Sleeping off Insomnia

Groucho as a microchip

"We laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing."
--Henri Bergson1

The Marx Brothers frequently show their foils as automata. People too often bumble through life as sleepwalkers. In their somnabulistic sojourns, these people take everything at face value and respond to others as codes of behavior dictate, even when those codes are not being observed. In playing on this human automation, the Marxes can attempt not only to wake up their neighbors, but also to reveal something about our arbitrary sense of identity.

Groucho most obviously and consistently plays with this theme of human mechanization through his body language. He walks with a strange tilt to his upper body. Bergson suggests that a rigidity of form and movement works towards the comic, in part because this "inelasticity" shows a human as an automata. Stiff, mechanical movement shows "a certain fundamental absentmindedness."2 Groucho's ridiculous
Monkey Business
Groucho: I want to register a complaint.

Capt. Corcoran: Why, what's the matter?

Groucho: Matter enough! Do you know who sneaked into my stateroom at 3:00 this morning?

Capt. Corcoran: Who did that?

Groucho: Nobody, and that's my complaint. I'm young; I want gaiety, laughter, hot-cha-cha! I want to dance! I want to dance till the cows come home.
walk mocks those people trapped in mechanical action. When Groucho breaks free from this self-imposed rigidity, he does so impressively and without any sense of automation. For example, his dancing in Monkey Business and Duck Soup show simple, unmechanical self-expression, with body movements seldom seen outside of skiing accidents. Groucho is clearly no machine. He wants "gaiety, laughter, hot-cha-cha!"

The brothers also reveal society's inattentiveness by playing with signs of identity. People truly believe the Marxes are whatever they are dressed as. When Groucho puts on the captain's hat in Monkey Business, he seizes power over the ship, which, importantly, enables him to order a nice lunch. Likewise, by dressing like a doctor in A Day at the Races, he receives a job as a doctor. People so strongly anticipate the truth to be reflected through these signs that they automatically fall for any basic misrepresentation. Surface signification, identity, and jobs are closely linked.

The Marxes also annihilate rules of conduct to point out their foils' mechanization. Animal Crackers gives us a classic example of this behavior. In the famous bridge scene, Harpo and Chico cheat in every imaginable way, including sneaky dealing and playing 13 aces (Harpo's "got thousands of 'em"), but their stuffy opponents keep going as if nothing is amiss, until they eventually have to leave to preserve their sanity. Characters in other movies also leave rather than examine the loss of order. After the brothers' bizarre victory, Harpo rises from the table wearing Mrs. Whitehead's shoes. Obsessed with maintaining propriety and mindlessly following the course of how the game should progress, she lacks self-awareness. Harpo can therefore steal her shoes, signs of a society lady.

The brothers also toy with language in strange ways to show the mechanical behavior of the people around them. Non sequitors
Duck Soup
Firefly: Now, what is it that has four pair of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?

Chicolini: Atsa good one. I give you three guesses.

Firefly: Now, let me see... has four pair of pants, lives in Philadelphia.... Is it male or female?

Chicolini: No, I no think so.

Firefly: Is he dead?

Chicolini: Who?

Firefly: I don't know. I give up.
abound in these films, and the other characters often try to continue conversation in a programmed way, not noticing the random responses or the surprising insults. When the characters do recognize the loss of oratorical order, their options are limited. In Duck Soup, you can leave, like the Secretary of War who wishes to take up the tax, or you can go to war, like Groucho's nemesis Trentino. The brothers, however, do more than simply play with words; they completely overthrow the rules of speaking. Groucho and Chico, in Duck Soup, completely ignore the dynamic of the riddle. When they ignore the established code of riddle-asking, Groucho (as Rufus T. Firefly) and Chico (as Chicolini) lose all concept of identity. The questioner and guesser first reverse themselves, and in a minute dissolve the difference completely. No one knows what is going on or who has what identity. In an ironic attempt to re-establish identity, Chicolini describes Firefly by his most obvious superficial signs--his mustache and cigar. Firefly identitifies himself not by name, but by another sign, his glasses. The roles of riddle telling hold this time, but the two are not finished with the game. To keep identity de-stabilized, Chicolini accepts the Secretary of War position that Firefly doesn't offer him.

Another example of twisting language comes from the A Night at the Opera's opening scene, which takes place in a restaurant. First, a boy calls for Driftwood (Groucho), who responds with "Do I go around yelling your name?" Driftwood mocks the function of language, pretending he does not understand the connection between the boy's intentions and his language. Then, when a waiter informs Driftwood that they do have milk-fed chicken, Driftwood replies, "Well, squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass." He gives us a funny moment, without making much sense. Chickens, of course, do not give milk, and, even if they did, it would not be a result of having drunk it. Driftwood's comment, initiated by his own line of questioning, bends language in a way that produces something that is not exactly a non sequitor, but not exactly sensible. This play forces us to examine our language, and break from our machination.

The Marx Brothers' characters do not always escape automation themselves. Harpo, for example, instinctively chases after any attractive woman that passes by. Groucho cannot resist his mechanical urge to give snappy retorts to everyone he speaks to. In Duck Soup, he ends up going to war because he cannot refrain from insulting Trentino. In the final chance to avert war, he convinces himself that he will be insulted because he does not escape the routine of his life. However, the brothers have the advantage that they are sometimes aware of their own automation, and play with it. For example, the Duck Soup mirror scene suggests that Groucho is predictable. In A Day at the Races, Harpo (as Stuffy) pantomines the plan he has overheard while Tony (played by Chico), amazingly, can't recognize his imitation of Groucho. The comedy comes from the fact that Tony cannot recognize the mechanical movements so obvious to the audience.

In examining this issue, we should consider one idea that says "laughter is an autonomous reaction to a situation to which there is no answer according to one's habitual ways of thought and feeling and which is at the same time unthreatening."3 We can laugh at the ridiculousness of the Marx Brothers' behavior because it does not inherently represent an attack on us. To the other characters, however, the antics are a vicious attack on their self-consciousness. In one sense, the characters can be shocked into self-examination. However, such an examination may only reveal the arbitrary nature of their actions in and relation to society. The other recourse would be to ignore the prodding of the Marxes, as most of the characters do, and try to continue as if the codes of identity and interaction were both natural and still intact. As viewers, however, we can see the instability of identity and social norms as an opportunity for detached self-reflection. We can laugh, and still recognize our need for self-awareness. After all, it is not our society and our identity under attack in these movies. Right?


1Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. trans. by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1913, p. 58.

2Bergson, p. 25

3Willeford, William. The Fool and His Scepter: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience. Northwestern University Press, 1969, p. 198