Some speculation follows, in the form of an extract from the afterword to my forthcoming book on Groucho.
(With apologetic thanks to the memory of Colin Wilson for inspiring the title with his 'Laurel & Hardy Theory of Consciousness'!)
~...Elsewhere in this book I suggested that a half-century of the pop-psychoanalytic diagnosing of Groucho has resulted in an essentially fraudulent portrait of his personality, and that viewed through the grown-up prism of evolutionary psychology, rather than from the middle of some dopey Freudian fog, Groucho emerges as we all must: as a human animal, a collision of attributes neither accidental nor pre-destined, nor glibly reducible to the waved wand of morbid influence.
This applies equally to his professional gifts as to his personal quirks. It is remarkable how numerously Groucho possessed those characteristics suggested by evolutionary psychologists as conducive to the creative personality: introversion, antisociality, wide range of interests, independence, rebelliousness, tolerance of ambiguity and tendency to melancholy (to say nothing of Jewishness!)
I bring up evolutionary psychology and creativity here for a reason. While working on this book, Groucho has been foremost in my mind at all times of the day and night, to a degree that has sometimes become unwelcome. (I have the kind of brain that lacks an off-switch.) But even I was surprised to find myself reminded of him while reading Sarnoff Mednick’s classic 1962 paper The Associative Basis of Creativity. This, surely, was a Groucho too far? Yet the more I considered it, the more apposite the connection seemed.
Mednick’s idea was that creativity is often associated with the ability to make remote associations between discrete ideas. The strongly creative person, presented with any word or concept, is able to rapidly choose from a range of associations, creating a body of associative connections. From this, further thoughts, concepts and associations (and, potentially, innovations) can then emerge. This associative complexity is the well-spring of creativity.
Further, the ability to do so innately and at great speed provides a mechanistic model for the concept of intuitive creative thought, that ability to seemingly ‘find’ rather than build new theories and syntheses in science, new works of music, and ad lib comedy. Now, clearly, remote association of ideas to produce a comic effect is what Groucho, and his most influential writers (Johnstone, Kaufman, Perelman and all) have always done, and what the screen Groucho does. Puns, and the development of wild chains of association that are developed as if logically extending, but which in fact owe their coherency only to some irrelevant factor such as similarity of sound or emphasis, are all features of Groucho’s comic armoury that relate directly to Mednick’s ideas.
Take a classic Groucho movie line: “Love flies out the door when money comes innuendo.” It is the combination of the spuriousness of the association in the context proposed, as against the obviousness of the association in purely superficial terms (there is no fair connection between what Groucho says and the comment that prompted it besides the accidental similarity of sound between “innuendo” and “in your window”, but the aural similarity is, nonetheless, strong and obvious), plus the speed with which Groucho accesses such remote connections and the confidence with which he volunteers them as a valid contribution to the discussion (i.e. as if it conveyed meaning beyond mere associative correlation linguistically) that creates the comedy. (Additional layers – such as the audacity of Groucho performing such associative feats in social contexts that should demand greater restraint and sobriety - add to the humorous effect.)
Without this theoretical model, I would find it hard to account for how we distinguish between a good pun and a bad one, since all are equally – that is to say entirely – meaningless on one level, and likewise explicable on another. Rather, what strikes us as so particularly excellent about, for example, the ‘innuendo’ pun is the remoteness of the ‘actual’ connection being accessed, in inverse relation to the clear ‘accuracy’ of its superficial linguistic justification, plus the dexterity and confidence with which it is retrieved and converted into (again superficially) meaningful-seeming discourse. Whereas “better to have loft and lost than never to have loft at all” is a weaker pun because it is less resourceful on these same terms – a vaguer association, and only one syllable, thus ‘easier’ to access. And so we read this as ‘less clever.’
And this is all happening on two levels: this process is what the humour is based in, and thus why we find it amusing, and it is what the character on screen is actually engaged in the act of doing, and thus why we find him amusing, because we imagine him doing in an actual situation what was in fact contrived in a script.
