In 1967, Groucho Marx made what now seems an unlikely appearance on Conservative pundit William F Buckley’s TV show line of fire. The show usually consisted of Buckley, a fetid, uncomfortable on-screen presence, who seemed to stare up and down the camera, politely asking often quite pungent questions of this week’s guest. Whatever Buckley’s politics, it was serious television, with a solemn atmosphere somewhere between a civics lesson and a Sunday mass. To add to the formality, the discussion was moderated by a chairperson. The subject that Buckley and Marx would discuss: “Is the world funny? »

The program lasted an hour and began amiably, albeit stiffly, when Buckley introduced his guest. Then, in the mid-1970s, Groucho, whose casual attire of a blue jacket, polo neck and gray checked trousers contrasted with Buckley’s professional suit and tie, was still recognizable from his heyday. , when as a member of the Marx Brothers he had ogled and delivered comedic non sequiturs (“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I don’t know”) during vaudeville shows, Broadway productions, and a host of classic, and some not-so-classic, comedy movies.

When he sat down to debate Buckley, the grease-painted mustache and bushy eyebrows were long gone, but he was smoking his trademark cigar. He started answering questions quite seriously, and it turns out that Groucho didn’t think the world was funny after all. Was he serious or funny? Where did the character stop and where did the real Groucho begin? Lee Siegel wrestles with these questions in his short, provocative and perverse critical biography of what he calls the “central intelligence” of the Marx Brothers.

Siegel identifies a moment in Buckley’s interview where Groucho goes on the offensive, pointing out that the host blushes “like a young girl.” Groucho’s comedy, Siegel insists, is actually a radical, nihilistic truth that masks the great comedian’s insecurity; his origins lie in his childhood, with his overbearing mother and weak father, and his thwarted intellectual ambitions. A quiet middle child born as Julius Marx to European Jewish emigrants, who lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Groucho wanted to be a doctor, but instead had to leave school young to join his brothers in show business. .

You might think that constantly asserting that the Marx Brothers aren’t funny is a hard trick to pull off, and you’d be right, but it’s at the heart of Siegel’s theory that the Marxes were the same on screen as on the outside, what there was was “seamless continuity between their real personas and their stage personas… merging their entertainment selves with their real selves.” Instead of making rowdy cinematic comedies that seemed to fizzle on the screen, they “dissolved the boundary between life and art, public and private”. It’s hard to decide whether this is a firmly held belief or a conflicted pose.

Aside from the obvious differences between Groucho, Chico, and Harpo in and out of character (Groucho’s mustache was fake; Chico, of course, was not Italian; and Harpo could speak), there is considerable evidence that elements characters in the scene – the Groucho character the greed, the gambling and the womanizers of Chico, and Harpo, well… the playing of the harp, were the real attributes of the brother. After all, the stage names are originally nicknames allegedly given to them by performer Art Fisher during a card game in 1915. The names stuck, on stage and off.

I’ve been a Marx Brothers fan since I was a kid, in the early 1980s, when TV stations filled the empty spaces in the program with duck soup Where animal crackers Where A night at the opera, and I am as guilty of romanticizing their act as anyone. But even I can see the plausibility of Siegel’s version of Groucho as not being a handsome, avuncular figure, but more of an asshole telling everyone what he really thinks of them. Where I’d be different from Siegel would be finding some asshole telling everyone what he really thinks of them funny, especially in the structure of a 1930s comedy movie.

As a child, I loved the wild energy of the Marx Brothers, the way they bounced around the grating confines of their films, awkwardly intersecting with mundane, romantic subplots and subverting musical numbers with bad dancing and off-key singing. . There is no doubt that something in them had a more powerful effect on me than the spell cast by Chaplin or, say, Abbott and Costello. Could this have been the “shocking truth” that Siegel identifies in their work?

May be. But Siegel’s insistence on their lack of humor leads him to rather reductive and unconvincing analyses. In a memorable scene from duck soup, Harpo, playing a peanut seller, teams up with Chico to infuriate a rival lemonade seller, driving him to the brink of madness. Siegel, rather unexpectedly, points out that the lemonade vendor “did nothing wrong”, and asserts that duck soupsupposedly an anti-fascist satire, is “in fact a tour de force of anti-democratic, even anti-democratic sentiments”.

He compares their comedy unfavorably to the satire of Jonathan Swift, finding in their work no moral framework, “no stable point… from which the satire is made. Every position is invalidated, exposed to derision”. But surely such unstable, hedonistic, destructive derision is the fuel that drives their comedy? Morality seems unimportant.

Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx in A day at the races (1937). Photo: Channel 4

After the relative commercial failure of duck soupwhich cut back on musical numbers and romantic subplots, the brothers moved from Paramount to MGM, where they did A night at the opera and A day at the races – well-made, crowd-pleasing movies that embed the brothers in a social situation and prioritize the dreaded boy-girl storyline. You’d think Siegel, who criticizes Groucho’s general inability to appear “in a specific social context,” would be happy. But no: “not funny”.

Yet he’s extremely sharp on why the Marxes were so successful as a comedy team: “In a time of rapid transition from vaudeville to silent film and walkie-talkie, [they] included an original synthesis of the three styles”. He’s also good at addressing Groucho’s nervousness about his origins and his thorny relationship with high culture, especially the literary world (he conducted passive-aggressive correspondence with TS Eliot).

There’s a joke that goes back to the Broadway play of the Marx Brothers I would say she is!. Chico says, “The garbage man is here”, and Groucho replies, “Well, tell him we don’t want him.” Siegel writes that it’s “not funny”, but when, during his interview with Groucho, Buckley repeats the gag, silent before line of fire the audience laughs. Surely the joke is bombproof if even the stuffy Buckley can make it laugh? Groucho started the show by admitting he was a “sad man”, but as the discussion progressed he started arching his back, waving the cigar, joking with the president and toying with the public. It’s as if a switch had been flipped and the old character of Groucho had come back to life.

Maybe the Groucho character was just an act. In the late 1940s, as the Marx Brothers’ film career came to a halt, Groucho began hosting the quiz show You bet your life, first on the radio and then on television. Siegel sees this as the moment his personality and character “combined comfortably, permanently, in public view.” Yet when the show’s producers asked Groucho to wear the greasepaint and frock coat, he told them, “I’m going to.” This character is dead. I will never go there again. »

Karl Whitney is the author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin (Penguin). Order Groucho Marx for £12.99 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK postage from £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p £1.99.