential brother (Harpo) worked as a mute comedian, and remains especially influential on the international clown community.

Who is Trav S.D.? – Trav S.D. (Travis Stewart) is a writer and performer based in New York City. In addition to writing, directing, producing and acting in his own productions, he has written for such publications as The New York Times, The Village Voice, American Theatre, Time Out New York, and many others. His previous books include No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous (2005), Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube (2013), and Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People of Vaudeville (2020). He has also been the creator since 2008 of the blog Travalanche, which has over 8,000 articles related to contemporary and historical show business.

What’s the author’s connection to the topic? – Trav has written over 150 articles about the Marx Brothers on his blog Travalanche; has spoken about them at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art, The Players Club, The Lambs Club, and the New York Public Library; and produced and directed the first ever revival of the team’s first Broadway show I’ll Say She Is (reconstructed by and starring Noah Diamond) in 2014. He was also co-producer and a presenter at Marxfest, an NYC-based multi-venue fan festival in 2014, 2018 and 2024, and was a guest on the Marx Brothers Council Podcast (the world’s pre-eminent podcast devoted to the team) in 2019 and 2024. Trav is proud to be from Rhode Island, the home state of Marx Brothers writer S.J. Perelman.

What sets The Marx Brothers Miscellany apart from other books on the Marx Brothers? – The subtitle of the book is “A Subjective Appreciation of the World’s Greatest Comedy Team”. While there are historical and biographical elements, The Marx Brothers Miscellany is more of a work of criticism and appreciation, and even some aspects of memoir, as opposed to a straight, linear narrative. It is instead structured in groups of related essays and articles. Much of the book is devoted to placing the Marx Brothers in an illuminating context, with information on their predecessors, colleagues, and progeny. The book is loaded with original and offbeat observations, and much humor. And it has an entertaining foreword by Austin Pendleton, who appeared opposite Groucho in Skidoo (1968).

Why should I be interested? – Because the Marx Brothers are foundational to American comedy. It’s true that few contemporary comedy films resemble those of the Marx Brothers, but the trail that leads to modern comedy in general was blazed by the Marxes. They were a major factor in the shifting of American tastes from 19th century, literary, Anglo-centric humor, to a more immigrant friendly, urban, informal voice. They were also among the nation’s first Jewish stars of stage and screen, which also makes them among the first non-Anglo American stars of any sort, paving the way for all who came after them down to the present day. There’s also a feminist angle: the Marx Brothers’ mother Minnie was the team’s first manager. She was one of the first female talent agents in America.

What’s with the Nicknames? – You ought to read the book for that, for thereby hangs a tale (!), but the short answer is that Leonard (Chico) liked “chicks” (i.e., women), Adolph (Harpo) played the harp, Julius (Groucho) was obsessed with his grouch bag (a kind of secret purse that vaudevillians wore under their clothes to keep their money safe), Milton (Gummo) favored gum-soled dancing shoes, and Herbert (Zeppo)…no one quite knows why Zeppo was called that, but there are several conflicting explanations.

Which Marx Brothers movies should I watch? – Die-hard fans love the team’s first seven movies best: The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937). My personal favorite is Horse Feathers. The one I would show first to a newbie is A Night at the Opera. Many other folks would name Duck Soup on both counts.

What else are they known for? – Nowadays, you’re most likely to come across a Marx Brother on old episodes of the TV game show You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho between 1950 and 1961 after the team broke up. Clips and entire episodes of the show are available on Youtube and elsewhere. This is undoubtedly how most Baby Boomers, who were too young to have seen the Marx Brothers onstage or in the movies, learned about the team. Later, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was an enormous resurgence of interest in the Marx Brothers by the Countercultural Generation, driven largely by the team’s irreverence and clear opposition to authority.

Why does one of them pretend to be Italian? – Chico, the oldest brother, is the member of the team whose character will strike the modern audience as the most antiquated. Ethnic impersonation by comedians was one of the keystones of vaudeville in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hard as it may be to conceive, it was almost universally accepted and embraced at the time by performers and audiences to lampoon stereotyped versions of ethnic groups. The example that remains best known today, because it is the most notorious, is blackface minstrelsy, but the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Asians, and nearly everybody else (including certain classes of Anglos) were ridiculed in this way. In the early days of the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Harpo, and Gummo had all played ethnic specialties in the act just like Chico (German, Irish, and Yiddish, respectively), but for various reasons eventually abandoned them.

Are there are any other BearManor Media books on the topic that you would also recommend? – Are there? And how! They include: Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House by Steve Stoliar; Gimme a Thrill: The Story of I’ll Say She Is, The Lost Marx Brothers Musical by Noah Diamond; and The Animated Marx Brothers, by Matthew Hahn.

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