Groucho also seems to embody the distinction between convergent and divergent thought, as formulated by J.P. Guilford. Convergent thought displays great accuracy: the arrival at a single, correct response. Divergent thought, however, displays creativity: the ability to create a range of responses that display imagination and originality. Thus if presented with some unknown object that clearly performs a function, a highly skilled convergent thinker will sum up its properties and conclude its purpose (through ‘reverse engineering’), but a highly skilled divergent thinker will be able to produce a wide range of hypotheticals, of great variety and invention. Given a commonplace object and asked to display a further use for it, the divergent thinker will produce a range of alternatives in various fields of activity; the convergent thinker will home in on one sensible application of the object.
The three most relevant capacities being tested for variation are fluency (the ability to create the widest range of responses), originality (the ability to create the most novel responses) and flexibility (the ability to propose responses of significantly different kinds). If the object is a hammer, a less divergent thinker may come up with various different ways of making use of its essential purpose, which is to hit things. A more divergent thinker, however, will find a wider array of potential uses that are not all dependent on the same essential function, perhaps making use of its shape, or its weight, or some even remoter property. Both forms of response are useful and inventive, but only the latter is truly creative in a manner that is analogous to generative creativity in arts and sciences.
As with objects and their function, so with any other associative connection. Divergent thinking of great skill, but developed in tandem with an obvious and invalidating absurdity, is another defining ingredient of Marxian comedy. When Chico proposes that a crime in one house might have been committed by the occupants of the house next door, and his response to being told that there is no such house is that they therefore need to build one, he is enacting a kind of runaway parody of divergent thinking. His aim is to solve a crime and his proposed course of action is clearly insupportable of any such purpose, but because its logical thread remains connected to the original idea he ploughs on regardless, and the humour is created by how little he chooses to prioritise against how much to ignore, in order to avoid reversing or changing course.
Groucho does something similar when he suggests a way to get around the possibility that it may not be permitted to build an opera house in Central Park might be to “do it at night when no one is looking.” Again, the merit of a single naïve suggestion for addressing a challenge is presumed to outweigh the multiple grievous violations of logic and practical application it then generates in application. For both Groucho and Chico it is the co-existence, within their propositions, of a central overriding absurdity and the logical rigour with which they develop the idea, plus their seeming inability to see how totally the former invalidates the latter, that creates the comic effect.
This is why their respective processes cannot co-exist, and in their onscreen match-ups Groucho is reduced to a position of normality by the wilder reach of Chico’s logic: he is, in effect, out-gunned. The one interesting occasion when this does not at first appear to happen is, in fact, in the earlier example of the ‘house next door’. Groucho’s normal reaction to Chico’s absurdity is frustration, sometimes expressing itself in gestures of physical discomfort and even aggression. When he too latches on to the idea of building another house and the two enthusiastically set to drawing up imaginary plans for it, what we are watching is not convergence but capitulation: Groucho has been consumed within Chico’s logical processes and is no longer performing autonomously at all. That is why Groucho’s response (“Well, now you’re talking – what kind of a house do you think we ought to put up?”) is as effective a laugh line as Chico’s preceding one (“Well, then of course we gotta build one”). We laugh because, just as much as when he reduces Groucho to a shivering wreck of incomprehension or fury, Chico has won again.
Philosophically, this all opens interesting new vistas. Most important of all, it helps suggest a clear intellectual basis to our response to Groucho’s comedy. The chief value of Marxian humour as traditionally postulated is emotional: the vicarious release of instinctive behaviours (and reasoning) denied free expression by social convention. This was its appeal to the Surrealists. (They lauded De Sade for the same reason, after all, almost as if to deliberately flag the possibility they may have somewhat missed the point.) Harpo, too, made oft-quoted comments to the same effect, and indeed it’s a fair-enough partial reading of his own comedy, but not really the essence of the team as a whole. (Some like to the think of the team as composite parts of a single Freudian personality, with Harpo, obviously, as rampant id.)
