Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales is a posthumous collection of Marx’s short pieces published in various periodicals over the course of his career, edited by Robert S. Bader, issued in 1993 and then expanded with additional writings in 2011.
In his Introduction, among the points Bader makes are that contrary to what some have claimed or guessed, Groucho’s humor pieces were not ghostwritten (at most on some of them he solicited opinions on drafts from professional writers he knew), and that one of the most common reactions to Groucho’s writings is that they’re not as funny as his work as a performer on stage and screen (which Bader thinks is an unfair comparison).
Well, just to get my own reaction out there at the start: I don’t think his writings are as funny as his work as a performer on stage and screen.
Dick Cavett contributed a Forward to the expanded edition, in which he challenges, “I dare you to read any page without laughing out loud.” That’s a challenge I met with little strain.
Groucho’s humor writing is about 75% puns and clever wordplay. That’s the kind of thing that elicits from me a smile of acknowledgement and maybe once in a while a slight chuckle, but it’s not laugh out loud stuff. It’s cute, not hysterical. Really there wasn’t anything in this book that made me laugh out loud in the way I recall laughing out loud—sometimes in those helpless holding-your-sides spasms—at some things I’ve read by, for instance, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, or Monty Python.
There’s always the problem with old humor that the references become more and more obscure. I think that’s only a small issue with Groucho’s humor though. For example, consider this, from one of his tales about life on the road as part of an obscure vaudeville act: “In Orange, Texas, we lived at a wormy-looking boarding house run by a landlady who looked like a cross between one of the Whoops Sisters and a coach dog.” OK, I have no clue who the Whoops Sisters are (actually I lie; I just now Googled it to find out, and they’re little old lady characters from New Yorker cartoons of the ’20s), and while I assume a “coach dog” has some connection to horse-drawn vehicles, I don’t know what it is beyond that or whether it is a type of dog that was somehow traditionally ugly or had something else striking about its appearance.
Still, you get the point, right? You know it’s not a compliment, even if you’re not familiar with the specifics the way someone reading it 90 years ago or whatever might have been. And it’s still at least somewhat funny.
Indeed, his stories about the Marx Brothers’ early years on the road are among the more fun and interesting pieces in the book. But really Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales is almost all at least modestly interesting and at least modestly humorous. When I say it’s not as funny as the most uproariously funny humor writing I’ve encountered, nor as funny as the best of the Marx Brothers as performers, that’s not to deny that it still quite good.
Certainly the book is worth reading if you’re a Groucho fan.