This ‘soft anarchy’ reading is ultimately self-consuming, as has been argued by the British existentialist (and recipient of one of the most amusing of all the Groucho Letters), Colin Wilson. Freedom of this sort is meaningless unless operating within a wider context of restraint, and relies upon the conformity of others for its existence. As such, as Wilson puts it in the chapter of his A Criminal History of Mankind titled ‘The Disadvantages of Consciousness’:
Humorists who make a virtue of anarchism – the Marx Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Spike Milligan - are generally regarded as the comedians of the intellectual, for the man with a sophisticated sense of humour, more daring and therefore funnier than the straightforward clown. (Even T.S. Eliot admired Groucho Marx.) Yet anyone who is slightly over-exposed to this type of humour – say, watching a season of Marx Brothers films on TV – soon becomes aware that its premises will not bear close scrutiny… Refusal to take anything seriously is only funny up to a point; then an odd taste of futility begins to creep in. When Groucho sings ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it’, we only find the sentiment amusing for as long as we fail to think about it. Chaos is refreshing only so long as we can feel that pleasant sense of law and order hovering in the background.
This, in effect, was precisely the dilemma Groucho found himself in as youth culture hero in the sixties and seventies: as a rebel-guru in a prevailing climate of rebellion, he surprised himself with his need for the reassurance of an underlying social conservatism, and, in the arts, for aesthetic standards (both moral and structural).
And I have come increasingly to the conclusion that what is funny in the Marxes’ brushes with authority is something altogether subtler. Their attitude is not one of challenge to the prevailing order, still less an indictment of it, but rather of simple disregard. They are not rejecting societal codes so much as exploiting them for their own ends. As I said in my previous book, “they are forces for good inadvertently, because they are first and solely forces for honesty.” Justice, in their purest Paramount form, is never their goal, but an inevitable side-effect of their integrity. They are accidental heroes, oblivious altruists, “bullies who target the strong”.
Of course, the Marx Brothers have nothing to contribute to the eternal nature/nurture debate, because while it seems remarkable that one family should produce so many brothers with such pronounced gifts (including instinctive musical talent, mathematical talent and let’s not forget Zeppo’s inventiveness with engineering and mechanics) the fact that they shared the same genetic inheritance and the same developmental environment means there is no way to distinguish between the relevance of either factor.
Likewise their Jewishness, though this is a highly relevant factor in creativity studies (the high proportion of Jews in the entertainment field and especially as innovators in comedy is well-known, but recall also their disproportionate presence among Nobel Prize winners). But Jewishness, again, is both a genetic and an environmental endowment, so we come no nearer to knowing which the dog and which the tail. (Personally, I’m a gene man, not because I think the factors usually adjudged environmental are inferior or secondary in their relevance to genetic factors, but because I think in the long run much of what is instinctively placed in the ‘nurture’ column is itself reducible to nature, that is to the outcome of evolved processes. Incidentally, among the many suggested factors contributive to the high creativity rate among Western Jews is the greater than average preponderance of bilingualism in Jewish households, the ability to speak two languages being conducive to the development of remote association skills and thus creativity. It may be recalled here, then, that in addition to English, and however little Hebrew and Yiddish Groucho picked up, he also spoke his mother’s native tongue of German with a confidence and dexterity that surprised many who saw him demonstrate it in his later life.)
What Groucho and his brothers give us, therefore, is an experience of a quantitatively different sort to that of any other of the great screen comedians. (Qualitative superiority, of course, is a matter for the individual assessor, though I presume little doubt as to where my personal vote is cast.) Their comedy is satisfying not in spite of its nonsensical and iconoclastic nature, and not because of it (in the simplistic sense perceived by the Surrealists). Rather, in its masterly display of complex associative patterns of language and meaning, it impresses the mind intuitively, so that the experience as perceived is as much an emotional as a cerebral one, somewhat in the manner of great music. The ‘meaning’ of both may ultimately be as cold and formal as mathematics, but along the neural pathways of interpretation they travel it is somehow, wonderfully, separated from its meaning-value and diverted into pure transcendence.